Below is a selection of writing I published in Bomb, Dusted, The Providence Phoenix, The Village Voice, Soma, the Associated Press, Stop Smiling, The Crier, The Poetry Foundation, The New-York Ghost, Signal to Noise, and elsewhere between 2004 and 2008.
Spring 2007: “Make Her Pay”
Marta La Alteña (“The Woman from El Alto”) staggers toward the ropes, her knees wobble and desert her, and she strikes the mat with a dull thud. On her back, Marta’s black braids brush the boots of her torturer, Satanica, a strapping woman wearing a red mask with black horns. Popcorn, orange rinds and freeze-dried potatoes rain down on the assailant as she sits with her legs wrapped around Marta’s inert body, planting her right hand a few inches from Marta’s forehead—a human pillory. She secures her position, nods fiendishly at the crowd, and violently screws her hips counter-clockwise. Marta’s torso lurches into the air, twists 180 degrees and crashes clumsily to the ground. The mat trembles, catching her face. A flash of blue spandex underwear appears beneath her pink pleated skirt, which has ascended past her thighs.
Minutes later, Marta is collapsed on the concrete floor outside the ring after being slapped by a midget in a bridal gown, bitten on the arm and tossed through the ropes by a perfectly executed hammer throw. Satanica drags her braids and hurls her over a barrier of waist-high yellow bars into the crowd; Marta crouches, petrified. Her powerlessness becomes unbearable; the spectators chant, “Come on! Come on!” A stout, graying woman wearing a coarse brown apron and purple velvet skirt squats warily and slips her hand through the flimsy bars, pressing it against Marta’s glistening forehead as if delivering a benediction.
Suddenly reinvigorated, Marta bounds back into the ring and executes a piledriver, then leaps onto the stunned Satanica for a count of three. The fight is over. Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” fills the arena and Marta leaps from one corner to the next, gallantly climbing the ropes and thrusting her arms into the air. Satanica exits petulantly, cursing the audience and kicking barriers into the bleachers. Marta’s assistant rushes to the stage with her bowler hat and jewelry, and the cholita dashes out in a flurry of air kisses and curtsies.
El Alto (“The Heights”) peeks over the northwestern rim of the canyon enclosing La Paz, Bolivia, a sprawling agglomeration of open-air markets and brick boxes overlooking a drab colonial center 13,000 feet above sea level. Over the last 30 years close to a million people, mostly indigenous Aymara, have emigrated from the countryside to El Alto. They inhabit a plateau extending away from the snow-capped Andean peaks that flank the Bolivian capital to the south and east, toward the high plains that meet Lake Titicaca on the border with Peru—an interminable stretch of hard earth and dusty improvised settlements, half-finished roads, and an endless stream of dilapidated hand-painted buses.
The Multifuncional (Multifunctional Center) in El Alto—“Multi” for short—is an ersatz arena, an oblong warehouse with basketball rims on the narrow east and west sides and a dressing room the size of a modest closet tucked behind the bleachers on the north side. Skylights tinted pale yellow and pastel blue streak the middle of a vaulted ceiling made from layers of salvaged sheet metal. Blackened steel supports gird the structure. Coca-Cola banners are painted behind the basketball rims and crude lime outlines of boys playing basketball and soccer and practicing martial arts hover above the concrete bleachers on the broad northern and southern walls. The Multi lives up to its name, serving as a venue for reggaeton concerts, sermons, indoor soccer, community meetings and lucha libre.
Every Sunday afternoon hundreds of fans pack the Multi, paying one dollar to watch three hours of the Mexican freestyle wrestling (lucha libre) now ubiquitous in Latin and Central America. The main attraction is the cholita wrestlers of the group called “Titans of the Ring” acrobatically bludgeoning each other. (In Bolivia cholita, the feminine diminutive of the Spanish cholo, slang for “peasant,” refers to indigenous women who maintain the traditions and dress of rural communities.)
Carmen Rosa and Yolanda Amorosa joined the Titans of the Ring in 2002, along with Julia La Paceña (“The Woman from La Paz”) and Marta La Alteña. “Before we were wrestling in the Multi it was empty,” Yolanda recalls, sitting on a bench with Carmen in a park overlooking downtown La Paz. “Once we started fighting there it was full every week. Thanks to us there is a public for lucha libre, people who come every Sunday to see the cholitas wrestle.”
Carmen used to be one of the most popular cholitas wrestling at the Multi, frequenting Bolivian talk shows, touring Peru and packing the arena every week. But in October, she and the other women quit the Titans after feuding with Juan Mamani, the group’s manager and founder, who provides space and equipment for training and pays for the use of the Multi each Sunday. Since then Carmen, Yolanda, and Julia, who I wasn’t able to meet because she was recovering in the hospital after being attacked and robbed, have been working to found a rival group.
“Marta stayed behind because she’s meek, young—only 19—and she doesn’t know any better,” Yolanda explains, shaking her head. Marta, who barely spoke when we met for a few minutes before her match, rebutted this accusation. “I stayed because this is what I do, and if I leave, how am I going to keep doing it?”
Mamani went on to hire three new women to replace Carmen and Yolanda, though they claim he has often billed the replacements under their own names.
“I was a lucha libre fanatic” before stepping into the ring, recalls Carmen, whose given name is Ana Polonia Choque. “I was a regular at the Multi on Sundays, everybody there knew me.” Carmen, 35, stands 5 feet 2 inches, her stature bearish. She is garrulous and laughs easily, answering questions about lucha libre with five-to ten-minute monologues punctuated by crude jokes and spells of giggling. A black bowler hat—standard uniform for Aymara women—roosts on her head, and a wad of emerald coca leaves packs her right cheek.
By day, Carmen works as an artisan, making traditional crafts in a small factory. She and her family—her husband and their two teenage children—live in La Paz, where Carmen grew up. Though her family was reluctant to support her when she first announced her wrestling ambitions, they now take pride in her renown. Her husband even accompanies her on tour. “He’s always been my companion. He was with me my first time I was on an airplane.”
Yolanda Amorosa, whose real name is Bela Luz Cortes, was also a self-described fanatic before Carmen encouraged her to enroll in a lucha libre training program with her six years ago. At 5 feet 10 inches, she towers above most other Bolivian women. Patrician cheekbones, a shapely physique, and cerulean eyes won Amorosa her flattering surname, which means “Lovely Yolanda”. Her height and beauty, she pronounces, adjusting her bowler, “made a big impression on the public.”
Yolanda wears a knuckle-sized gold ring with a ruby inlay, earrings with gold bowler hats hanging from fake diamond studs, and a flaxen shawl stitched with a luminous silver floral pattern. Twenty-eight years old, she has a husband and two infant children and lives in La Paz, where she makes sweaters at a sewing factory.
In lucha libre, wrestlers are divided into técnicos (“technicians”) and rudos (“roughs”). The categories are more about fighting style than values, though the two tend to go hand in hand—técnicos abide by the rules and are generally thought of as “good” in the comic book sense of morality; rudos have no such scruples and are generally considered “evil.” Yolanda and Carmen are técnicas. “I am more acrobatic than most of the cholita wrestlers,” Yolanda explained, “and because of my stature I am more agile, and have a cleaner style.”
Técnicos usually fight rudos, but this is not always the case. “Just because I am a técnica it doesn’t mean I’m not aggressive. Outside the ring we’ll talk and be friends,” Yolanda explains, referring to Carmen. “But in the ring we are part of a show and we don’t know each other. If she hits me hard I respond with another, harder one.” She elaborates, grinning: “¡En el ring Yolanda Amorosa no es amorosa!” (“In the ring Yolanda Amorosa is not lovely!”) Carmen retorts, sniggering: “Es odiosa!” (“She is hateful!”)
Indigenous women in Bolivia carry heavy loads to and from the market, wrapping pounds of produce in colorful textiles called aguayos and hoisting them upon their backs. Few families can survive on the earnings of the patriarch alone, so women, who can rarely earn as much as men, must produce a secondary income while also taking care of the children and household. Their primary occupations are selling food and handicrafts on the street, cleaning houses and washing clothes. It is not unusual to see an orange juice vendor with one baby wrapped around her back in an aguayo and the other sleeping on a blanket in a compartment at the bottom of her cart.
“Now people see us doing more than cleaning clothes, taking care of babies, cleaning houses, selling oranges on the street,” Carmen says proudly as we wander through the Plaza San Pedro market in La Paz. “There are even cholita football players, which [Bolivian President] Evo [Morales] has said is very good.” She laughs and puts more coca leaves in her mouth. “But he hasn’t said anything about us yet.”
We are here to purchase a copy of the DVD documenting the women’s tour of Peru from Marta Pacheco, the “lucha libre godmother,” who operates a bootleg DVD stall.
“I’m there every Sunday,” Pacheco boasts. “I know all the wrestlers, but Carmen and Yolanda are the best.”
“Who’s fighting this weekend?” Yolanda asks.
“This week it’s Marta again and Two-faced Jennifer, I think.”
“Ah, the traitor and the rookie.”
“This is it!” Pacheco exclaims, ignoring Yolanda’s comment. She waves a plastic sleeve with a crudely printed graphic of cholitas with bloodied faces. We begin watching the DVD on a tiny set hidden beneath piles of bootlegs. As soon as the wrestling starts, bystanders gather around us. Within a few minutes the spectators have recognized Yolanda and Carmen as the women in the video, and the crowd swells to 40 people issuing groans and exclamations with every piledriver and elbow slam.
Above the din of the audience Carmen recounts the trip to Peru. “I don’t think they liked our polleras [traditional skirts] too much,” she chortles. “They had never seen cholitas on a plane before! We always travel by bus or truck.”
“Everyone was wearing pants and staring at us,” Yolanda interjects, laughing riotously. “I don’t even remember the last time I wore pants!”
Yolanda describes their first training session at the musty gym in La Paz six years ago. “There were 50 cholitas at the gym, because of an open call. After we started training they told us there was going to be a competition to see who would get to travel to train in the Yungas,” a mountainous jungle region a few hours north of La Paz. Carmen, Marta, Julia and Yolanda won this honor, with Carmen winning the title.
The four women went to the Yungas, where they garnered interest from the Peruvian media, including an appearance on the popular talk show hosted by Magaly Medina. In Peru, Carmen remembers the dizzying procession of stylists, interviews, and sponsorship offers, all “pretty weird for a cholita.” Medina and others suggested they take their show on the road, and they did, packing auditoriums and meeting rabid fans.
When they got back, Juan contacted the four cholitas. “We thought, ‘Why do we need a company?’” Carmen asked, “We had left and wrestled across Peru without the help of any men from outside.”
But, despite having gone from unknowns to conquering Peru and becoming known across Latin America in less than a year, the women wanted to “win the heart of the Bolivian public,” Yolanda asserts. “We wanted to be in El Alto.” They signed on with Juan and the Titans.
According to Carmen and Yolanda, Juan became jealous of the women’s success and the easy adoration they received from fans, regularly sidelining some of them in favor of male luchadores (including himself) while continuing to use their names in advertisements.
They allege that Juan also exploited them financially, paying them a pittance and claiming penury himself. “I didn’t know about economics, how much he made, how many tickets were sold, how much we should have gotten for spilling our blood in the ring, how he was selling us,” Carmen complains, lips growing tense around the wad of coca. “It’s not an economic question, and Don Juan knows this. But when I don’t have a place to wrestle it makes me sad”—she blinks rapidly, taking off her bowler hat—“I liked the applause, the cheers of the people. I liked when they shouted for me…I like being known. My life is lucha libre.”
The end came last October at a festival in Potosí, a mining town in the southern part of the country. “We wanted the four of us to fight together,” Carmen recalls, shaking her head forlornly. “But Juan said, ‘No. Yolanda and Carmen Rosa go into the ring, the rest of you stay behind. Yolanda protested and he told her that if we didn’t enter the ring then nobody would, and nobody would get paid. When Yolanda said that was unfair, Juan was infuriated: ‘You are all nothing!’ he said. We didn’t wrestle.” After that, Carmen recounts, “We handed him our papers.”
It is Sunday, and I have gone to the Multi to meet Juan Mamani before the afternoon matches. He stalks the grounds of the Multi for 20 minutes before approaching me, fussing over a spool of cables, wrapping and unwrapping his thin ponytail with a purple rubber band, chiding the children putting together the ring. Before I finish introducing myself, he asks me about money. “Most journalists pay $100 to be here, take pictures, talk to people, or film for a full day.” It’s already half past noon.
Mamani’s hands remain motionless while he talks, hanging like stalactites by his pockets. His ponytail snakes out the back of a black corduroy Adidas baseball hat, its brim pulled low over wincing dull copper eyes, blunting his 47 years. A half-moon scar leads from his right eye to a pencil-thin goatee, the result of careful grooming or anomalous growth patterns.
“Fifty dollars for half a day is fine, but you’re not going to have much time to talk to the wrestlers.” He surveys the room, scrutinizes the skylights. I tell him I can’t pay more than twenty-five.
“It’s up to you, then,” he sighs, looking past me. Will I be able to do an interview? “I don’t know,” he responds. “Normally people pay a lot more for an interview.”
I ask Mamani whether he’s spoken with Carmen and Yolanda recently. Mamani pulls the baseball hat back with his right hand, revealing a hairline that has all but receded. With his left hand he methodically clenches his skull and smoothes out the bunch of frail hairs that remain. “Of course, we talk—we still have a good relationship. They might be wrestling sometime soon, but I don’t know. Maybe we’ll figure it out today.” He pushes the hat back down over his head, takes the money, and wanders over to the group of kids constructing the ring.
Over the next few hours Mamani patrols the Multi inspecting the bleachers, chatting with the popcorn vendors, uncoiling speaker cords, positioning the emcee, securing a corner post of the arena while the children struggle to cinch a rope around it. Though he employs one assistant to track ticket sales and handle publicity, his reach extends from the gym—the Titans’ first training space was his basement—to the advertisements, which he designs and distributes. If three exiled cholitas wanted to handle their own careers, it would be, Yolanda had told me, “very difficult” for them to take on all these tasks.
At four o’clock, summoned by the fists pounding on the Multi’s aluminum double doors, Mamani orders his assistant to let in the crowd outside. Hordes of screaming kids advance, couples promenade, teenagers stake out the front rows. Once the thousand audience members are seated, an Andean flute melody flitters over pounding drums and rattles the speakers. There is a moment of anticipatory silence, then cheers, whistles, roars, cries of “La Alteña, La Alteña!”—Marta enters the ring, twirling awkwardly, arms extended outward and upward in appreciation, bowler hat in hand. Ecstatic emissions from the announcer: “The fighter in the skirt, the cholita who can punch, the pride of El Alto!”
She spins into the ring and prances from corner to corner, the applause reverberating throughout the arena, drowning out the music. Translucent plastic slippers with purple floral imprints cover her feet. A shear salmon-colored shawl with fringes is draped across her shoulders, hanging down to a pleated fuchsia pollera puffed into a bell by layers of petticoats. Marta comes to a halt in the northwest corner of the ring, where a young girl is waiting to take her shawl, hat and earrings.
Enter Satanica and the Bride of Chucky, a harried midget wearing mauve lipstick, a wedding dress and a leather choker. Marta turns to face them, the bell rings, the fight begins.
Later in the week, Yolanda and Carmen are at their new training facility, waiting for the owner of the building to unlock the door to the space they have rented. The building is a precarious collection of crumbling concrete and haphazardly fastened bricks. We wait in a claustrophobic open-air courtyard lit by one red and one fluorescent bulb. In one corner, a couple of women are spooning slabs of breaded meat into a metal box filled with boiling oil.
Without a gym, Carmen, Yolanda and Julia have been training in the basements of friends. “We’ve been walking a lot and lifting,” Yolanda assures me, “and we have a strict diet. We eat quinoa, wheat, nutritional food—not much potato” which is the staple of the Bolivian diet.
The women hope to return to regular competition by the end of the year. (By December, they had fought at a few festivals around Bolivia and a couple events in La Paz, but had yet to find a more permanent space.) Next Sunday, they plan on going to the Multi to advertise their first fight, which is tentatively scheduled to take place in a modest arena in downtown La Paz a week later. “When our show starts,” Yolanda boasts, “it’s the only one that people will want to see, unless they would rather watch people playing dress-up.”
At long last, the owner of the building comes down the wooden stairs to unlock a door made mostly from peeling burgundy paint and splintered wood. Carmen enters, flips a couple switches to no effect, walks from one wall to the other and exits. “There’s nothing here,” says Yolanda.
The room is a cavernous concrete prism littered with damp cardboard boxes, grimy sheets and rusted metal cabinets—no mattresses. Neither Carmen nor Yolanda has seen it before, but received assurances from the owner, who has fled upstairs, that it would fit their needs. They get on their cell phones and call friends who might have a spare mattress or two, but nobody has any.
“We can’t wrestle if we can’t practice,” Yolanda murmurs plaintively between phone calls. “How can we practice if we don’t have a space or the money to get one?”
They walk out of the building and into Plaza San Pedro, where the air is filled with the aroma of vendors selling anticucho (grilled cow’s heart in peanut sauce) and hot tea mixed with harsh grape alcohol. Sitting on a bench near the vendors, they confess they are no longer sure if the match two weeks from now will be held. If not, Carmen reasons, they can always do it the week after. “It’s just one more Sunday.”
Issue 36, summer 2008: Review of Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel: Stories (FSG)
In “The Sum of Our Parts,” one of the stories included in A Better Angel, the reader is introduced to Beatrice, a comatose woman with an “unusual condition” that allows her soul to wander unseen through the hospital while her body awaits a new liver. She cultivates a particular fondness for the workers in the pathology department, one of whom remarks that he has been in love with her since he “heard her story and handled her blood for the first time.” That story is brief: Beatrice jumped off a seven-floor parking garage, compelled by “a crushing sadness under which she had labored for most of her life, and which she had never blamed on anybody.” After assuring the reader of the innate quality of this sadness, she nevertheless wonders if it might be traced to the suicide of her first boyfriend, whom Adrian describes, in all seriousness, as “the person who taught her that there’s no such thing as a boy who can fly.”
The preponderance of the narrative is devoted to a tedious portrayal of the overnight shift in the pathology department, a place as replete with inarticulate sorrow assigned to inchoate characters as with urine and stool samples. Though Beatrice spots moments of intimacy and joy, the workers mostly seem inclined to do what she has done: surrender their corporeal selves and migrate elsewhere; this reviewer, too, found such a prospect appealing by the end of the story, when Beatrice’s body expires, freeing her soul to pass beyond the hospital’s walls. She “ran across the street and over the bridge,” Adrian writes. “Halfway across she took off, went up and away, in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing, impenetrable sadness.”
One automatically assumes that Adrian is proposing the existence of such a place as heaven (metaphorical though it may be). If sadness is universal, and death is the only way of escaping it, then context is unimportant, and the characters described in this story are superfluous. In fact, the entire story has been made superfluous. Adrian’s method here is that of a literary squeegee man: He lurches toward your car, applies a thick coat of muddy liquid to your windshield, then scrapes the glass dry and implores you to recompense him for his labor, though the windshield is no cleaner for it. It is not merely the staleness of the sentiment — life (mostly) sucks and then you die — that offends, but the service of the story to such a sentiment.
Elsewhere, Adrian addresses death and suffering with greater success. Many of his stories, which revolve around traumatized youths and downtrodden doctors and patients — the author himself is also a pediatrician — rely on arch humor to humanize characters that might otherwise be caricatures of torment. In “High Speeds,” for example, a precocious nine-year-old boy admonishes himself for being upset that nobody remembered his birthday: “Birthdays make nothing happen,” he writes in a note to himself. “They survive in the valley of their own making.” In another story, “Why Antichrist?,” a high school girl named Cindy employs a Ouija board to communicate with the spirit of her father, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Cindy’s father indicates that one of her classmates is the Antichrist, and she spends the rest of the story trying to convince him of that fact. When he becomes upset after she suggests, in the midst of a make-out session, that he bears ultimate responsibility for 9/11, Cindy quips, “Don’t tell me I’m horrible when you’re the son of the fucking Devil.”
But too often Adrian’s stories are propped up by the hackneyed metaphysical conceits common to the down-market magical realism in vogue these days. His most recent novel, The Children’s Hospital, succeeded largely because it allowed a single scenario to be limned over 600 pages; more often than not, the story’s supernatural elements seem to be part of an altered world, not unwarranted intrusions into our own. In the book, an apocalyptic flood wipes out all living things save the inhabitants of a single children’s hospital, its prescient architect having designed the building to float. The story tracks the survivors as they consider their common fate and endeavor to resuscitate human civilization, with omnipresent angels acting as companions, sibyls and narrators. (Angels also figure prominently in Adrian’s first novel, Gob’s Grief.) But the otherworldly landscape is just that: a backdrop for an adroit rendering of the hospital cum ark’s social world. As the doctors and patients float interminably they ponder the questions of life, death and the beyond — certainly, one might expect such questions to crop up with greater frequency after such a cataclysm. But the metaphysical ruminations lead nowhere, and the story ultimately devolves into a series of suspect narrative devices, including the incessant intervention of angels, which end up granting healing powers to one character, and the production of ark-wide talent shows.
The nine stories in A Better Angel employ many artifices similar to those in the novel but show little of the same ambition. While the tableau presented in The Children’s Hospital requires suspension of disbelief on behalf of the reader, these stories call for a suspension of skepticism. Though Adrian resorts to fantastical mechanisms, he is more concerned with (and more adept at portraying) the quotidian aspects of living and dying. At best, the metaphysical anomalies magnify and elevate the details of his characters’ lives. But often the prose falters, the dei ex machinis flutter about, and the reader is asked to accept imagination as its own reward.
Adrian should not be faulted for failing to parse out the significance of all this suffering, a failure endemic to literature obsessed with death, discounting inspirational and biblical genres. Reading A Better Angel, I was reminded of the cult of melancholia that arose in England in the 17th century. In a time of social and religious uncertainties brought on by the Protestant reformation, a moment that birthed the Puritans who eventually colonized the New World (and congregated in Boston, where Adrian lives), adherents such as the composer John Dowland and the writer John Donne struggled to come to terms with death after its religious meaning had lost all fixity. In his poem “An Anatomy of the World,” Donne offers as good a summation of A Better Angel as any: “There is no health; physicians say that we / At best enjoy but a neutrality. / And can there be worse sickness than to know / That we are never well, nor can be so?”
Issue 37, winter 2008: nonfiction chronicle
It’s a particularly bounteous season for binding and distributing our discontents. As the November election emerges from the horizon, the catalogue of complaints issued by publishers has grown to Brobdingnagian proportions. There are the requisite memoirs by disgruntled administration officials looking to restore their reputations by tarnishing those of the would-be war criminals stranded in office; the liberal jeremiads bemoaning the diminution of America’s global standing and the creeping sense that things will get worse before they get better (if they get better); the supercilious cover letters by would-be advisers offering a prognosis and a remedy for the coming president—how to restore true conservatism; how to adapt true liberalism.
The general impression is that whoever claims victory on November 4 will two months later find himself the steward of a rotting vessel, a skeleton crew flying a tattered standard more likely to invite scorn and ridicule than awe, and the replacement of whatever treasure once existed with a ten-trillion dollar debt. By February, he might be inclined to steer toward the nearest port, drop anchor, and drink himself into a stupor.
But if John McCain is elected, he might be inclined to merrily go about the hollowing out of government. So suggests Thomas Frank in The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan Books), a polemical account of the successful mission Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Lee Atwater and company embarked on as leaders of the College Republicans in the 1980s: dismantle government and hand over its charges to private enterprise. If government is not only viewed as inefficient, but is actually made incapable of acting on behalf of the public, they reasoned, Democrats would be deprived of the main justification for their rule (and with each Democratic Congressional seat lost the pockets of Republicans would grow fatter). In bullying Washington, D.C., a wholly unsympathetic agonist, conservatives popularized the notion that “the market is an organic institution,” while “the state is an artificial construct, a kind of weapon used by the various elements of society to steal from one another.”
As a slogan meant to propel the Republicans to power and prosperity, this worked wondrously. As a philosophy of government, it has failed completely, the most salient evidence being Hurricane Katrina, Iraq reconstruction, the deterioration of the country’s infrastructure, the collapse of its financial system, a looming environmental catastrophe, and a nascent oil crisis. As much as the market is a natural force, in an oil economy it is largely captive to the greater and older natural forces at work beneath the earth’s crust, and what they have wrought: namely, peaking oil production, a situation exacerbated by the location of the world’s largest reserves squarely in Saudi Arabia’s backyard (and front yard, and under the landing strip of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s customized $300 million Airbus A380).
For all their sanctimonious bluster, even the GOP elites who comprise Frank’s wrecking crew are still servants to the House of Saud, which can be expected to resist the allure of the free market so long as it’s reaping windfall profits. In The King’s Messenger (Walker & Company), David Ottaway, a longtime Washington Post correspondent, deconstructs the “special relationship” that has existed between the U.S. (as played by the Bush family and its cronies) and Saudi Arabia since the end of WWII. Ottaway’s focus is Prince Bandar bin Sultan (also called “the Arab Gatsby” and “Bandar Bush”), who, over the course of a quarter century as ambassador, was keeper of the U.S. pledge to protect the Sunni royal family from its enemies as long as Saudi Arabia kept oil prices low. Ottaway’s meticulous account describes how this mutually beneficial relationship has unraveled under the current President Bush. On one side, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly unable (and at times unwilling) to control oil prices; on the other, the war in Iraq has created a Shiite sphere of influence encircling the kingdom and bolstering its nemesis, Iran, a situation aggravated by “Bush’s basic instinct to do nothing” about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Toward the end of the book, a dejected Prince Bandar flees D.C. without warning, failing even to return for his farewell party.
The Bush administration’s Manichean approach to pretty much everything is best understood as a failure to adapt the strategic framework of the Cold War to a radically altered political landscape, argues Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College, in Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror (Viking). In the 1950s and 60s, sundry civilian think tanks set themselves to the task of analyzing every facet of national security, with the aim of preventing nuclear conflict—and it worked. “However esoteric all of those meditations on first and second strike, on counterforce and countervalue, seem now,” Stevenson writes, “they engendered a way of thinking that is worth preserving.” Of course, under Bush such thinking—any real thinking—has been absent. Rather than measuring force and politics, Bush has faced the challenges of a post-9/11 world with “abrasive and parochial idealism and puerile faith in military technology.” We are in a sort of strategic limbo: the Cold War model no longer makes sense, and we are still awaiting a new generation of scholars to weigh the cultural and anthropological aspects of radical Islam with the precision and rigor that Herman Kahn employed in his 1962 evaluation of nuclear deterrence, Thinking About the Unthinkable—and a president who might heed their counsel.
Should Barack Obama assume that besmirched mantle, he might find a copy of James Traub’s The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did) (FSG) waiting on his desk. While Stevenson advocates the development of a cadre of intellectuals to stew over the Bush gang’s failings, Traub is already putting forth a program. After scrupulously cataloguing the administration’s misadventures in exporting a one-size-fits-all democracy, he attempts to recuperate the notion that liberty at home depends on liberty abroad; at the very least, each is fortified by the other. To those tempted to propose non-interventionism in reaction to Bush’s National-Lampoon’s-Middle-Eastern-Vacation-style foreign policy, Traub raises the specter of unfettered autocracies buoyed by Chinese largesse. The very name of democracy has been sullied, he admits, so why not “spread the free market, the rule of law, human rights” instead? His vision of a “post-post-9/11” foreign policy, it turns out, has already been perfectly formulated by Obama, who pointed out in a campaign speech last year that our ability to promote our own values abroad depends on how children in Third World countries feel when they see American helicopters hovering above them. We have an ethical and political responsibility to promote democracy, Traub argues, but it must be accompanied by aid packages that convince those children that (per Obama) “their well-being matter[s] to us.”
Might America begin to practice a soft imperialism rather than none at all? Philosopher, journalist, and activist Bernard-Henri Levy suggests so from his Parisian pulpit in Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House). In the face of serious challenges to the well-deserved political and cultural dominance of the western democracies, Levy suggests their guardians close ranks around a common set of ethics and a rejection of inherited religious truths. America and Europe must challenge “fascislamism” as it must challenge the Chinese model, which has allowed the slaughter in Darfur to continue: the children cowering beneath the American helicopters must be saved. As for those children who eventually find their way to the source of that beneficence? “Drop all the customs you no longer need, but drop the radicalism as well,” he commands. “Drop those deadly ideologies that partly belong to us as well and that are the worst of our legacy, and take the Enlightenment instead! Take freedom of conscience! Take Voltaire!”
If there is any better creed more bankrupt than Bush’s Freedom Agenda, it is certainly “Take Voltaire!”
Issue 29, winter 2007: “Requesting Permission to Narrate,” essay on Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited by Hamid Dabashi (Verso)
In 1905, when a nation called Israel was merely an obscure dream among a handful of fervent Zionists, Jewish writer Israel Zangwill referred to Palestine, that small slice of land yawning along the Mediterranean from Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights in the north to the Negev Desert in the south, as a “land without people for a people without land.”
In the midst of the war of 1948, which Palestinians call the Naqba (Catastrophe) and Israelis call the War of Independence (from what, or whom?), future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion plotted the blossoming nation’s course: “We must do everything to insure they [the Palestinians] never return.” He predicted, “The old will die and the young will forget.”
By the time Golda Meir had assumed Ben-Gurion’s position, virulent honesty had given way to dissimulation (or self-deception): “How can we return the occupied territories?” asked the silver-haired “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics. “There is nobody to return them to.”
Since 1948, Palestinians have not only occupied the painful position of many oppressed peoples who are systematically displaced, disenfranchised, denationalized, brutalized and murdered; they have also been put in the awkward, even tragicomic, position of having to convince the rest of the world of their very existence. This problem of visibility lies at the heart of Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, an illuminating, if incomplete, anthology of essays on the efforts of Palestinians to represent themselves to the world and to each other.
Palestinian cinema takes as its point of origin the traumatic events of 1948. In his introduction, Hamid Dabashi identifies the central problem for Palestinian filmmakers, “the problem of representing the unrepresentable,” an insurmountable charge akin to portraying the Holocaust on celluloid. As of yet, Palestinian film has no foundational narrative — no Shoah, no Exodus and, thankfully, no Schindler’s List. What it does have is a relentless and increasingly diverse body of films intent on remembering a culture and a history that have been meticulously dismembered by 60 years of occupation, a creative resistance born from continuous destruction.
The filmmakers, critics, curators and academics who contributed to Dreams of a Nation track the history of Palestinian film from the PLO-sponsored agitprop documentaries of the Seventies, through the films of Michel Khleifi, whose “internal front” in the fight for emancipation challenges the strictures of traditional Palestinian society (which he sees as bolstering the occupation), up to the breakthrough films of Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention) and Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), which have recently garnered attention on the international festival circuit.
But how do you create a national cinema for a stateless people? Dabashi invokes the specter of invisibility by recounting Elia Suleiman’s experience with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2002, when Divine Interventionwas up for an Oscar. The Academy rejected his film on two grounds: first, he was considered a stateless person; second, eligibility demanded the film first be released in the filmmaker’s own country. Technically, Suleiman is an Israeli citizen, though as a Christian Palestinian he does not enjoy equal citizenship rights. Though the UN resolution recognizing Israel also recognized a state called Palestine, the occupation has prevented a government from functioning effectively. Furthermore, most Palestinian directors must look to Europe for funding, as their own country is too impoverished to support more than a handful of theaters, much less a film industry.
A decade ago, these circumstances encouraged Dabashi to gather Palestinian films for a class on global cinema he was teaching at Columbia University. He talked to Edward Said, who helped him with the arduous task of tracking down filmmakers and archivists in Palestine and the diaspora who could transport films to New York. The most extensive collection of Palestinian films was located in Beirut, but disappeared during the Israeli invasion of 1982. Since then, the widely documented confiscation of Palestinian films and targeting of archives and cultural centers in the West Bank has dispersed the remaining prints. In her essay, “For Cultural Purposes Only: Curating a Palestinian Film Festival,” Palestinian filmmaker and curator Annemarie Jacir recalls her childhood in Bethlehem during the first intifada, when “it was illegal to show red, white, black, and green together because they represented the Palestinian flag.” She goes on to recount how, on her way to Europe years later, one of her own films was temporarily confiscated as a possible “security threat,” suggesting that “colors, symbols, and images are still subject to criminalization,” and that Palestinian cultural production is still viewed as a threat by the Israeli occupiers.
“When it became clear that this was a real cultural problem,” Dabashi told me, he decided his collection should spawn an archive, and he “talked to Annemarie Jacir about doing a festival.” The result was Dreams of a Nation, four days of screenings and lectures at Columbia that took place in 2003, despite a campaign by Americans for a Safe Israel and other groups to pressure the university to cancel the event. The Dreams of a Nation book takes up where the festival left off, and succeeds in articulating the challenges of and possibilities for Palestinian cinema, though it stops short of a comprehensive discussion of its current direction. Beyond the already iconic Suleiman and emerging Abu-Assad, there is little mention of recent, younger Palestinian filmmakers, though Kamran Rastegar’s excellent filmography and bibliography act as correctives.
Perhaps the curse of such a book is that it is destined to provide context for interpreting and studying films without hoping to parallel their effect. The most compelling moments in Dreams of a Nation do little more than describe scenes from films — this is a testament to the power of the films rather than any shortcoming of the authors.
In order to illustrate the absurd paradox of Palestinians being declared absentee landowners as a result of their displacement by the Israeli army in 1948 and 1967 — and the resulting, haunting absence that occupies the center of Palestinian cinema — Bashir Abu-Manneh describes a scene from Michel Khleifi’s documentary Ma’loul Celebrates Its Destruction. Khleifi has brought an old man to his former homestead in the village of Ma’loul, which was destroyed by Israel in 1948, its people banished and its land given to settlers. The old man, who lives nearly close enough to see what has become of his olive groves, can come back to visit his land but can never return permanently. He has, quite literally, become invisible, a “present absentee” landowner, recognized as a person but denied the benefits of a citizen. As the man roams the untended groves, Israel celebrates its “Independence Day” — here at once is the paramount irony of life under occupation and the most glaringly banal sin of the occupiers.
Elsewhere, Dabashi invokes Suleiman’s Divine Intervention as exemplary of Palestinian cinema’s potential. In the first scene, Suleiman’s mute avatar, ES, is driving a car impassively. After a few moments, he reaches for a piece of fruit, eats it mechanically, then pauses to consider how he might dispose of the pit. After a moment of contemplation, ES reaches to roll down the window and tosses the pit toward the side of the road, where an Israeli tank is parked. Upon impact, the pit explodes the tank into countless shards of steel. ES continues down the road without blinking. In a single gesture, Suleiman has employed pure will to explode the entire machinery of the occupation and, in doing so, has also transformed cinema into an act of emancipation — it is an emancipation made all the more sweet by its impermanence.
Issue 30, spring 2007: Review of Poor People, by William T. Vollmann (Ecco)
“Why do you think you are poor?” William Vollmann has spent the better part of the last 30 years traveling from slum to war zone, and everywhere he has gone, it seems, he has asked people this question. The scope of Vollmann’s globetrotting almost matches the scale of his literary output — his expeditions have so far birthed nine novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir and three works of non-fiction.
Vollmann’s ostensible goal in Poor People is modest: He wants merely to “note several similarities and differences” pertaining to “the experience of being poor.” It begins with the disclaimer that “people can be poor in anything and everything, including meaning itself.” In other words, the work might very well fail to produce any conclusions.
As any reader of Vollmann might expect, either his stated goal is disingenuous or he cannot but help overshoot it. Countries and years march by, and before too long the reader ends up much like Vollmann the traveler, wandering through the shantytowns of Bangkok or the red-light district of Shanghai without much of an idea of what to look for. (Vollmann, at least, is armed with the aforementioned question.) After coming across Big Mountain and Little Mountain, a pair of recently homeless Japanese men living under a bridge in Kyoto, Vollmann observes that Little Mountain “seemed to have been infected by numbness,” a characteristic he has identified as common among the poor. But he immediately revises his opinion, admitting that “the truth is that I knew and know nothing about this man.” His “poor people” might as well be “poor characters.”
Once Vollmann has exhausted the ways in which to say he knows nothing and moves into more straightforward reporting, Poor People gains ground. In Tengiz, Kazakhstan, where the sixth largest oil field in the world is being developed by Chevron, Vollmann stumbles across the repressed nightmare of globalization. Though the sulfur clouds from the refinery’s fires coat the town in a gauze of poison, its inhabitants swear to Vollmann they do not know even the name of the oil company operating next door. Others are afraid to speak with him, and refuse to say what might happen if they do. Eventually, two sons of the town elder inform him that the people have been ordered to evacuate. As an afterthought, they add, “They had a meeting. Everybody here has anemia.”
Despite it all, not a single denizen condemns the oil extraction. “If they close the factory, many people will lose their jobs,” one woman shrugs. “It will be hard to live.” (And if they live, and are poisoned, Vollmann cannot resist countering, how difficult will that be?) Certainly, the citizens of Tengiz are poor, and have been made miserable by the black gold beneath them. But it is not a poverty Vollmann feels compelled to quantify or qualify. The sulfur clouds do that work for him.
Issue 34, spring 2008: Review of Flying to America, by Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger (Shoemaker & Hoard)
The resurrection of Donald Barthelme is a long time coming, but ends here on an anti-climactic note, with the odds and ends of a fitful career, an addendum to his work rather than its apotheosis. Barthelme, whose mastery of a certain type of short story — oftentimes they were not stories at all, but conversations, set pieces, harangues, language games — led Thomas Pynchon to coin the phrase “Barthelmismo,” never quite disappeared, but his legacy fell into slight disrepair. In his own lifetime, which ended prematurely in 1989, Barthelme epitomized a strain of Seventies experimentalism now being reappraised after enduring a good few decades of desultory genre tags, “metafiction” being the most common. Barthelme’s writing does indeed exalt in appropriation, subversion of narrative conventions, collage, the conflation of bureaucratic and provincial idioms. The man himself fit the bill, too: A Texan who relocated to New York’s West Village, he published the bulk of his stories in The New Yorker, sold very few copies of his own volumes, drank Scotch prodigiously, donned cowboy boots, wore a feral beard, fraternized with the abstract expressionists, married four times, and trafficked in aphorisms. You might have found him wandering the streets with his neighbor Grace Paley muttering, “Fragments are the only forms I trust.”
As the 20th anniversary of Barthelme’s death approaches, there has been a surge of contemporary writers and readers taking interest in the man’s work. A recent issue of McSweeney’s confirmed as much, with half of the quarterly devoted to early Barthelme fragments, debating the writer’s legacy, and recounting his companionship ad nauseam. (Robert Coover’s contribution is comprised of three words: “Donald was laconic.”) Not-Knowing, a book of essays and interviews published in 1997, and The Teachings of Don B., another collection of odds and ends edited by Herzinger, are both being reprinted. Barthelme’s two anthologies of short fiction, Sixty Stories and Forty Stories, are increasingly available (and taught), and, for the most studious of his acolytes, everything excluded from them is now available in Flying to America.
Though the impact of Barthelme’s stories, unmatched in wit and highly attuned to the tenor of life in an American metropolis, has only increased with age, his oeuvre as a whole fails to fully resolve the promise of his best work. But with Barthelme, the failure of resolution, in a sentence or a corpus, is nothing to lament. “What is magical about the object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation,” he wrote. “Its artistic worth is measurable by the degree to which it remains, after interpretation, vital—no interpretation or cardiopulmonary push-pull can exhaust or empty it.” Ironically, it is this residue of things-left-to-be-done, of sentences that refuse after all these years to submit to interpretation that has encouraged younger writers to continue populating Barthelme country with their own sentences.
Flying to America will provide them with additional fodder, though it promises precious little beyond that. The critic James Wood once blasted Barthelme and his cohorts for writing “novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very ‘brilliant’ books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.” Barthelme occasionally lamented his seeming inability to craft a serious character that a reader could follow throughout an entire book, and his four novel-length works, which are mainly extended meditations on fairy tales and the Oedipal complex, elide this problem. (The protagonist of The Dead Father is a giant deceased patriarch who is dragged along by his son and a band of followers, who are on a quest to dispose of his ungainly body.) And yet, the best of Barthelme’s short stories produce characters with substantial empathetic qualities, characters that perfectly articulate the difficulty of structuring one’s life in accordance with one’s wishes and desires.
The stories in Flying to America, however, generally fail to do so. Here more than elsewhere, Barthelme seems preoccupied with the way language creates our picture of the social world, and what happens to that world when its various inhabitants and their vocabularies collide, battle, befriend one another — thus the scenes of businessmen at war, a bereft ex-husband manning a radio station devoted to remembrances of domestic scenes and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” post-collegiate women — three of them together — cohabitating with a middle-aged architect, who hovers about the house as they search for work in department stores and read introductory feminist texts.
But even such ragged juxtapositions of vernaculars and demographic types can be a joy, flourishing in the living-room-size conflicts between order and disorder; indeed, he regularly compared his work to the contrasting syncopations and improvisations of jazz. If Barthelme’s previously collected stories often achieve a seamless balance between the two poles, the 45 stories here — many of which reappear in some form in later years — are more akin to free jazz of the Albert Ayler variety. Frenetic, vibrato-laden saxophone wails and disassembled scales orbit around a firmly rooted but almost subliminal narrative backbeat, Barthelme’s incomparable sense of rhythm providing the linguistic pyrotechnics with clarity and purpose. The stories in Flying to America are not unlike practice tapes, studio outtakes, experiments abandoned or revisited at a later date. The book’s most significant reward is the chance to witness the process of creation in full, which requires sitting patiently through the failures as well as the many successful and revelatory moments. For a writer who placed a premium on “not-knowing,” studying the failures is perhaps the best route to understanding the successes. Barthelme, elaborating his attachment to “the how” rather than “the what,” defended his process as “an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one. You don’t get, following this path, a moral universe set out in 10 propositions,” he said. “But we already have that.”
THE PROVIDENCE PHOENIX
September 23—29, 2005: “Citywatch: Armory Revival’s New Project Faces Mixed Reception”
One homeowner lauded the Armory Revival Company, endorsing any development that would “get rid of the junkyards, whorehouses, and tanning salons.” Another West Side resident assailed two of Armory Revivals partners, Mark Van Noppen and B.J. Dupré, during the same September 13 meeting of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association’s development committee, asking, “When does it end? When will you have made enough money?”
The sharply mixed reaction was in response to Westminster Crossing, Armory Revival’s latest project. Construction of 73 for-sale lofts, with street-side storefronts and two concealed levels of structured parking at 383 West Fountain St., could begin as early as March 2006, to be completed nine months later, if the city approves the effort.
Armory Revival wants to start by demolishing part of the former Combination Ladder Company complex, majestically tarnished red brick edifices dating to 1895. Although they plan to preserve other historic buildings bought by their company in the same area, Van Noppen and Dupré say, the cost of replacing these particular properties’ gigantic roof precludes adaptive reuse. “These buildings are really marginal and at the end of their useful life,” Dupré says.
Supporters of the WBNA’s vigilance regarding preservation and architectural conformity were well represented at the meeting. While ambivalent about the size of the project and the destruction of a historic landmark, many welcomed a development that might improve the image of the old industrial area at the Armory District’s eastern tip.
But as Providence’s wave of gentrification continues to spread, many residents are skeptical, even indignant. Judith Reilly, 37, who has lived in Providence for 11 years, the past eight in the Armory District, notes the irony of Providence’s simultaneous affordable housing crisis and luxury loft boom. “If the project goes through,” she predicts, “it will be another nail in the coffin of a formerly affordable neighborhood.”
Dupré and Van Noppen disavow the “luxury loft” tag, saying that 10 percent of the Westminster Crossing units would be affordable, selling for $159,000 and under, and 57 percent would be moderately priced, selling between $160,000 and $299,000. (The rest would sell for more than $300,000, with four topping $400,000.) They characterized the units as “workforce housing,” a designation that rankled many residents who would be priced out of the neighborhood if such housing costs were the norm.
The WBNA, a reliable ally of Armory Revival, offered candid opposition to the initial plan, calling it a “threat” that could be eliminated only if the company “incorporated the existing Combination Ladder Company buildings,” and reduced the project’s height. Over recent months, Armory Revival has scaled back its plans slightly.
While few at this meeting were about to blame a private company for failing to create truly affordable housing, the prospect of another outpost of what Dupré repeatedly touted as “hip places to live” feeds mounting frustration for some about the West Side’s ongoing “revitalization.” Van Noppen acknowledged the skeptics’ frustrations, allowing, “We’re not pretending to attack the hardest parts of this problem.”
THE NEW-YORK GHOST
August 16, 2007: “Potential Soundtrack for Wes Anderson’s ‘The Darjeeling Limited'”
Sound & Vision.
Wes Anderson’s films—[Ed. note: please list titles][OK boss] Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic—[Can you put in the dates too?][Oh who cares about the dates][Seriously though][1996, 1998, 2001, 2004] rely on a mixtape-ready soundtrack to transport the viewer to another world—one much like their own, but with more efficient aphorisms, sweep-you-off-your-feetier melancholy, and better appointed interiors.
¶ His self-aggrandizing losers and dysfunctional over-achievers say pretty much what you would say, and when words fail, the songs fill in, encapsulate the mishegoss we call ‘life’!
¶ [Please add ‘Mr.’][OK BOSS] Mr. Anderson’s fifth feature, The Darjeeling Limited, starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, premieres next month at the New-York Film Festival. In advance of this ‘emotional comedy about three brothers re-forging family bonds’ by taking ‘a train trip across the vibrant and sensual landscape of India,’ the Ghost commissioned Alexander Provan to predict not only the songs in Darjeeling, but the scenes they’ll accompany.
¶ Bring this issue of the ‘Ghost’ to the theater and tell us later if he’s right.
1. Talking Heads, ‘Born Under Punches’ (as by a blind Sikh beggar) Train tracks. Dust. Oppressive sunlight. Sublimely penurious farmers wash garments in a dying creek. An eyeless supplicant sits cross-legged beside the train tracks, wheezing like a set of antique billows, moaning: ‘Take a look at these hands/Take a look at these hands/The hand speaks/The hand of a government man.’
¶ A train approaches. The blind man is unmoved. It rushes by, drowning out his dirge.
¶ Sounds of attractive young white men arguing.
¶ As train passes the beggar, sound of fist hitting face.
¶ Pair of aviator sunglasses flies out window, landing on the blind man’s face.
¶ Shot of train exiting the scene: ‘The Darjeeling Limited.’ The blind man stands, wobbling toward the horizon, singing all the while: ‘And the heat goes on.’
2. Schubert, ‘Piano Sonata in B Flat Major’—A beach. Gandhi’s salt march is evoked. Mr. Wilson to Mr. Brody: ‘Salt is such a simple compound, but have you ever thought about its impact on the course of human history? I mean, to think, it’s all here—the ocean is all around us.’ Mr. Brody picks up a single grain of salt, scrutinizes it, fails to form an opinion.
¶ Mr. Schwartzman [DO WE HAVE TO ADD ‘MR.’ ALL THE TIME?][Ed.: Just for this article.][WHAAAA] has, typically, fallen for the local salt collectress; though obviously too young for him, she appears to embody the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of salt through the ages, the wisdom of sieves. She seems to say: We cannot force closeness any more than we can artificially produce what the ocean provides for free and pass it off as organic sea salt from the Indian Ocean—the grain cannot be replicated. To wit: We can go to Darjeeling, but we can never go home again.
3. Iannis Xennakis, ‘Persepolis’
The adventure has reached a zenith of sorts. An argument between brothers regarding the nature of their father’s numerous affairs is interrupted when the train comes to an abrupt halt.
¶ A herd of goats is blocking the way!
¶ It is understood that in this remote hinterland
no man passes before the goats have been satisfied.
¶ Eruption of inscrutable babbling from front
¶ Conductor realizes goats are not crossing at all—they have been slaughtered, their corpses impaled with the sharpened bones of other goats, tied to the tracks, dressed in the stretched skin of smaller, uglier goats.
¶ It is a sign, say the expressions on the brothers’ faces.
4. Born Against, ‘Eulogy’
Out of money, having lost passports and sense of self-respect (both as family unit and as individuals), the brothers happen upon a bar in nether-regions of unidentifiable Bengali tech hub.
¶ Something familiar about the music coming from inside…
¶ Enter to find a band of local teenagers playing early hardcore anthems.
¶ Impassive crowd of Russian tourists sit in a circle and watch as a snake charmer coaxes a cobra out of an urn.
¶ Flashback makes it apparent that the last time the brothers truly expressed their love for one another was at a Born Against show— Trenton, 1990.
¶ We see: Mr. [‘MRS.’ FOR PLURAL?][No, I think rather just write out ‘Mr.’ each time.][WHAAA, LIKE ‘MISTER’ MR.?] [What?] Wilson, Mr. Brody and Mr. Schwartzman arm in arm, all two-steps and windmills.
¶ ‘There was this friend of mine, needed something we couldn’t give: convenient answers and a cheap way out.’
¶ Mr. Brody loses it: ‘Why are we in Darjeeling? Why the f—k are we in Darjeeling?’
5. The Move, ‘Night of Fear’
Sitar plays nothing but the main motif of Mr.
Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture.’
6. John Cale, ‘Big White Cloud’
Train moving across valleys, past decrepit villages, along coastline of unparalleled particularity.
¶ Brothers lay wounded—emotionally, spiritually, physically,psychologically. Or are just exhausted—emotionally, spiritually, physically, psychologically.
¶ Begin recovery.
¶ There is eye contact, and a dream sequence:
7. Dinosaur Jr., ‘Feel the Pain’
Mr. Wilson doffs hat at Mr. Schwartzman, who eyes the 18th green and winks at Mr. Brody, who is in turn flying a kite.
¶ Kite is connected to a larger, more complex kite.
¶ Mr. Schwartzman swings, connects: ball flies from one roof to next, landing a respectable distance from the hole. A fifteen-foot putt: Not a problem!
8. The Feelies, ‘The Good Earth’
Journey concludes, brothers having not exactly solved their problems, but discovering deeper truths which render conventional Western understandings of familial strife archaic, superfluous.
¶ Land and people they have encountered in past weeks deserve much credit for this revelation.
¶ Mr. Wilson and Mr. Brody take their leave of Mr. Schwartzman, who has decided to remain in Gujarat with his betrothed, the salt girl.
¶ Will not be easy to convince this world of their love, but then again, that’s exactly what Mr. Schwartzman expressed upon first boarding ‘The Darjeeling Limited.’
¶ His eyes say: We who were once salt eaters now are salt givers. ‘With this,’ he jokes sheepishly, holding a grain of salt, ‘I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.’
¶ With heavy hearts, brothers promise to do ‘this’ again in two to three years.
¶ Conductor sounds train’s whistle, as singer intones, ad infinitum: ‘Can I get back?/Oh, can I get back?’
THE POETRY FOUNDATION
August 2, 2007: “Better Than Some Dumb Ad”
“It’s a nice little poem—sort of soothing,” observes Michael Sabree from his seat on a Manhattan-bound L train. Sabree, a lifelong Brooklynite in his mid-30s, is riding the subway on a Sunday night in late May. “Even though some folks don’t like to think about everything dying, you know, it’s got something else there.”
I had boarded the train at Jefferson, sat down next to him, and asked if he had read “Sailing to Byzantium,” by William Butler Yeats. The first stanza of the poem is posted in a Plexiglas frame above the row of seats across from ours.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Closer to seven feet than six, Sabree wears an enormous black hooded sweatshirt, billowy black jeans, a Marvin Gaye T-shirt emblazoned with the line “Let’s get it on,” and pristine white sneakers. He takes the same route almost daily to his job filling orders for FreshDirect, a grocery delivery service in Queens, and has familiarized himself with this excerpt of the Yeats poem, which contemplates the possibility of art transcending mortality. After dipping his hand into a bag of Cheetos, he murmurs, “Yeah, I read ‘em all,” referring to the numerous poems posted on subways and buses as part of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion program. “I like to keep it versatile,” he says, preferring the modern voice of contemporary black and Latino poets. “But I’m open-minded too,” appreciating a good classic stanza when he sees one.
Like most New Yorkers contemplating municipal services, Sabree weighs the importance of enriching the citizenry’s cultural life against the more pressing concerns of finances and convenience. “I’m all for more poetry, less junk,” he says, scoffing at a nearby poster advertising 1-800-DIVORCE and 1-800-INNOCENT. “But I mean, you do gotta wonder, where the hell’s my money going? They up the damn fares, the train don’t come on time. . . .” He trails off, hoisting himself up as the train stops at Lorimer Street, where he transfers to the G. “Still, though, I’m glad for the poetry.” Sabree exits the train before I can tell him that the Poetry in Motion program is underwritten by Barnes & Noble, run by the Poetry Society of America (PSA) along with the MTA, and should not be blamed for fare increases or erratic schedules.
The PSA headquarters in Manhattan feels as far away as you can get from the subway, although the 23rd Street station on the Lexington line is only a couple of blocks away. The office is tucked in a remote corner of the National Arts Club, which occupies the former Tilden Mansion, a particularly grand Victorian on Gramercy Park. The club’s halls are replete with period portraits and roped-off antique furniture, but in the PSA office, stacks of Poetry in Motion posters litter the floor and thousands of poetry volumes compete for space on shelves and cluttered desks.
The PSA’s executive director is Alice Quinn, a slight woman in her 50s with tousled gray hair who is also poetry editor at The New Yorker. She describes Poetry in Motion as “kind of a patchwork quilt,” a work always in progress and flux. The program debuted in 1992 with four poems, including one that seemed penned for it, Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It has since featured poems or excerpts by Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Anna Akhmatova,Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and about 200 others. Currently, there are 2,500 subway posters and 3,700 bus posters featuring two poems, which are changed every three months. Across the country, public transportation authorities in 12 additional cities have implemented similar programs, all under the auspices of the PSA, which collaborates with local groups to pick the poems and provides organizational support.
In New York, the poems are chosen by Quinn, Poetry in Motion director Anita Naegeli, managing director Brett Fletcher Lauer, and two MTA staffers. Representatives of the two groups used to meet face-to-face, Quinn says. “But sometimes life overtakes you,” she sighs, “and you resort to other forms of communication”—e-mail in this case. Naegeli, 33, and Lauer, 28, both poets, join Quinn at a worn wooden table. “We generally aim for something that speaks to everybody in some way,” says Naegeli. Adds Fletcher Lauer, “Still, the romantic ones are the most popular.”
“Taste comes into play in any editorial meeting,” Quinn says, but all parties charged with selecting the poetry tend to agree which poems are best fit for public transit. While tone, readability, and popular appeal are among the criteria, brevity is perhaps the most crucial. Poems can run up to fourteen lines—short enough to be read between stops. Otherwise, there are few restrictions. Poets are generally published and of some stature, and the poems range from free verse to iambic pentameter, contemporary to classical. Poems in other languages, accompanied by English translations, are regularly posted.
For Quinn, one of the program’s greatest rewards is the opportunity to disseminate the work of undersung poets. Such was the case with Lorine Niedecker, whose starkly beautiful “Wilderness” was posted through much of the last year. Niedecker, the daughter of a Wisconsin fisherman, endured penury and isolation; though she achieved some acclaim on the literary fringe, her work, published by small presses, reached only a limited audience before her death in 1970. “She had a hard life,” Quinn says softly before reciting the poem:
You are the man
You are my other country
and I find it hard going
You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm
the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe
“She is—was—a marginalized poet,” Quinn says. “But having that poem on the subway system for three months helped change that. “There were all these calls [from riders] asking ‘Who is she?’” Quinn says. On one subway ride, she recalls, “I watched a woman reading and rereading that poem.” Quinn understood it as a religious experience, the poem a stand-in for divinity: “It really invoked the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel. It was that sort of direct communication.”
The PSA regularly receives letters from riders recounting their experiences with the poems. A parent at Williamsburg Prep in Brooklyn e-mailed to express his affinity for a poem about “the son who doesn’t understand the love his father shows by starting the fire and polishing his shoes.” He hoped to use the poem, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” as the theme for an upcoming father-son brunch and wondered if he could procure a poster or two. “We are struggling to keep fathers involved,” he noted with regret.
Of course, readers don’t always concur with the judgment of Quinn and her colleagues. In 2005, a verse from Shakespeare’s Macbeth was posted, which included the following lines:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“We chose this excerpt for the drama and severity—the gravity of it,” Quinn says. But for many riders, drama, severity, and the morning commute make for odd bedfellows. One metro blogger asked, “Not the most inspirational way to start your day, is it?” Another blogger was more disturbed: “What insane MTA official thought that this was the perfect fragment of poetry to welcome people on their morning commute to a job that slowly kills them?”
Richard Kuczkowski takes umbrage at such remarks. The associate director of marketing for the MTA, he administers the Poetry in Motion program and chooses the poems along with his boss, Alicia Martinez, MTA director of marketing. Both hold PhDs in English from Columbia. “None of the poems are maudlin or morbid,” Kuczkowski says, sitting in his office near Grand Central Station. “They’re more affirmative than anything else. Macbeth is ennobling. It just talks about the more tragic aspects of life. Alicia tends to have a much sunnier disposition than I have. I think everyone has had tragedy and recognizes that sometimes, life seems ‘but a walking shadow.’”
The goal of the PSA, according to its mission statement, is “to place poetry at the crossroads of American life,” a place where it has not been for some time. “We know what poetry does,” Quinn says. “We know that it adds to life immeasurably.” A recent study by the Poetry Foundation and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago confirms this view, finding that 90 percent of American readers “highly value poetry and believe it enriches the lives of those who read it.” Seventy-nine percent of American commuters polled in the study reported seeing poetry on public transportation; of the respondents who had experienced “incidental exposure” to poetry, including these commuters, 81 percent claimed to have read what they saw.
Idalia Rodriguez, riding the A train south toward the Financial District on a Wednesday morning, tells me she has not read poems since high school—except those posted in the subway. “I used to read all the poems, but then my eyes became poor, so I have to be right in front of them to read.” Rodriguez is in her early 40s and works in the accounting department of a large financial firm. I ask if she will read “O Tell Me the Truth About Love,” a W.H. Auden poem posted across from us, and tell me what she thinks. It asks of love, “Will it knock on my door in the morning, / Or tread in the bus on my toes?” She picks up her purse and walks over to the poem, standing on her tiptoes and gripping a pole to steady herself. After a minute, she returns to her seat.
“It’s very beautiful, it’s about love,” she says, beaming. “When love comes to you for the first time, you don’t know how it will be.” I ask if it reminds her of a time in her own life. “Of course,” she answers, blushing.
Fletcher Lauer surmises that people who might never otherwise read poems appreciate the ones they see on the subway because the setting is so different from a classroom environment. “The poems are unobtrusive; they’re waiting for you.” And, unlike the 1-800-DIVORCE and 1-800-INNOCENT posters, “they’re not selling you anything,” he says. “They’re offering you a moment.”
February 27, 2008: “Hillary Clinton’s Poetry Challenge”
In early January, Hillary Clinton dismissed the oratorical sensibilities of Barack Obama, her competitor for the Democratic Party’s nomination, admonishing him in the words of Mario Cuomo: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” A month later, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. warned the electorate that Republicans “aren’t going to respond to poetry or lofty language.”
The Clinton camp’s regular attacks on Obama’s “poetry” are surprising, mostly because it has been so long since poetry played a role in a presidential campaign. But, in the course of the last six months, Obama has wielded his significant gifts as a poetic speaker—if not a poet—to win over a majority of Democratic voters. Clinton was forced to respond, taking the position that even the most skilled rhetorician will, in the end, have no effect in Washington, however inspiring he may be to voters.
Yet poetry seems to be edging out prose on the campaign trail, with Obama’s calls for hope and unity filling stadiums, and Clinton’s dry policy speeches drawing yawns. Granted, compared to her husband, “the man from Hope,” whose favorite authors include Seamus Heaney and Marcus Aurelius, Hillary (“the woman from Park Ridge—it’s a suburb of Chicago”) is no bookworm. Normally, that would not be to her detriment. The American presidency has had an uneasy relationship with literature for at least the last century. But this season, despite Hillary’s assertion that poetry and governance make for poor bedfellows, she has been compelled to emulate Obama’s tone. Recently, she received the help of longtime Clinton ally Maya Angelou. On January 20, with Super Tuesday looming, the 79-year-old poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings offered a paean entitled “State Package for Hillary Clinton.”
Angelou heralded the arrival of the Clinton era 15 years ago with a poem entitled “On the Pulse of Morning,” making her the only poet besides Robert Frost to have graced a U.S. president’s inauguration. Hoping also to herald the resumption of that era, she recently delivered for Hillary Clinton a succession of blandishments largely in prose form, but beginning with the stanza:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
After recounting the wrongs done to Clinton and enumerating some of her considerable qualities and credentials (she has “been there and done that”), Angelou solemnly declares, “She means to rise.” Then, she offers an unlikely exhortation, considering the subject of her praise:
Angelou’s poem emphasizes Hillary’s transformative experiences and achievements—the legacy of the women’s liberation movement—and reconciles them with the official portrait of Hillary as seasoned, pragmatic politician. It is an attempt to locate the poetry in her, and amplify it.
When people criticize Clinton for failing to inspire, what they often mean is that she has no poetry about her. Her “story”—privileged upbringing, successful law career, singular focus on political ascendance—does not recommend itself to poetry. More important, her career seems to be characterized by a process of depersonalization, apparently to make her less vulnerable to the omnipresent attackers cited by Angelou. Those in search of the “real” Hillary—a figure that recedes farther into the distance with each day of Hillary-the-candidate—are bound to be frustrated, as her biographers have been.
Yet, while Clinton seems at times incapable of poeticizing herself or her message, she has strived to overcome the perception that there is no self there; shortly before the New Hampshire primary, she succeeded in doing so thanks to a few tears, after which she proclaimed, “I found my own voice.”
Regardless of the content or literary value of Angelou’s poem, the uses and abuses of poetry in the campaign are proof that the Democratic electorate does, to some degree, judge a candidate in relation to his or her poetic sensibilities and ability to communicate artfully. That is the legacy of John F. Kennedy, and Obama has emerged as his heir apparent, however their diction differs. For all of Hillary’s jabs at Obama’s lack of experience, many Democrats would rather have a president who fits the JFK mold of an “existential hero” (per Norman Mailer) than one who is a student par excellence of the intricacies of governance.
In 1987, Gary Hart, a connoisseur of literature who ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic nomination, asked a New York Times reporter, “Why is it that somebody like me is thought the oddball?” after being ridiculed for his obscure tastes. “I think I’m the healthy one. I think you ought to be asking all those other guys who have done nothing but hold public office and have no other sides to their personalities [why] they don’t write novels and why they don’t read Kierkegaard.”
Although Obama hasn’t written any novels, he has written two memoirs: The Audacity of Hope traffics in many of the platitudes of the political-biography-as-platform genre, but the earlier Dreams from My Father is an emotionally articulate and, at times, highly poetic bildungsroman. As an undergraduate, he even tried his hand at poetry, publishing two poems in the Occidental College literary magazine. The first, called “Pop,” is an evocation of his grandfather, who “takes another shot, neat, / Points out the same amber / Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and / Makes me smell his smell.”
Though he has since abandoned verse, the combination of vernacular poetry and liberal-arts catchphrases has proved a winning political formula. Obama’s tendency to speak abstractly, emphasizing a certain tone above any specific platform, is consistent with his emphasis on what President Bush has derided as “the vision thing,” whereas Clinton’s artless style conforms to her understanding of politics as a process of hard work and incremental change. As such, Obama slogans like “We are the change we seek” have earned him occasional derision from the Clinton camp. Although both leaders would like to claim the mantle of Roosevelt and the New Deal, FDR saw the presidency the way Obama does, as being “more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”
Clinton claimed to have found her voice during her New Hampshire triumph, but she has so far failed to find a rallying call. After Obama’s decisive victory in Wisconsin, Clinton stopped trying to beat him at his own game and renewed her attacks on his oratory, asserting that “while words matter, the best words in the world aren’t enough, unless you match them with action.”
In looking for her own poetics, Clinton would have done well to revisit her graduation from Wellesley in 1969, when her speechifying tendencies were in full bloom. Addressing the graduating class after a conservative U.S. senator who had chastised students for protesting the college’s administration, she read a poem by a classmate, Nancy Scheibner, that insisted students “be free” in order to “practice with all the skill of our being / The art of making possible.”
While Hillary has spent much of the last 40 years sanitizing any predisposition toward self-expression, her husband never cared to quash his own poetic tendencies, which have hurt him (and her) as much as they have helped over the years. Like the early presidents, Bill Clinton looked to poetry for a vision of the nation, and of himself as its steward. On the way to his inauguration in 1993, Clinton stopped at Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home in Monticello, Virginia, where the first Democrat, and perhaps our most intellectual president, cobbled together a vision of the inchoate republic’s principles and characters from the poems he read. At the time of the founding fathers, poetry provided the raw material for imagining the nation. A creature of the Enlightenment, Jefferson looked to the classics to better understand a nation still in formation. As well as writing extensively on British verse, he read Homer in the original Greek and often quoted from Theocritus and Virgil, who spoke to the pastoral ideal Jefferson hoped to cultivate in America and later articulated in Notes on the State of Virginia. (It was Jefferson who suggested that “E Pluribus Unum,” attributed to one of Virgil’s salad recipes, become the nation’s motto.) Clinton came to bask in Jefferson’s authoritatively American voice, which he claimed to be the framework for “the populism of this campaign.”
Bill Clinton has advertised his affinities for T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeatsand claimed a deep attachment to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s patriotic “Concord Hymn.” But it was Walt Whitman who articulated Clinton’s all-encompassing (and all-penetrating) democratic spirit, exuberant will to expand beyond one’s borders, and all-too-catholic sense of empathy. (He famously gave Leaves of Grass to Monica Lewinsky.) And it was, in effect, Clinton’s poetic proclivities, broadcast to the world during the Lewinsky scandal, that humiliated Hillary—his inability to reconcile poetry and public life.
Poets are allowed idealism and a degree of distance from mundane concerns. In her political career, Hillary Clinton has never allowed herself to be anything but defensive and practical. Obama, on the other hand, represents the middle ground between poet and politician; his idealism is essential to his political acumen. Until equivocating in the face of Obama’s surge, Clinton seemed intent on turning herself into the antithesis of the blustery populist who rolled into the White House in 1993.
It is not as if Clinton has no love for poetry. Though her literary appetites do not parallel those of her husband, Hillary shares his enthusiasm for T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. For her Wellesley senior thesis on radical organizer Saul Alinsky, she turned to “East Coker” for an oddly inauspicious epigraph. “And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,” Eliot postulates:
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The cyclical nature of the metaphysical struggle in Eliot’s poem becomes, in this context, an evaluation of Alinsky’s methods; Clinton approved of his aims but wondered if his radicalism, his unwillingness to be conciliatory, hampered his efforts. But it can also be read as a reflection on Clinton’s own intellectual journey from kind-hearted but sheltered Goldwater Girl to worldly Wellesley graduate with existential dilemmas on the mind—a story that ends, as we all know, with a hard-fought ascension to the highest tiers of national power. It is the early stages of this journey, as Angelou reminds us, that now seem worth reviving for Clinton, as Obama’s challenge compels her to reconcile herself to poetry and populism. It is these “undisciplined squads of emotion” that must be recovered, the “mess” of feeling that must be accessed, the “trying” that must be transcended—if it is not already too late.
Visit Dusted for a complete listing of articles I wrote between 2004 and 2008.
February 25, 2004: “Pirate Radio International: The Sounds of Sublime Frequencies”
Languages disappear at an astounding rate. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), ten languages die out every year. Records disappear even faster. And while efforts to preserve the environment, indigenous plants, and endangered animals gained a high degree of notoriety in the twentieth century, cultural preservation is a more diffuse, less easily championed cause. There is a difficult dichotomy between the desire of members of a certain culture to preserve their traditions and lifestyle and the desire of outsiders to preserve all traditional cultures – the former usually seems like an effort to hold onto a sense of identity while the latter can often resemble the collector’s desire to maintain artifacts and museum pieces, freezing a culture at a certain point in time.
So when do the collector’s urges become reconcilable with the ideal of cultural preservation, especially in a time when one almost necessitates the financial and political help of the other? The two co-exist well enough in Sublime Frequencies, a fairly new record label in the tradition of great ethnomusicological and folk preservation organizations such as Smithsonian Folkways, Nonesuch Explorer, Ocora, and Unesco. Sublime Frequencies (www.sublimefrequencies.com was founded last year by Alan Bishop, who also constitutes one-third of the legendary ethno-punk cult band Sun City Girls, and has since its inception released seven CDs and three DVDs documenting traditional music cultures of Bali, Java, Morocco, Burma/Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, Libya, and Sumatra.
The films released late last year, Nat Pwe: Burma’s Carnival Of Spirit Soul andJemaa El Fna: Morocco’s Rendezvous of the Dead, capture music performed at a festival in Burma and in a town square in Marrakech, respectively. (Another film,Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya, was released in mid-February). The sole cinematographer walks around with a handheld camera, giving the viewer a fairly unadulterated view of the two places and the music being performed, or at least one that differs little from the cinematographer’s original experience. No expert comments on the cultures at hand – there are no voice-overs or interviews. The music itself is a curious mélange of old and new; in Burma, the carnival feels very much like the conscious performance of an ancient ritual. The costumed participants are fully engaged in the performance, dancing and drumming energetically – the music is mostly percussive and vocal – but there is a feeling of divorce between the ritual and those enacting it.
Jemaa El Fna, on the other hand, documents a performance that is interesting, even enchanting, but without the discomfiting marks of exoticism. Locals crowd the town square that marks the border between Marrakech and the western Sahara desert to play music, dance, and sing. The music is traditional, but the gathering seems more like a regular communal event than a conscious performance. Members of the crowd, dressed in street garb, occasionally pick up a drum and play it for a few minutes, then disappear toward the lit buildings beyond the square. An old man in a suit and Ray Charles sunglasses beats a drum and sings like another culture’s retired beat poet. Others play oud, banjo, and bowed instruments, weaving in and out of traditional songs and extended improvisations. A mustachioed man plays a collection of old 45’s on an archaic turntable, the music barely decipherable, like a golden vase rusted almost beyond recognition. A young girl sings and dances nonchalantly as the crowd, and the camera, look on.
In Jemaa El Fna, the documentarian is less conspicuous in relation to the environment, significantly and graciously reducing the sense of voyeurism. The dancing girl glances at the camera occasionally; the man is playing records for the cinematographer. Surprisingly, the feeling of the mundane, when compared to the theatrics of Nat Pwe, somehow enlivens the action – in this case, watching something living is perhaps more intriguing than watching the ritualistic resuscitation of something that is rare and dying.
While these documentaries make an attempt to preserve a sense of time and place, most of the CDs eschew this method in favor of one that relies more on the documentarian’s own sensibilities. Preservation is still a large part of the project, but the music becomes source material for sound collages by Alan Bishop, the man behind Sublime Frequencies. Radio Java is the most prominent example of the earlier batch of releases, and has recently been followed by Radio Palestine andRadio Morocco. Bishop pastes together traditional and pop music, movie dialogue, DJ chatter, field recordings, roosters crowing, soap operas, and other unidentifiable frequencies and sounds in an otherworldly tour. In Radio Java, some of the tracks sound vaguely Hawaiian, some resemble Bollywood soundtracks, some call to mind languorous electrified pop. All of it was recorded from various radio stations in Jakarta, Surabaya, Yokyakarta, and Bandung by Bishop and accomplice Manford Cain in 1989. The fact that this project could not be made and commercially released in America due to copyright law adds to its intrigue.
Of the Radio titles, Radio Morocco, recorded by Bishop in the summer of 1983, is the most linear; Radio Java and especially Radio Palestine can at times resemble a frustratingly fast train ride through a country you’ve never seen. Buildings appear and quickly fall back, replaced by villages, deserts, town squares, and bazaars, allowing little time to focus on specifics. Though the rapid cycling of sounds in the ‘Radio’ recordings makes it difficult for the listener to gain a very concrete conception of the music or the culture itself, the releases are, to some extent, an effort to frustrate the desire to reduce a culture to a single document. Radio Morocco does this while also satisfying the desire to hear some of these beautiful, obscure songs uninterrupted.
Bishop recorded the discordant Radio Palestine in 1985 in Egypt and Israel, and he replaces careful edits in many places with jarring samples of radio washes. Few sounds are entirely comprehensible, and those that are quickly mutate before the listener can be put at ease. This frustrating aesthetic aptly represents the geography of a place in flux, denied the constancy or continuity of life enjoyed by those in less chaotic regions of the world. Radio Palestine is a series of torn pages from a hundred books pasted together.
The influence of documentary series like National Geographic Explorer is at the core of I Remember Syria, a double CD recorded by Mark Gergis (Monopause/Neung Phak) in 1998 and 2001. Closely resembling Bishop’s ‘Radio’ pieces, Gergis juxtaposes animals growling, trains, cars honking, music, and interviews in which Syrians discuss their political views, creating a document that is equal parts soundscape and a loose narrative of Gergis’ own travels. The whole record is like an audio analogue to Walter Ruttmann’s classic Berlin: Symphony of a City, a series of created environments that layer multiple times and places. Drums hang over hawkers bargaining at a street market; drums and ouds duet, occasionally joined by woodwind and brass instruments and vocal snippets.
Most recordings of ethnic music sold in America follow one of two paths: they attempt to appeal to Western audiences through high production values and fusion with American pop sounds, or they attempt to preserve the integrity and authenticity of the music by recording it on-site, presenting it as a sort of document, “An Exploration of the Musical Cultures of _______.”
The Sublime Frequencies label takes a different approach, showing traditional music that is dynamic and has the capacity to change. Unlike Dada and Pop art collages, these records use source material for which the author maintains an obvious reverence. But, unlike traditional recordings of ethnic music, Bishop eschews the desire to preserve something in its original state, treating the music as malleable.
Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, which collects songs from cassettes acquired by Bishop while traveling through Sumatra in 1989, is like a great jigsaw puzzle in this way – traditional Arabic songs with interweaving vocal and flute melodies meet wrecked ’70’s electric organ riffs, gongs collide with electric bass lines and overdriven soul vocals. Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar is also a collection of traditional and popular songs compiled by Bishop from tapes purchased in Myanmar. Originally released in a limited vinyl pressing on Majora Records in 1994, it also represents a more straightforward collision of various musical styles. Western pop influences meet traditional Burmese song structures; banjo-picking anchors scattered flutes on “Beautiful Town”; a man and a woman sing as if they are calling across a valley to one another. Princess Nicotine… and…Sumatra are easily the most listenable and, in the end, the most musically engaging Sublime Frequencies records. Though both jump from Bollywood beats to free jazz clatter, all the songs here are anchored in an identifiable geographical sound. The overall effect is mesmerizing, if unavoidably weird; an abstracted map in which some pieces barely connect and others connect even if it doesn’t seem like they should. But it is wonderful when they do.
Sumatra is large, as big as California, and lies on the Western edge of the Indonesian archipelago. Despite its size, its music is not nearly as widely documented as that of Java and Bali, islands directly to the East. In Night Recordings from Bali, Bishop presents his own field recordings of gamelan music. Besides the insistent choral tones of the gamelan, Night Recordings captures clattering drumming that sounds almost like broken glass being shaken in a tin, and wails of people singing as if dancing on the shards. Howls reverberate in the distance; complex tapestries of sound unravel and are woven back together. The relatively poor quality of the recording distances the listener from the scene, and, combined with the occasional fits of monotony, can become grating at times, but the majority of the recording is ominously spellbinding.
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. The last time I was there, I noticed a sign in front of Rillito Park, a few hundred square yards of grass near my house. It read, “Real Authentic Native American Powwow” and, sure enough, I could see a perimeter of pickup trucks circumscribing a band of tents. From a couple hundred yards away, I could even see some “Real Authentic Native Americans.” What were they doing here? A powwow is, traditionally, a meeting between leaders of different tribes in order to discuss matters in which they all have an investment; now, these have mostly been replaced by inter-tribal meetings that take place in hotels, not in teepees in city parks. After pulling into the park to ask a few questions, I was told that this was not an actual powwow, but a simulation of a powwow to educate local residents about traditional Native American culture and, in doing so, keep that culture alive. They were in the midst of deconstructing the temporary village, after a fairly successful weekend. In the center of the encampment was a campfire around which, someone told me, the participants had performed traditional Tohono O’odham music.
Upon hearing the Sublime Frequencies material, it’s difficult for me not to think of that scene; someone must have filmed or recorded the ‘simulated’ musical performances. Though the label’s material maintains a level of rawness necessary to discern it from commercially produced versions of traditional music, it’s possible that a recording of the music played at the fake powwow could be just as raw and, even, just as good, despite the degree to which it was removed from any concrete Native American community, despite the fact that its purpose was less ritual than performance. Maybe this possibility is what encouraged Puritan settlers, who originally coined the term powah—‘one who has visions’—to describe shamans associated in their minds with satanic invocation, to eventually adopt the term and, consequently, the performance, as their own. An 1812 issue of the Salem, Massachusetts, Gazette reads: “The Warriors of the Democratic Tribe will hold a powwow at Agawam on Tuesday next.”
Sublime Frequencies’ releases distance themselves from the cultural masquerades of the Sun City Girls and from the comprehensive (or even representative) “Music of…” documents released by many ethno labels. Bishop presents musical travelogues, audio scrapbooks firmly based in his own listening experiences, and, at the most broad, awe-inspired compendia of obscurities that have impressed him without holding – or maybe because they don’t hold – any special place in the world music canon. Listening to Princess Nicotine…, a collection with confounding, even schizophrenic diversity, leaves no doubt that you are exploring a single person’s mind as much as a single musical culture.
Bishop’s ethnomusicological mission is certainly deserving of its own documentary; his obvious, insatiable passion for these musical cultures and their living artifacts, along with his idiosyncratic tastes, imbues the Sublime Frequencies’ releases with a simple, even naïve, but always overpowering exuberance. But Bishop would rather “leave the over-analyzation to those who undoubtedly will suffocate the world music community with praise for this music in the future.”
Jun. 29, 2007: Review of Wooden Wand’s James and the Quite (Ecstatic Peace!)
This is James Toth’s coming out party. His quinceañera. And for it, he has prepared a toast befitting a Tennessee debutante:
I read and approved the press release written by my good friends at Fanatic Promotion and wrote the update on the Myspace page myself, so I really can’t understand why some people still fail to see the difference between WWVV [his band, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice] and what I do as a solo artist. Either certain people aren’t listening, or they simply don’t give a shit. Regrettably, I’m guessing it is the latter.
On this charge, Tosh is dead-on. It’s the latter. And, after listening to the monumentally portentous James and the Quiet, it’s hard to understand how anyone could give a shit. Whether or not that’s regrettable is another matter. Toth, shedding the band for a host of studio collaborators — most notably Lee Ranaldo, who also produced the record — has taken so-called new folk’s delusions of historical import (if only by ancestry) and cultural relevance (if only by accident) to an unprecedented level in the pursuit of his ‘vision.’
But wait, lest you be taken in by my own gripes — Toth has preempted this moment in the same manifesto, broadcast via Myspace and a network of message boards populated by veteran grousers and boosters:
I sincerely hope this missive doesn’t do more harm than good, as it often appears that cynical journalists tend to ‘look for holes’ in such appeals. I imagine that every band that is fortunate enough to be written about anywhere has many of these same gripes, but choose not to rock the boat, as it were. But I don’t really give a shit about that. I guess when it comes right down to it, I’d rather be fact-checked (and accurately portrayed) than liked by total strangers.
Call me doubly cynical, but if I want holes — or, as the case may be, one giant gaping hole of a certain variety — I’ll spend another 40 minutes with James and the Quiet.
To be done with the obligatory description of style, form and biography: Toth plays the namesake in an ensemble called Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, which has put out a number of records ranging from decent to respectable in the last few years. While those records waver between noise, dirge and folk, on occasion pushing an envelope or two, the songs on James are characterized by rote stylistic gestures and faux-poetics in the mold of English psychedelic folk singers like Simon Finn, visionary lyricists such as William Blake, and whichever other dealers in apocalyptic metaphysical imagery Toth has dug through over the years.
From the casually elevated “We Must Also Love the Thieves” (“We most also love the liars / because truth can be found in this … We must turn the other cheek / and share what we have to eat” — seriously) to the sneering Biblical rants of the title track (“James and the quiet and the angels above” being the mantra), Toth’s lyrics veer dangerously toward doomsaying, soothsaying and general bullshitting. The songs appear as a herd of slowly passing cows, each one almost indistinguishable from the next, heavy beasts mooing stupidly as they leave the road to the slaughterhouse covered with feces. They inevitably contain a basic chord progression strummed in an unremarkable manner.
This feels a lot like the apotheosis of a genre — let’s call it ahistorical history music. In other words, a form mimicked or appropriated, denied the specific circumstances that originally granted it some enduring value; a fetishized version of history masquerading as artistic expression. The self-aggrandizing jig the young white man dances on the grave of Mississippi John Hurt.
The effect of this context-specific music taken far outside of its rightful context is maddening at worst, tiresome at best. I’m reminded of George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, which so articulately (if nostalgically) lamented our culture’s increasing loss of historical mooring and the resultant infantilization of society. To wantonly chew at the weeds of history, regurgitating wherever one sees fit and calling the spittle one’s own art, is to deny that history its rightful place, to revert to the mindset of a child. But beyond that observation it’s hard to find a reason to give a shit. Back to fact-checking.
May 4, 2007: Review of Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation (Numero)
A recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited the photographs taken by Harry Burton during the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and the subsequent removal and cataloguing of its contents. Howard Carter, the archeologist responsible for the expedition, marveled at the treasure trove of “wonderful things” last glimpsed in the 14th century BC. While Burton’s camera captured the objects themselves, its greater focus was men in the ecstasy of discovery. The objects themselves pale in comparison to the story of the expedition – the thought of being there. The endless sarcophagi, jewelry and canopic jars are wonderful for a while but, really, most viewers will only be able to appreciate them as a source of wonderment.
With the sprawling two-disc Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation, the prolific Numero Group seems to have arrived at the point where the discovery trumps the treasure. The label, which has released a steady stream of lost soul gems and other carefully curated rarities salvaged from junk bins, basements, and flea markets – the tombs where records are buried – culls here the songs a hit-maker named Syl Johnson decided would never be hits. The typically lavish booklet contains a detailed history of his label and an exhaustive story of these thrown away tracks.
While the Egyptians buried their dead to ensure their place in the afterlife, the fate of most records is far more mundane – they land in junk bins because they are junk. While Lunar Rotation contains its fair share of blissful moments and choice rare grooves, over the 40 tracks the collection starts to feel more like the indiscriminate catalog of an expedition: of value mostly to those interested in genre artifacts, formal deviations and time capsules.
The lead track, Stormy’s “The Devastator,” is an overly precious “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” rip-off with careless mixing and clumsy back-up singing. Sidney Pinchback’s “Soul Strokes,” is an awkward mix of “Green Onions” and deep fried funk. On these and other songs there are plenty of minor revelation – amateurs locking into perfect rhythms, stumbling upon golden melodies, and showing their surprise – but the overall impression is of an expedition outshining its yield.
January 26, 2007: Review of Psychic Paramount’s Origins and Primitives (No Quarter)
If the apocalypse is upon us, creeping through highways and sewers with a gradual but inimitable force, it would be a minor comfort to know that a soundtrack for the long moment is ready and waiting. Psychic Paramount’s Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural plays that moment as emancipatory event, a furious unleashing of the subconscious onto a newly primordial landscape. Music in the wake of breakdown, but with a sturdy longboard for the ride home.
Origins and Primitives shows the band in a premonitory mode, stocking cans of beans and tweaking delay pedals until the calm before the storm reaches a fever pitch. The band, in fact, is only Drew St. Ivany, whose solo guitar works are collected here for the first time. They offer a blueprint for his (and bassist Ben Armstrong’s) transition from NYC noise provocateurs Laddio Bolocko to the more blown-out aural antics of the Psychic Paramount.
So how did they get there? Noise and rhythm, delay pedals and loops, This Heat and Steve Reich, head trips and Freudian slips. The first track, “Solo Electric Guitar With Pre-Recorded Drums,” is a tittering homage to This Heat’s studio meditation Repeat — quivering guitar squalls push an icy drum loop beyond the point of comprehension, an underlying drone finally finds its way through a meat grinder. “Echo Air” hints at the current format, minus drums and bass; the propulsive discordance of the band is reduced to a single rollicking guitar line. Later, “Microphone” picks up where Reich left off, using the guitar as a rod to fish tones out of a pond of feedback.
These vignettes, happily incomplete, put proficiency into the service of the subconscious. The crux of The Psychic Paramount’s project is a masterful teasing of automatic composition into the realm of technical rapture, and Origins and Primitives takes listeners to the center of that world — at times lurid, hallucinatory and serene, at times a hundred other unknowable things at once.
November 16, 2006: Review of Jarvis Cocker’s Jarvis (Rough Trade)
Form precocious pop group; spend years trying to make it; shed art-rock pretenses; make it; attack a robed Michael Jackson on-stage, see record sales soar, have wax statue of yourself placed in London’s Rock Circus; become a cultural critic; struggle with cocaine addiction, tabloid exploitation, the specters of fame; make a couple bleak records, alienating your fan base, then put the band on hiatus; return under a wacky moniker, make guest appearances, contribute to Harry Potter soundtrack; finally, “return to form,” making an eclectic solo record with the penultimate line: “The working classes are obsolete…Let ‘em all kill each other, and get a maid overseas.”
This is the weirdly conventional story of Jarvis Cocker’s rise and fall. Jarvis, his not-quite-eponymous debut solo outing, is essentially a patchwork drawing from low and high points of his career – a quilt meant as a cover as well as an ornament.
Cocker’s brash behavior and audacious songs have always seemed like less of an act than those of his Britpop contemporaries – Cocker seems least at ease with stardom, but thrives most when ill at said ease. Pulp’s best songs chart ironic anecdotes of class trouble in the context of girls who want to screw Cocker (“Common People”), detachment and coming of age in relation to girls who have screwed Cocker (“Do You Remember the First Time?”), and melancholy tales of getting old alone and not caring all that much, as sung to the girl Cocker never got to screw (“Disco 2000”).
Cocker’s lithe lyricism and ability to make lines like “You were the first girl at school to get breasts / Martyn said that yours were the best” sound urgent and penetrating is his greatest attribute. On Jarvis, there are few such alchemical pleasures, but ample moments of gratification.
The lead-off rocker, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time,” is a bit of a didactic pronouncement from the world-weary Cocker, intended for a female friend – “The years fly by in an instant,” Cocker reveals, then turns to ad hominem: “Some skinny bitch walks by in hot pants and he’s running out the door.” The sound is wonderfully overblown, Cocker typically aloof, the main riff reeking of the Beatles.
From there, he lifts the melody of “Crimson & Clovers,” the 1969 psych-pop gem by Tommy James, for “Black Magic,” which is guided by a similar set of mundane observations and lifestyle recommendations. Billowy bass fuzz mirrors the antique guitar line until the song explodes into a lackadaisical pub sing-a-long: “Black Magic, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Here is Cocker’s power: the penchant to be most enthused about nothing so much as his own burnished sincerity, regardless of (or despite of) content.
Elsewhere, Cocker attempts to picture a post-Pulp world, trying out piano balladry with a nod toward Elton John, dramatic orchestral numbers in the vein of Andrew Lloyd Weber, even sweeping odes to escaping the strictures of the physical world in the spirit of Spiritualized. Cocker compares Western society to the Roman Empire over blithe electro-pop, reproves self-righteous “culture vultures” and “so-called artists” over a reverberant Western shuffle.
If these formal ventures prove Cocker’s musical prowess more than his sense of direction, it must be said that there are few songs he couldn’t turn into grand statements, few words he wouldn’t imbue with the weight of an anthem. “Running the World,” a political screed (and hidden track) should come across as shameless pastiche. But Cocker elevates it to the level of minor masterpiece. The chorus, “Cunts are still running the world,” is framed by a series of hilariously over-the-top remarks (“The cream cannot help but always rise up to the top, but I say ‘shit floats’”).
Surprisingly, this is the most rollicking song on the record. Cocker’s sonorous cries, always emphatic, are better fit for bemoaning class injustice and political conceit than the travails of lovers. He knows he’ll find another girl: the rhetoric of love is little more than an anti-politics, an alternative to its bourgeois image, all sentimentality and gift wrap. For this reason, you trust him when he gives orders: “The night belongs to lovers, so show some respect…stop being wrong.” Without denunciation, love falls short.
October 31, 2006: “Fear of Music: Halloween Special”
“As I walk all my life drifts before me
And though the end is near I’m not sorry
Catch my soul ‘cause its willing to fly away”
–Iron Maiden, “Hallowed Be Thy Name”
King Henry VIII: “Put them in the Iron Maiden.”
Bill and Ted: “Iron Maiden? Excellent!”
The mortal fear of death; the reconciliation of the mortal body and the transcendent soul; the questioning of divinity in light of earthly terror; the litany of monstrosities, mundane and surreal, paraded about on the eve during which, according to the Celtic tradition, the boundary separating the dead from the living at its most tenuous—surely if the 1980s had a St. John the Divine he was embodied by Iron Maiden, his word manifest in the image of the band’s mascot, Eddie, the long-haired Beast featured on t-shirts worldwide. That every teen movie produced between 1981 and 1988 was obliged to include a free spirited nihilist with the Beast emblazoned across his chest only attests to the pervasive influence of Iron Maiden’s ruminations on the point at which life ends and the chasm of eternity opens its jaws, ravenous.
“Hallowed Be Thy Name,” in particular, takes us from the Celtic Samhain, the last day of the light half of the year, to the Christian All Hallow’s Eve, a tradition born from the celebration of dead saints initiated by Pope Boniface IV in 609 while consecrating the Pantheon. Beyond that, violent collisions of power chords and ghastly wails, endless interlocking guitar solos, and the morose bells that inaugurate this contemplation of the narrator’s execution, all herald a brief glimpse at the Rapture.
The narrator recounts awaiting execution and reflecting on the incomprehensibility of one’s own death. After passing through the stages of disbelief, regret, madness, and anger at a seemingly absent God, he catches a glimpse of redemption, a premonition of the beyond that can only be compared to the visionary achievements of Milton and Dante:
“When you know that your time is close at hand
Maybe then you’ll begin to understand
Life down there is just a strange illusion.”
John predicts that the saints are the only ones who will not worship the beasts whose arrival will initiate the empire of the antichrist. And that empire will surely come: the dead believers will be resurrected, the earth will swell, scab, belch, vomit repeatedly, scrape the mutilated corpses of a thousand iBankers and puss-ridden visages of a thousand Hillary Clintons, tongues still wagging, from that ephemeral domain and send them to meet their makers. That “strange illusion” will be cleared up quite nicely.
It is that encounter between life and death, the fleeting image of existence on earth and the painfully interminable reality awaiting its closure, that defines Halloween. It is this morbidity we must encounter, however well disguised in the form of mummies, slutty nurses, Tinker Bells, sad-eyed child molesters, Hollywood Democrats. What does Iron Maiden teach us? Realize that all has been revealed, that redemption, in the form of the executioner’s blade, is not only an inevitability but a blessing—for those whose faith is true. You can cry out, you can kiss your loved ones, you can write a check to Barack Obama; but by that time, fuck it, you’re already dead.
December 13, 2006: “Salvation Is Yours If You Want It,” a year-end roundup
I spent the better part of this year struggling to hear my computer speakers above the din of traffic in Buenos Aires and then struggling to sleep past 8 thanks to the daily procession of high-school marching bands outside my window in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Other than that: fried meat, potatoes, high plains bus rides, Casa Real (excellent with ginger ale) and liters of Taquiña downed on the buckets, planks of wood and straw mats that constituted my furniture. Besides a number of traditional music festivals (all of which ended with hundreds of people passed out in whichever public square was serving the beer and grilled cow’s heart) most new music I got to hear was a bequest from friends or came creeping over my office’s internet connection at a maximum speed of 10K per second. (Before being reminded by a post on the Dusted listserv a few weeks ago, I think I had actually forgotten that Pitchfork exists.)
So, this list is largely bereft of the sort of first-hand knowledge of musical happenings that might inform music journalists, but totally reliant on the scant online sources and file-trading that actually inform most music writers – the sophistry of the blog trade without the burden of paying attention to blogs.
If only I could remember my own name
Brightblack Morning Light’s self-titled record is an embodiment of everything the bands of faux-naif forest freak currently terrorizing urban areas and music magazines aspire to, and a summation of all they might (but generally fail to) achieve. In other words, take David Crosby circa 1975, throw him in a tent on the coast of Northern California, trade the booze for ludes and weed and acid and mushrooms and Fender Twin amps, and see what happens. Or, for the skeptics among us, ignore the headbands and half-baked utopianism and heed of the opulent melodies. Neil Young’s Living With War provided a considerable footnote to the story of how leftist politics became a pitiful anachronism, and Brightback remade On the Beach, infusing alienation with a sense of stupid glee.
Arthur Russell’s Springfield, while not a monumental achievement in the context of his increasingly rich catalogue, is good enough as a reminder and an addendum. The record, which materialized when The DFA decided to ‘complete’ the last track recorded by the drone-disco cellist before his death, is a bit of a gambit. DFA patches together the previously unmixed song, remixes it, and throws in some rarities for good measure. The effect is more of an exhibit than an album, but wondrous nonetheless. First Thought Best Thought would be the exhibit’s antecedent, the beginning of Russell’s song cycle. These early demos and sketches contain the germinal sounds that birthed a heavenly garden. Between these two releases, we’re getting closer to a full-fledged cartography of Russell’s world, one that slips away upon further scrutiny, growing more and more complex with each magnification of the lens.
Japanese guitarist Hisato Higuchi’s Dialogue struck me as a similarly singular vision, a fog of plucked notes and hushed incantations floating off the end of the earth.
Behold the dark throne
Doom sprouted facial hair this year, signed up for a 401K plan, started considering the advantages of buying rather than renting. Southern Lord went from the cottage industry to dominating the global marketplace, and the boys even took the stacks international – Sunn 0))) collaborated with Boris on Altar, Stephen O’Malley met halfway with British laptop noise guru Pita (Peter Rehberg) on the remarkably subdued (and mature) KTL. That record shows O’Malley pushing glacial medievalism toward the Renaissance, trading awesome waves of distortion for delicate (even dainty) sprinklings of gloomy chords and figurative atmospherics. La Mort Noir dans Esch Alzette, a limited live offering from Sunn 0))), is a worthy documentation of the group’s moving shows.
Boris, on the other hand, made a break for the international arena rock circuit with the superb Pink. The year was also crowded with the band’s typically frenzied output of wonderfully packaged and unfortunately limited heavy rocks and howling drones, with the second and third volumes of The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked and the reissue of Dronevil, among many others.
Circle, the self-proclaimed kings of the New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal (NWFHM), toned down the riffage long enough to release Miljard, a fantastical collection of hazy out-folk marked by somber piano melodies, rattling bass strings, and, apparently, sticks hitting large bowls in cliff-side caverns to mark another successful year of rape and pillage.
File under dronescape
A number of records released this year punctuated the generally mundane, if pleasurable, crop of oceanic noise records that seem to be primarily influenced by the sound of dilapidated vinyl played through delay pedals. The British label Lampse led the way, unleashing two beautifully elegiac records of hissing, crackling and organs wailing: Dutch Machinefabriek’s Marjin and Swedish Jasper TX’s I’ll Be Long Gone Before My Light Reaches You.
Stateside, Tim Hecker continued his string of stellar records with Harmony in Ultraviolet, a typically evocative chiseling of digital noise and old world ambience.
Besides providing Shakira with Wyclef, America has made some decent contributions to the world of music, if not the world itself, in the last year. The three-disc anthology of Tom Waits rarities, Orphans, practically makes up for Guantanamo Bay. Throw in Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale and J Dilla’s Donuts and you get the sense the world should be apologizing to Americans for making us feel bad about ourselves.
(Read this interview with Robert Wyatt:
The members of Liars had to move to Berlin to make Drum’s Not Dead, a meticulously recorded paean to rhythm couched in the story of two competing elements, Drum and Mount Heart Attack.
The Chinese continued to push Tibet closer and closer to oblivion and no one seemed to care a whole lot – one of the nicer relics will certainly be Volume 2 of Sub Rosa’s Tibetan and Bhutanese Instrumental and Folk Music, which rephrases devotion as hallucination across two discs of daunting gongs, sonorous horns, and other sounds that might move mountains.
There were some wars, some elections, a few plagues, murmuring about an imminent environmental catastrophe, habeas corpus lost a little bit of its luster, and people generally got on with things. Also, Jackass 2 came out. Redemption is real.
January 10, 2005: “Destined: Skeletons”
Matt Mehlan is on a break from work at an Apple store in a mall outside Chicago, where he is surrounded by “really tan people in the middle of winter. Sweatpants and New Balance shoes, dudes with necklaces that say ‘The Boss.’” The other official members of Skeletons – Johnny Misheff, Severiano Martinez, Jason McMahon and Carson Garhart – are dispersed throughout the Midwest and Northeast. “When everybody has new tracks we sit around and play them for each other and talk about how good they are,” Mehlan says with a laugh, describing the irregular meetings between friends. “It’s like when you get new presents for Christmas and call up all your friends and tell them what you got.”
Skeletons was born from the womb of Oberlin, Ohio, and has been making (for lack of a better term) experimental electronic pop music for a few years now. The band, originally Mehlan’s brainchild, has found a sound, but haven’t quite mastered it yet. Skeletons’ consistently inconsistent releases come lovingly produced and packaged by hand, courtesy of in-house record label Shinkoyo, which operates somewhere between a collective and a cottage industry. Mehlan describes the results as “junkyard greeting card treasure and not trash-can trash,” though this may be subject to change with the release of a 12” single and subsequent full-length on the stalwart electronic label Ghostly International this summer.
Skeletons’ first two records, Life and the Afterbirth and I’m at the Top of the World(recently made available at www.shinkoyo.com), reconnoiter avant-pop territory, letting loose noise-damaged funk on computer-enabled precision. GIT, which will be released by Ghostly in conjunction with Shinkoyo, adds additional layers of skewed citation, resurrecting Michael Jackson-esque synth work, flirting with Stevie Wonder’s ghost, incorporating some non-Western percussive elements, and filtering the result through an ethos of communal improvisation.
Mehlan’s self-aware, but rarely overbearing lyrics drift over the bits of electronic and organic percussion, flotsam extracted from the shipwreck between childhood and post-adolescence. Terse confessionals are spoken in a language that breaches the boundaries between sincerity and irony, witticism and playful naivety. On the title track of GIT: “Girl, if you leave / don’t wake me up / I got a lot of things to do but I’m not gonna / I got nightmares / I got favors to return.” Enunciation at times trumps any original sentiment, but Skeletons’ output seems emotionally ambivalent rather than vacant. On Life and the Afterbirth, lush vocal harmonies precede the record’s most and least revealing line: “If you give me a chance I’d like to / fuck away your memory / fuck away mistakes I made.”
Though Skeletons’ music betrays a discreet architecture, it is also imbued with a sense of freedom and whimsy that recalls some (imaginary) shared experience of boyhood, owing as much to the band’s recording process as the relationship between members. Mehlan composes the framework of each song, then others record additional tracks. On GIT, “People laid down tracks that would take the song in a completely different direction,” Mehlan recalls, which “forces you to reevaluate where you thought the song was going.”
Skeletons might be called the flagship Shinkoyo band, though the label itself is more of a collective imagination for its geographically dispersed members, an ongoing collaborative project that regularly spews forth releases that fall somewhere in the miasmatic region between noise and finely tuned electronic abstraction. “We live vicariously through each other,” Mehlan says, regarding the label’s diverse output. “By having one person doing the out-est noise shit it satisfies someone else’s desire for that, especially if they’re doing something that’s more ‘in.’” Skeletons sounds like the exception; or, at least, an aesthetic anchor around which the label’s activities revolve.
With members and associates – mostly artists and audio engineers – now in Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Berlin, Skeletons’ recorded material is marked by a feeling of dislocation, a sense of its contributors being “on the fringes,” Mehlan observes, not necessarily living or working in any easy or permanent community. As well as producing “stranger, more interesting and lonelier results,” the distance gives live shows the feeling of a reunion, a collective paroxysm halfway between a party – friends singing along and playing extraneous percussive instruments – and a recital, with tightly orchestrated songs allowing space for exuberant improvisation.
The idea of getting together in one place sometime in the future is always attractive, prohibitive rents aside. “We’d all like to have a place for wild shows and parties and recording and jamming…someday.” For now, Mehlan says, “We’ve got a ton of amazing unreleased music and projects and crafts and art and we want to keep showing it to people in the weirdest most special way.”
January 10, 2007: “‘Apocalypto’ and Its Discontents”
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto opens with a quote from historian Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it destroys itself from within.” In his ongoing quest to create an ultra-violent genealogy of the corruption of humankind, from Jerusalem to New England, Scotland to Ancient Mayan civilization, Gibson might also be guided by German proto-fascist thinker Julius Langbehn. “The real source of individuality was theVolk or the community,” Langbehn argued in Rembrandt as Educator (1890), pondering Germany’s decay, “and only by restoring it, if necessary through compulsion, could freedom and greatness be achieved.”
Paramount among Gibson’s recurrent themes is the idealization of simple, homogenous communities threatened by power-hungry outsiders armed with advanced weaponry and infected by the plague of modernity. Gibson’s settings are, for the most part, battlefields on which this competition plays out. As in Braveheart, Apocalypto effectively hijacks history in order to reinvent the battle -scene-cum-car-race blockbuster. And, in each, the effect is mesmerizing, although ultimately confused. Braveheart’s shires and New Age bagpipe soundtrack might as well be Apocalypto’s rainforests and New Age chant soundtrack. Apocalypto’s Mayan civilization has been stripped of historical specificity—despite vague prophecies uttered by elders, towering steppe pyramids, indecipherable rites and immaculately painted and pierced faces, Gibson is far more interested in parable than ethnography. This is a story about ourselves.
Apocalypto’s basic storyline is as follows: a serene village is ruthlessly attacked by a contemptible clan of mercenaries, who capture its inhabitants and march them to the urban center. The women are to be slaves and the men sacrificed to the gods. Like most critics of modernity, Gibson portrays the city as grotesque, decadent, ruled by greed and populated by debased masses. (The captured villagers, who have never seen the city, speak of a “stone-built place where the earth bleeds.”)
The protagonist, Jaguar Paw, manages to avoid being sacrificed, then kills the son of his original captor while attempting to escape the city. The father, a fierce warrior with an inimitable bloodlust. Thus begins a chase scene that takes up the rest of the film: the bloodthirsty father (“I will peel his skin and have him watch me wear it”) and his cadre trail Jaguar Paw relentlessly through the forest as he races to save his wife and child—he lowered them into a deep dry well for safekeeping during the attack but, it being the rainforest, the well doesn’t stay dry for long.
With Apocalypto Gibson has, undoubtedly, established himself as a “serious” filmmaker, for what it’s worth. The film is replete with expert action sequences, dramatic evocations of a world beyond our own, masterfully wrought scenes of tenderness and terror, as well as a bevy of metaphysical ruminations. Apocalypto further distinguishes him as a visionary filmmaker of the conventional variety, one who estranges the usual Hollywood mechanisms in the service of revelation.
Where Gibson runs into trouble—on the highway in Malibu and in the theaters—is his courtship of a peculiar sort of ideology sketched out by Langbehn. Epic jungle chase scenes aside, Apocalypto is essentially a meditation on what Gibson sees as the current putrefaction of Western civilization. Langbehn and his acolytes understood modernity as the trading of communal life for individual life, the betrayal of history, culture, nation and religion. The individual is immersed in a great mass of identical men whose only communal experience is that of a fragmented, alienating reality. Gibson gives shape to this nightmare: thousands of fearful Mayans gather at the base of a pyramid where their manipulative rulers are sacrificing captured villagers to placate the gods and stem the decay of their own society.
Apocalypto’s revelatory moment comes at the finale of the jungle chase: Jaguar Paw, exhausted and wounded, breaks through the edge of the jungle with his two remaining pursuers only a few feet behind. The camera faces him as he falls to his knees on the sand; surprisingly, the two warriors do the same. A minute passes before the camera pans right, revealing the Spanish armada anchored just off the coast. Jaguar Paw collects himself and walks away, while the two urban Mayans saunter toward the shore to greet their undoing. Later, as he and his family survey the scene, Jaguar Paw’s wife asks if they should meet and greet the newcomers. He tells his wife it is better to turn away from the beach and return to the forest, promising “a new beginning.”
Following Rousseau, who stirred the Romantic imagination by describing harmonious primitive societies and condemning modern individuals who “smile contemptuously at such old names as patriotism and religion, and consecrate their talents and philosophy to the destruction and defamation of all that men hold sacred,” Langbehn suggested that society’s redemption could be achieved through a return to more primitive forms, a wholesale rejection of modernity. Germans could will themselves back to the perfect unity of village life, complete with home-brewed beer and a prudent patriarchy. This dream, like most, was an invention of the mind based on a subversion or perversion of reality (and history). Rousseau lamented the corruption of man but suggested the social contract as a reconciliation of an idealized past and an inescapable present, admitting the impossibility of returning to an age before reason and politics predominated.
With Apocalypto, Gibson seems to recognize that the march of progress cannot be reversed, the past cannot be salvaged, history is not malleable, one cannot simply return to the forest. In Gibson’s previous films there is always one man who transcends the whole, a savior. Here, messianic tendencies give way to prophetic pessimism: the savior can only hope to save himself and his family, and only until the next catastrophe befalls a society on its last legs. There are no new beginnings.
November 29, 2006: “Race and Images in Bolivia”
An Aymara shaman doles out coca leaves to campesinos , exhorts them to participate in the re-founding of the Bolivian state, then calmly strides back into the lake from which he emerged. A whimsical animation depicting the creation of man and woman by Pachamama (Mother Earth) plays over an artfully abstracted scene of a ritual offering in an indigenous village. Finally, interviews with social movement leaders interwoven with footage of uprisings in 2000 and 2003 document the defeat of multinationals attempting to privatize the country’s water supply and the expulsion of a President bowing to IMF demands that he increase taxes on the country’s poor.
In Bolivia, the revolution is taking pains to be televised. The above film, ¿Ahora de Quien Es La Verdad? (Now Whose Is the Truth?), is a 2006 production of the La Paz-based Cinematography Education and Production Center (CEFREC), which has been providing resources and training for indigenous communities in Bolivia to make their own films since 1986. Members of those communities are the foundation of leftist social movements that overthrew the government in 2003 and made Evo Morales Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005. (CEFREC has no formal ties to Morales or his Movement Toward Socialism party.)
Though sixty percent of the population here counts itself as indigenous—mostly Aymara, Quechua and Guarani—soap operas, billboards, magazines and popular films are uniformly blanched, rarely showing indigenous people outside the realm of protest and poverty. If popular media offer ideal social images, the Bolivian model is assimilation (and exclusion for those who refuse it).
Iván Sanjinés, the forty-year-old son of Bolivia’s most prominent director, Jorge Sanjinés, founded CEFREC to provide the country’s historically oppressed indigenous groups the means to tell their own stories and “manage their own images.” Films like ¿Ahora de Quien Es La Verdad? aim to counteract the hegemony of imposed Western visual discourses without asserting a vision of a singular indigenous alternative to replace it.
If anything, CEFREC productions are visually and thematically multifarious, an achievement that reflects the group’s filmmaking practice: thirty members work with indigenous communities in order to create work tailored specifically to their needs, addressing the issues confronting them. The result is an anomalous amalgamation of autoethnography, documentary, myth, narrative and landscape. There is no director or production hierarchy, a gesture meant to mirror the traditional organization of Bolivia’s indigenous communities and to combat the idea, propagated by early ethnographic work and current popular media, that indigenous people within a certain area are more or less the same.
In fact, communication between Latin and Central America’s diverse indigenous populations, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, only began in earnest following the landmark Quito conference in 1990. That meeting of hundreds of delegates from twenty countries called for collaboration between indigenous groups to establish self-determination and social equality 500 years after “the invasion of our peoples by European empires.” As the success of CEFREC has mirrored a left turn in Bolivia, the rise of indigenous concerns from the back burner to the fore of national politics across the Americas has been reflected (and stoked) by the emergence of similar groups, from Chirapaq in Peru to Chiapas Media Project in Mexico to One Sky Productions, which supports indigenous filmmakers in Ecuador,
In the United States and Canada, decades-old film production movements in Native American and Inuit communities have exploded into the mainstream with acclaimed films like Smoke Signals (1998) and The Fast Runner (2001). Smithsonian’s Native Networks project has spearheaded the effort to hold film festivals dedicated to the work of indigenous filmmakers, which have facilitated dialogue among and between historically isolated populations. Sanjinés maintains that CEFREC productions are primarily for communication between indigenous groups scattered across the Americas—CEFREC now produces about twenty films each year in Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Ecuador—but a recent tour through four major Bolivian cities, which included narratives approaching feature length, hints at a broader target audience.
Renacer (To Be Reborn), the narrative feature, follows a ranch-hand named Roberto as he struggles to survive after being callously fired by his racist boss when a horse-riding accident leaves him temporarily disabled. Other recent productions include documentaries on a community-run radio station in the tumultuous coca-growing region of Chapare; the history of the indigenous rights movement in the Andean countries; and the devastation of indigenous lands by foreign gas and mining corporations.
Since the 1980s, Sanjinés has recognized that issues surrounding the status of Bolivia’s indigenous population had to be communicated visually. For most of Bolivia’s modern history, Sanjinés asserts, “Nobody saw or heard indigenous people in the media, except for a few rural radio stations.” In Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, the digital divide is still more about access to traditional media like television and radio than internet; video has proved to be a powerful tool in bridging that divide and drawing attention to, if not yet mending, the social chasm which underlies it. “The more these issues are put out in the open,” Sanjinés hopes, “and the more powerfully they are addressed, the closer we come to finding solutions for these problems, which are the same for all Bolivians.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/ASAP
December 7, 2006: “Not Cocaine, but Made from Coca”
“Coca, coca, coca!”
The Aymara women beckoned from beneath a golden tent in a corner of Plaza de Alonso Mendoza, elbow-deep in towering burlap sacks filled with emerald leaves. Around them, other tents housed pyramids of honey-stuffed coca wafers and bottles of coca shampoo.
Cristobal Benavides, a 32-year-old Peruvian with a frayed ponytail, condor earrings and a “Coma-Coca” (“Eat-Coca”) T-shirt, encouraged me to rub my arm with a coca-based ointment for “increased mental health and vigor.” Other vendors hawked coca bread, cookies, candy, frosted cake and other comestibles; coca-infused alcohol, reminiscent of tequila crossed with lemon liqueur; ointments and medicine to treat gastritis, hemorrhoids, fungus, gout, arthritis and diabetes.
The only thing missing was the Evo Cola, a coca-infused soft drink inspired by Bolivian President Evo Morales that should be on the market sometime next year.
The Fourth Annual Coca and Sovereignty Fair, sponsored by the government and a host of advocacy groups, provided a public showcase for the latest industrial coca products. Though the plant is better known as the source of cocaine, coca has long been sacred to Bolivia’s many indigenous groups for its palliative and therapeutic properties.
Coca, then and now
Coca leaves have been found in the hands of mummies buried over 4,000 years ago. And in the mines of Potosi, Bolivia, Spanish overlords doled out the plant to slave laborers, who chewed it to stave off hunger and endure inhumane conditions. They worked up to 40 hours without sleeping.
Today, construction workers, taxi drivers and farmers pack their mouths with wads of leaves to stave off hunger, stay awake and make physical labor more bearable. Coca tea, the most widely consumed derivative of the plant, is even recommended by the U.S. Embassy to alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness.
“The leaf produces so much more than the drug,” says Nora Chambilla, a 35-year-old Bolivian selling orange and banana cakes made with coca flour. She hopes the fair proves that “coca products offer so much more than the leaf,” and notes that her mother has eaten the cakes for 20 years to ease the pain of diabetes.
Coca and the world
Morales, an Aymara Indian, cut his political teeth battling the U.S.-led war on drugs as a coca growers union leader. He campaigned on the slogan, “Yes to coca, no to cocaine.”
Since Morales took office last December, this poverty-stricken nation has embarked on a campaign to manufacture and trade a variety of coca products on the foreign market. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Morales ally, recently provided $1 million for research on the benefits of coca and for construction of two factories to manufacture coca products.
The Bolivian government expects to make the first major shipments of coca products to Cuba and Venezuela by the end of the year. China, Argentina and India have also expressed interest in importing coca tea.
But the government and coca merchants face a major hurdle: Since the U.N.’s passage of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, all illicit manufacture and trafficking of derivatives of the coca bush, including frosted cake and hemorrhoid ointment, have been illegal.
A clause in the convention permits “the use of coca leaves for the preparation of a flavoring agent” — an exception made for the benefit of Coca-Cola, which has used elements of the plant in its secret formula since 1886 and continues to buy coca imported by a third party from Peru under a special deal with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
At the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, Morales brandished a coca leaf he had smuggled into the country above the rostrum and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy. “This is the coca leaf,” he said. “It is green, and not white like cocaine.”
But the reality of coca isn’t that simple.
In Washington, where Morales was once referred to as a “narco-terrorist,” senior officials have expressed dissatisfaction with Bolivia’s eradication efforts and are threatening to repeal trade preferences. Morales, in turn, has said the U.S. should focus on curtailing demand in its own country and has denounced the war on drugs as “blackmail” and an attempt at “re-colonization.”
Despite this, in the first week of November, the Bolivian press reported on an agreement between the two countries to build a military base to curb trafficking in Bolivia’s Yungas region.
Economics and law
Jorge Hurtado, the government’s counselor on coca affairs, is spearheading what he calls the “huge enterprise” of developing international markets for coca products and removing the plant from the U.N. convention. He says it’s unlikely Bolivia will be able to convince U.N. member states of the feasibility of Morales’ “Yes to coca, no to cocaine” mantra when the convention comes up for amendment at the 2008 meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Council.
Most experts agree that “coca was mistakenly included as a dangerous substance” by the U.N., says Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. Youngers laments that subsequent studies recommending coca be removed from the list, “including a major effort by the World Health Organization in the 1990s, have been consistently squashed by the U.S. government.”
“We are fighting 500 years of disinformation,” stresses Hurtado, Bolivia’s foremost coca expert.
A gregarious psychiatrist, Hurtado can detail coca’s chemical properties and quote an indigenous legend chronicling the plant’s divine origin in the same breath. He’s been working to amend the U.N. convention for over a quarter century.
“I don’t think we have a very good chance this time,” he says, “but in the coming years we will.”
The effort echoes the work of industrial hemp advocates in the U.S. In California last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have rejected the federal government’s position and established clear guidelines for farming industrial hemp.
Because the cannabis sativa plant is classified as a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it is illegal for U.S. farmers to grow industrial hemp, which contains trace amounts of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — and is used in a variety of food, body care and industrial products. Domestic retail sales of such products, which can be purchased legally, exceeded $270 million last year.
While any coca-fueled economic windfall in Bolivia is years away, the cultural symbolism of exporting coca was palpable at the fair. Jacinta Mamaní, a 43-year-old member of the Regional Federation of Chamaca, a coca growers union, believes exporting coca products will help expose people to indigenous cultures that have been historically repressed.
“We believe that coca needs to be known internationally, as medicine and as culture,” she asserted at the fair as she packed leaves of organically grown “ecological coca” into translucent green bags.
“Coca is the force of Andean culture,” said Oscar Gabriel, who displayed his hand-crafted guitars inlaid with images of coca leaves and Mother Earth.
“In America, they know nothing of our culture — to them coca is only a drug. Banning coca is like outlawing corn for American Indians if you found out that a drug could be made with it.”
August 23, 2006: “Indigenous Film and Politics in Bolivia”
The shaman emerges from a crystalline lake, bedecked in dazzling tapestries, a headband, and a number of colorful coca pouches. He rises from the water, approaching a young Quechua girl dressed in a sweat shirt and jeans and studying a pamphlet about the elections for Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly (which took place on July 2).
After introducing himself, the shaman proceeds to narrate a brief history of the tumultuous last two decades in Bolivia, as told through scenes of popular uprisings, coups d’etat, and marches for indigenous rights. Having conveyed to the girl and her mother the newfound opportunities for indigenous people to participate in the Bolivian state and shape their own destinies, he doles out coca leaves and strides back into the lake.
It’s a scene from the film, “Now Who Has the Truth?” produced by an indigenous crew under the auspices of the La Paz-based Cinematography Education and Production Center (CEFREC). It was shown along with other CEFREC productions in Bolivia’s four largest cities on a two-month “Road to the Constituent Assembly” tour that ended in Santa Cruz on July 20.
CEFREC has been training indigenous communities in Bolivia to make their own films since 1986, and now has operations in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Ecuador. Ivan Sanjines, the 40-year-old son of Bolivia’s most famous director, Jorge Sanjines, started CEFREC during the rise of the indigenous-rights movement.
While the projects he worked on with his father highlighted the struggles faced by indigenous populations, the younger Sanjines wanted to give these people the resources and training to “manage their own images” and tell their own stories.
A Group and Its Mission
CEFREC’s thirty members work with indigenous groups across the country to plan and produce over 20 films each year. The results mix ethnography, documentary, myth, narrative and landscape to create sophisticated and unusual films that benefit from a traditional storytelling approach and a unique, if amateurish, approach to the camera.
According to Sanjines, CEFREC is supported entirely by grants and the communities hosting the productions, working completely independently from the Bolivian government and President Evo Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS.
“Our job is to engage indigenous organizations,” Sanjines asserts, explaining that CEFREC’s contact with MAS is limited to “the fact that several of these organizations have given life to that which is MAS today.”
Justice Minister Casimira Rodriguez, a member of MAS, confirmed that there’s no relationship between CEFREC and the government. Though she was not familiar with CEFREC’s work, she did state MAS’s support for efforts by indigenous groups to “write their own history” through film production.
Politics and Screenings
In the past few months, Bolivia has been engaged in a fierce election campaign, which highlighted regional tensions between the poor highlands, where Quechua and Aymara people predominate, and relatively wealthy and white eastern lowlands. On July 2, these oil-rich provinces voted for greater political autonomy and voiced their objection to socialist President Evo Morales’s pledges to redistribute land and nationalize resources.
The issue, in Sanjines’ words: “To live better or to live well.”
“The wealthier provinces are able to live better,” he says, while most Bolivians are lucky just to get by. But he noted that many indigenous populations, neglected by the federal government for hundreds of years, are also clamoring for greater autonomy.
The CEFREC tour, which featured multiple days of screenings and forums in La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, gave indigenous filmmakers the opportunity to show how their communities are responding to these issues.
In Cochabamba, indigenous activists, students, local filmmakers and foreigners from international organizations watched the films intently. The lights came on, and the debate began. One filmmaker quietly extolled the benefits of digital technology; a Guarani man in wide-brimmed hat and a purple striped poncho harangued the audience for twenty minutes on the virtues of land reform.
An elderly woman in the audience criticized CEFREC’s treatment of Catholicism (one scene in “Now Who Has the Truth?” flashes back to the colonial era, where a raving monk denounces indigenous beliefs and savagely beats Bolivians with a cross until they accept Jesus). A young student asked how the Constituent Assembly might pass the reforms being demanded by the filmmakers while avoiding regional conflict stemming from the autonomy debate.
For most of Bolivia’s recent history, such debates were rare, Sanjines notes: “Nobody saw or heard indigenous people in the media, except for a few rural radio stations.”
Now, while those voices are increasingly common, they are also being homogenized by Morales’s MAS party, which has been criticized for shutting out Bolivia’s social movements in its effort to speak for all indigenous groups.
In contrast to electoral politics, Sanjines describes CEFREC’s films as “genuine collective expressions, not individual projects.”
The films have different aims and different structures. Some are didactic, others feature narratives. Here are a few recent ones:
– “A New Country, a New Road.” This juxtaposes a fictionalized account of peasants discussing politics while pushing a horse-drawn carriage along a dirt road, with interviews of activists and politicians, as well as scenes from the notorious Black February uprisings in 2003.
– “Land and Territory.” A film that documents the devastation of indigenous lands by foreign mining and gas companies, including Enron subsidiary Transredes. In 2000, a burst pipeline dumped 30,000 barrels of crude oil into the Desaguadero river, destroying the livelihood of the Uru Morato tribe. Distraught villagers recall the contamination of waterways, death of livestock, damage to crops, widespread illness and insufficient compensation for residents.
– “To Be Reborn.” This is a narrative that tracks a few months in the life of a ranch-hand named Roberto who is badly injured while driving cattle. When he is unable to work the next day, the merciless rancher fires him and throws him out. He collapses on the road toward town, but is resuscitated and nursed to health by a local family which then welcomes him as a part of their village and employs him in the banana fields. Later, when Roberto tries to file a claim against the rancher in town, the rancher becomes furious and shoots him in the back.
August 2, 2006: “Watching Jesus Rise, Twice an Hour”
Twin girls no taller than Jesus’ chest squeal with delight, fingers pointed at the figure of the Son of God being lashed by a Roman soldier a few feet away.
Across the dusty courtyard from Pontius Pilate’s administrative complex, Jesus crouches pathetically inside a minuscule prison cell. Elsewhere, Jesus is betrayed, crucified, condemned, worshipped. His head is crowned with thorns, his dead body cradled by the Virgin Mary. And twice every hour he is resurrected — all 50 feet of him.
At Tierra Santa, billed as “Jerusalem in Buenos Aires,” Jesus is quite literally everywhere. And the faithful come in droves, with 10,000 visitors on Easter weekend alone and more than 2.5 million since the park opened in 1999.
It is a Holy Land made almost entirely of plastic, from the camels to the temples to Jesus himself. The effect approximates the original “Batman” TV show, with the surf-rock theme replaced by choral music and Arab dirges blaring from speakers hidden in fake palm trees.
Costumed sentinels (security guards) mingle with tourists guided by robed men and women through the history of the savior’s days in Jerusalem. Arab vendors peddle keffiyehs and ceramics in the park’s souk.
From the top of Mount Olive, where Jesus is permanently nailed to the cross, you can glimpse a disused water park. Planes from the adjacent airport roar overhead every couple minutes, tactlessly reminding visitors which century they are in.
God in 3D
Buenos Aires does not seem like a crucify-Jesus-every-hour-on-the-hour sort of city. The Argentine capital is better known for attracting plastic surgery vacationers and steak connoisseurs than religious pilgrims, and while it is predominantly Roman Catholic, few attend Mass regularly.
Tierra Santa’s mastermind, Fernando Pugliese, is a plastic artist whose studio has also worked on bars and discotheques in Buenos Aires. Though he is simply a religiously inclined entrepreneur, the park has received the imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church.
Edgardo Conta, who is 30 and has been working as a guide at Tierra Santa for six years, says visitors are often moved to tears by the scenes from the Passion.
“People are trying to seek transcendence, something higher than themselves,” Conta says. “They see that the world is so materialistic and come here as an escape.”
Yet it’s the machinery of popular culture that activates Tierra Santa’s transcendence, a fusion of Disneyland’s interactive landscape and Hieronymus Bosch’s histrionics.
This is nothing new — Roman Catholics have used icons to connect with God for 2,000 years. Across the globe, religions are wielding popular culture to lure followers, whether that means rock music in church; T-shirts with cheeky Christian slogans; or theme parks like the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla., Israel’s prospective Holy Land Christian Center for Evangelical tourists, and Gangadham, a Hindu park scheduled to open on the banks of the Ganges in 2007.
Even the Marians, the Catholic sect that disavows the Vatican II decision to allow the Mass to be conducted in languages other than Latin, hope to welcome modernity by opening Marianland in League City, Texas. The theme park will feature a cinema dedicated to screening Marian Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in glorious 3D.
Still, until recently it would have been hard to imagine the famously doctrinaire Roman Catholic Church lending its brand to a theme park with effigies memorializing Martin Luther, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi in the same courtyard.
He Is Risen
Sitting on the faux-limestone bleachers that offer the best view of the resurrection, 61-year-old Esther Martina says she and her friends are not quite sure why they have come, or why others flock here.
“Because they like it, that’s why they come here,” she shrugs, slightly exasperated. She and her friends have attended Mass every week since childhood. “We’re not learning anything new,” she says. “We’ve known about everything here for all our lives, but we come here.”
Conversation ceases as the resurrection begins, a hush falling over the suddenly rapt crowd. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus blares from the palm tree speakers as a colossal head emerges from Mount Olive.
Sculpted hair falls to His shoulders, rigidly extended arms forming a perfect cross. A sparkling pink heart is affixed to the chest of His white robe. Eyes open deliberately — He is risen.
Members of the audience snap photos, pray, cross themselves, giggle awkwardly. Jesus turns His head like an owl from left to right and the string section crescendos: “Haaaaall-elujah! Haaaaall-elujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hall-eeeee-loooohhh-yaaaahhhh!”
Then horns fall mute, chorus retires, halo blinks off and Jesus descends. The crowd disperses until the next resurrection, at 6:45. Martina and her friends sit still for a few moments, visibly impressed, then continue on to witness the animatronic reenactment of the Last Supper.
In the Seventh Minute
From atop a plastic camel, Joel Nicolas Caseoli, an 8-year-old from Guernica, Argentina, says he likes Tierra Santa better than Church because “they have a lot of games here.”
His mother asks what he has learned today. “Jesus was a baby, and he even wore diapers,” he says.
If all the schisms and Papal Bulls are lost in the fray, at least the Creation will remain lucid, thanks to the lasers.
Tierra Santa manages to reduce the six days of God’s work to a vigorous 20-minute spectacle, and it begins with emerald lasers shining from the dark recesses of a manmade cave, forming a penumbra of light — the world before it was the world.
A deep, Godly voice fills the room, where 200 people are seated on bleachers. Deafening claps of thunder shake the stage as the narrator recounts the emergence of light and the fashioning of the sky. Stars materialize, then water, plants and animals.
Finally, the sixth day: two perfect plastic figures appear front and center, loins neatly covered. Adam and Eve swivel from side to side, trumpets blare, spectral lights flash, a gorilla beats its chest in celebration. Gradually, the music fades out, the stage darkens, and a fluorescent light is switched on.
Visitors snap pictures of the Biblical panorama on their way out and, until the next show, God takes a rest.
October 2006: “The Humanist in Hany Abu-Assad”
The setting is Kalandia, a checkpoint in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers barely out of their teens patrol a ramshackle collection of barbed wire fences, concrete barriers and metal gates. From bleak watchtowers atop the infamous security wall, snipers survey the throngs of Palestinians that gather each day to pass between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It is summer, and a forty-year-old Palestinian filmmaker has his hands pressed against a blistering concrete wall, along with fifty other men. They are detained for two hours, searched one by one, and eventually released without explanation—no longer a threat.
This scene is not from one of writer and director Hany Abu-Assad’s films, but from his own life. “You’re physically suffering, standing as the sun burns your face, and you don’t dare to do anything, because if you do something the soldiers might kill you,” remembers Abu-Assad, now forty-four. “That humiliation lets you feel how impotent you are, how small and cowardly. Because you love life,” he posits, “you don’t dare to protest against the degrading treatment.” Following this incident and a number of others in which Abu-Assad was threatened at gunpoint, interrogated, or denied entry to Israel, he found himself conjuring revenge scenarios. He imagined ways of redeeming the impotence he had felt. He thought of suicide bombers.
“I can imagine that the other guys in the same line as me don’t have the same outlet,” cannot use film to express the daily deprivations suffered under Israeli occupation, “and see that there is no political solution to this suffering.” At what point does the quality of one’s life sink to such a level that he begins to love death? With an automatic weapon trained on his head for no apparent reason other than the fact that he is a Palestinian, it was not difficult for Abu-Assad to comprehend how the young men who wait for hours at checkpoints across the occupied territories each day to see family members or, if they are lucky, go to work, “could reach the conclusion that by becoming a suicide bomber, they can overcome that fear, that love of life, and kill their cowardice.” In doing so, they might also “make the other side feel impotent, because they can’t protect their families, either.”
Four years later, Abu-Assad, who was born in the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth but has lived in Amsterdam since 1981, had turned his ruminations on death as a last resort to combat the degradation of life into Paradise Now. The film follows two Palestinian friends for a day as they prepare to blow themselves up on a bus in Tel Aviv, and has earned acclaim and condemnation in Israel and the occupied territories, as well as the rest of the world. Among other commendations, it won the Golden Globe and Independent Spirit awards for best foreign film, and was nominated for an Oscar in the same category. The Oscar nomination incited protests in Israel, where major cinema chains refused to play the film and families of victims of suicide bombings gathered 32,000 signatures on a petition to kick the film out of competition for glorifying terrorism. Palestinian critics have called Paradise Now both a “masterpiece” and an “apology for the West.”
Ironically, the divided response owes much to Abu-Assad’s resistance to the politics of divisiveness. Pity, vilification, and sensationalism tend to dominate representations of Palestinian life under occupation.
Despite its political overtones, Paradise Now is no polemic. Abu-Assad, who studied and worked as an engineer before writing and directing his first short in 1992, is primarily concerned with understanding the circumstances that convince Palestinians their only refuge is in violence. Said and Khaled, the main characters of Paradise Now, are skinny, handsome and modern, sporting light beards and tight pants, working dead-end jobs at an auto shop. They fix cars, smoke sheesha on a hill overlooking the city. Khaled teases Said about Suha, a woman who has been coming to see him at the shop (and who will later try to convince him against carrying out the bombing). They talk about the occupation.
As they are climbing through a hole in the fence dividing the West Bank and Israel, a car approaches and the friends panic. Khaled runs back toward Nablus, where he begins to have second thoughts. Said runs the opposite direction, into Israel. Eventually, Said finds himself at a bus stop outside Tel Aviv; he waits anxiously for a bus to come, absently fingering the trigger to his belt of explosives, unable to decide where his eyes should focus. The bus arrives, carrying children, farmers and a number of fresh-faced Israeli soldiers. Said stands helplessly before the door, a new suit hanging awkwardly from his frame, curly locks and beard freshly shaven for the mission. He locks eyes with the driver, hesitates, and the bus moves on without him.
Abu-Assad’s characters cannot be reduced to a single traumatic episode or political motivation, are not merely martyrs or terrorists. They are undeniably human, filtering the experiences of occupation without being dominated by them; it is the notion of being reduced to the status of an object, being left without any real choices, that turns them to violence. Though they are physically transformed in order to slip into Israel unnoticed–given haircuts, plain black suits, and explosive belts–one gets the sense that little has changed, that Said and Khaled might just as well go back to work the next day.
Said and Khaled embody the fears of many Israelis, but leave viewers little choice but to empathize with that embodiment. “I humanize all my characters in the same why—by understanding that they are human,” Abu-Assad explains. “To reduce them into a representation of an entire society harms both the society and the character.” Filming in the West Bank city of Nablus during the second intifada in 2002, this philosophy became a liability. Rival militant factions, Fatah politicians, and the Israeli Defense Forces were keenly interested in the film’s narrative, and had all read the screenplay before granting Abu-Assad permission to film. The presence of a film crew piqued the curiosity of Nablus residents, too—Abu-Assad says he couldn’t go to the grocery store without being quizzed about the script.
One militant faction considered the film hostile to the Palestinian cause because it fails to portray the violence of the occupation in detail, and fails to represent Israelis as oppressors. Another faction agreed but supported the production on grounds of free speech, even providing armed guards to defend the crew. The first faction was not convinced, and eventually kidnapped the crew’s location manager. It took Yassir Arafat’s personal intervention to free him. A short time later, amidst Israeli rocket attacks and the desertion of six technicians, Abu-Assad relented and moved the production to Nazareth.
“We are always using reality,” Abu-Assad asserts. “But the moment the camera rolls you are changing reality to celluloid—to a story, a picture. This moment is magical, and if you lose yourself in it, it’s a very special moment.” Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding, Abu-Assad’s first feature, benefit from a constant repetition of that moment, taking place in the gray area between one world and another, the real West Bank and the fiction written to describe it. Abu-Assad is currently revising the screenplay for his next project, L.A. Cairo, which will trade the militant factions and checkpoints of the West Bank for the Starbucks and boardwalks of southern California. When asked how such a stark shift in setting might alter his work, Abu-Assad responds, “I hope I can always reach this moment in my films, even when there are no difficulties.”
While Paradise Now deals with the psychological effects of those difficulties, Abu-Assad’s previous two films are marked by the physical evidence of occupation. Ford Transit, a 2002 documentary, portrays a Palestinian taxi driver shuttling inhabitants between checkpoints. In Rana’s Wedding, also released in 2002, the title character is faced with an ultimatum: marry a man of her father’s choosing before the day ends or move with him to Egypt. She spends the day traveling between checkpoints searching for her boyfriend, Khalil; when she finds him, she attempts to organize a wedding and obtain her father’s consent. These films, like Paradise Now, are animated by the weight mundane actions acquire in such an extraordinary context—it is in those actions, and humor, that the characters preserve their humanity. Paradise Now features a recurring scene in which Said and Khaled’s mothers complain about the impossibility of purifying the water that trickles from the tap, though they try incessantly. In the segment of his martyrdom video dedicated to making requests of and saying goodbye to friends and family, Khaled drops the standard martyr’s prose and exhorts his mother to start using a different brand of water filters.
Abu-Assad emphasizes his duty as a filmmaker: “To use the pain as a fuel or motivation, but at the end to deal with beauty.” The ugliness of refugee camps and security walls fails to eclipse the humanity of the characters, and is ultimately refracted, even amplified by their determination to live as they would without the barriers, though most are too young to know such a life. “When you feel pain, you want to shout,” Abu-Assad reflects. “But when you shout, people shut their ears. And when you whisper, people try to listen.”
December 2006: “This Heat, Back from the Dead”
The fear of mutually assured destruction can be a wonderful source of inspiration. For This Heat, it helped spawn This Heat, Deceit, and the EP Health + Efficiency, records that did not so much bridge the gap between progressive rock and post-punk in the late 70s and early 80s as forge the latter by dismembering the Genesis-soiled corpse of the former. Twenty-five years after Deceit’s salvo quietly altered the landscape of an England anxiously awaiting annihilation, ReR is reissuing the band’s notoriously elusive discography in Out of Cold Storage. The box set includes the three aforementioned records as well as a new collection of live recordings, a book of photographs and essays and Repeat, a later EP of unreleased material.
Charles Hayward, Charles Bullen and Gareth Williams joined forces in 1977, got their first radio play from John Peel that year, then wallowed in the Bristol squats and Rock in Opposition scene that birthed Henry Cow and Roxy Music until 1982, when Williams left to study Kathakali in India. Preceded by Faust’s tape experiments and Krautrock jams and eclipsed by Sonic Youth’s stateside noise dirges, This Heat’s short lifetime became the stuff of myth rather than legend—frequently talked about but seldom heard, except on tapes copied from tapes copied from friends of friends.
Those tapes are the inimitable artifacts of Cold Storage, the studio built by the band in an industrial meat refrigerator. This Heat surfaced in 1979, a truly experimental record of punk being torn into pieces, all insidious sine tones, scraping tape loops, creaky organs, and tribal drums, with little room to scream. Deceit, the band’s paramount achievement, is an ironic assault on the noxious politics of the Cold War. England is on the outside, the band is on the inside, and the two can’t quite connect: vocal harmonies haunt when they should soothe, guitar riffs churn on past their logical expiration, lullabies become mantras, then elegies. Hayward has described This Heat as the sound of trepidation unspoken, haunting the depths of the subconscious; Deceit is the return of the repressed, that fear and confusion dragged out from the inner recesses of the mind and perfectly articulated.
July 2006: “Alva Noto Spans the Digital Divide, Softly”
Carsten Nicolai’s performance of Xerrox in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in May was as much surgery as music. An array of computers and mixers replaced the patient on the operating table. Rather than displaying the surgeon’s forays into the body, a vast screen behind Nicolai burst with clusters of golden particles, images that might have come from a universe deep within guts of the computers. As the sounds—abstracted bits of Muzak, ring tones, advertisements, reduced to the point of incomprehensibility—came into focus and coagulated it became clear that Nicolai was raiding the body rather than repairing it, gradually extracting all its failed nerve endings and fractured sine tones to create a noisy opus of error messages.
Nicolai, who performs as Alva Noto, has been mining and designing sound for the better part of his thirty-nine years, ever since hearing the ghosts of Soviet military signals seeping through his radio as a child in East Germany. His work is generally sparse, glacial in pace, comparable to a sonic anatomy lesson, with the artist as pedagogue rather than magician. Orphaned frequencies and aborted pulses are placed under the microscope, deliberately manipulated and combined with other specimens. On 2001’s Transform, a handful of buzzing frequencies are treated like toothpicks, delicately molded and shaped into tenuous structures. If bent too far in one direction, they will splinter; they often do.
Besides his sound work as Alva Noto, Nicolai also owns the venerable Raster-Noton record label, which has released his own musical explorations and his three books of sound theory. Over the last decade, Nicolai has established himself as a major force in contemporary art, performing and exhibiting multimedia installations across the world, from the Biennale in Venice to the Guggenheim in New York to the Neue National Gallery in Berlin, which hosted his most recent major exhibition, “Syn Chron,” last year.
For “Atem,” at the 1999 Liverpool Biennial, the combined effects of subsonic bass rumblings and visitors’ footsteps in a gallery produced intricate patterns on the surface of water held in flasks on the ground—the visualization of psychoacoustic phenomena. “Snow Noise,” installed at Art Gallery New Sydney in 2001, artificially crystallized and preserved snowflakes, comparing this natural process to the mathematical creation of fractals, which were pictured on the walls.
In his recent collaborative work with Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, which includes Vrioon and this year’s Revep EP, circuitry and empathy are reconciled. Nicolai adroitly bends and shades Sakamoto’s melancholic piano figures, and resists doing much else. The effect is something like a broken two-way radio and a toy piano playing a duet in an empty stadium. Notes don’t end as much as they float into space, while Nicolai’s own drawling tones just hover, changing imperceptibly over five or ten minutes. There are contours that can barely be distinguished, walls and windows built from timbre and resonance rather than steel and glass. The structure exists for thirty or forty minutes, then Nicolai turns off the computers and the walls vanish.
November 2006: “Say Hello to Big Brother”
The first camera on the tour is disguised as a lamppost, an onyx pupil inside an orb of gray glass ten feet above the sidewalk. A man in a small room somewhere is watching monitors of us watching him.
Bill Brown, a 47-year-old man with frenetic blue eyes and a mussed head of gray hair, has led surveillance tours of New York City neighborhoods almost every Sunday for the past six years. He is the co-founder of an agit-prop theater troupe called the Surveillance Camera Players, which was established in 1996 and sporadically performs silent adaptations of avant-garde plays in front of surveillance cameras from Washington Square Park to uptown parking garages.
“Why do we like New York?” Brown asked on a surveillance tour of Providence, Rhode Island a couple years ago. “Because, paradoxically, the crowds afford us a degree of privacy and anonymity. Surveillance cameras destroy that principle.”
A new book, We Know You Are Watching, details the history of the SCP’s interventions. The group will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a performance at an undisclosed location in New York on December 10.
“A lot of people call me paranoid,” Brown acknowledged in Providence. For good citizens with nothing to hide, surveillance cameras might be seen as guarantors of safety, harbingers of a world made secure and transparent through technology. But there is an increasingly vocal chorus of the paranoid echoing the SCP’s slogan, “completely distrustful of all government.” And those voices are increasingly realistic.
In the past decade surveillance and, with it, Brown’s brand of techno-cultural criticism, has exploded into the mainstream. Britain helped pioneer the use of surveillance technology in public spaces, and is now home to 2.5 million surveillance cameras. After 9/11, the number of cameras in New York City has tripled in every neighborhood. In Brown’s estimation, there are now about 40,000 cameras in the city, 15,000 of them in Manhattan.
How does he find them all? “Baudelaire used to say, describing the flaneur of nineteenth century Paris, that when you walk around a city absorbing everything, taking it all in, you have to move as if you’re walking a turtle on a leash,” Brown explains with a sly smile. “I never let myself walk ahead of the turtle.”
THE DEMOCRACY CENTER
December 3, 2006: “The March of the Landless”
A short while ago, just a block from our office here in Cochabamba, the streets were filled with the arrival of hundreds of men and women (many with their children) — a march of the landless who have traveled on foot for more than three weeks from outside of Santa Cruz. Limping with exhaustion, ill from the walk and the changing climate, they are here only for the day before continuing on their way to the capital in La Paz. Their demand – approval by the Bolivia Congress of a law that would help put portions of vast privately-owned and unused land tracts into the hands of the poor so they might eek out a living farming and grazing. Landowners in Santa Cruz, yesterday, staged their own protest against the proposed new law.
Aldo Orellana of our team here at The Democracy Center took a long bus ride into the Chapare over the weekend to catch up with the marchers en route. Here is a report prepared by Aldo and another member of our team, Alexander Provan. –JIM SHULTZ
On October 31, more than 1,000 members of indigenous communities in the lowlands of southeastern Bolivia began marching one thousand kilometers (620 miles) from Santa Cruz to La Paz. The peasants, activists and sympathetic groups hope to rally support for modifications to the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA) law that would make it easier for the government to redistribute non-productive estates to the 2.5 million farmers who are “without land or who possess insufficient lands.”
The landmark piece of legislation was originally passed by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 1996, and had the effect of legitimating ownership of properties that were obtained illegally by large landowners in the eastern provinces. “Ten years ago we decided to pass on resistance in order to fight for power and we were mistaken,” Morales told a gathering of indigenous landless groups in July. “Now we have achieved political power, we have to recover the territory.” On May 2, Morales announced an “agricultural revolution” at a rally in Ucureña, introducing the modifications to the INRA law and plans to redistribute 77,000 square miles of land by the end of his term in 2011.
For the last six months, the legislation has been held up by Congressional deadlock. Last Wednesday, Morales’ MAS party pushed the bill through the lower house, where it has a slight majority. But the Administration still needs to pick up two votes from members of opposition parties to pass the law in the Senate, where it is currently being debated.
On Sunday, the march arrived in Villa Tunari, in the Chapare region, a few hours from Cochabamba. Marchers were joined by a number of union representatives and coca growers’ groups. The march expects to arrive in La Paz next Friday, where another thousand marchers from Oruro and Caranavi will meet them.
Marchers and supporters endured sultry jungle heat and gathered under the monstrous fronds under the banner of the march’s organizers, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), the Coalition of Ethnic Peoples of Santa Cruz (CPESC), and the Movement Without Land (MST). Leaders from these groups reiterated their reasons for marching, calling their efforts part of “a historic struggle of the indigenous people” and affirming that they will not return to their communities until the INRA law is modified according to their demands.
A poll taken by the Nations United for Development Program (PNUD) in July found that a majority of Bolivians see land reform as the most critical issue facing the country today, and it is certainly one of the major problems being tackled by the ongoing Constituent Assembly in Sucre. While opposition parties have admitted the necessity of reform, the locus of opposition in Santa Cruz, where large landowners control disproportionate amounts of property and wealth, fears that land will be confiscated without respect for private property and handed over to peasants without the means to make productive use of it.
Morales has attempted to assure the representatives and businesses that the government will respect properties that were obtained legally and are productive, regardless of their size. Despite his efforts, the opposition Podemos party disavowed the legislation during debates in the House, with the party’s congressional leader, Fernando Messmer, calling it “the sword of Damocles over the head of the businessmen.” Landowners and business representatives embarked on their own march from the community of Warnes to Santa Cruz yesterday.
Whether or not an agreement can eventually be reached with those skeptical of the Administration’s plans, marchers in Villa Tunari suggested that entrenched privileges and political perspectives means, “We are not able to wait for a consensus on this issue.”
Morales encouraged legislators to break the gridlock on Thursday, warning that further delays could prompt social unrest. “The people will rise up to modify [the law] by force, in benefit of the majority” if Congress fails to do so, he predicted. But he has pledged not to compromise with Podemos, and yesterday a Morales spokesperson publicly voiced support for the marchers, pushing senators to “listen to the clamor of justice.”
In conversations with the marchers in the Chapare it is clear that all have eaten and slept poorly and many have become ill, partly due to drastic changes in climate along the route. Last week, two marchers were tragically hit by trucks and killed. After nearly twenty days of walking, the marchers, which include children and pregnant women, were fatigued but not discouraged. “The people here have hopes of gaining these lands for their communities,” said one marcher, “and they are not going to turn back until there is a solution to this issue.”
Spring 2006: “William Basinski, 2062”
Ruins fit William Basinski well—in his compositions, grand melodies are reduced to ghosts, classical structures to delicate artifice. From the solemn haze of deconstructed Muzak on The River to the tentative piano glissandos and glacial passages of noise on this year’s Garden of Brokenness, Basinski’s work hovers between the elusive idyll of Virgil’s Arcadia and the world-weary melancholia which post-Elizabethan author Robert Burton describes as “the character of Mortality … from which no man living is free.”
Basinski, who is now 48, began experimenting with tape loops began under the influence of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1978. “I got some tape machines and just started recording everything,” from industrial machines to broken televisions, he recalls. New York City soon beckoned and Basinski’s early experiments, many of which are now being remastered and released for the first time, evolved into multimedia collaborations with longtime partner James Elaine—soundtracks for paintings, videos, and a particularly memorable performance in a concrete amphitheater which had just been discovered inside a decrepit pillar of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Digitizing archival recordings from the early 1980s in 2001, Basinski came upon the first of The Disintegration Loops, which would become his pièce de résistance: the tape began disintegrating after a few seconds, the magnetic imprint crumbling. He immediately began recording, constructed a terse counter-melody to the somber orchestral motif and, eight loops later, found himself with documents of “the unique life and death of each one of these melodies.” After watching “cascades of glass sinking in slow motion” from his roof on September 11, The Disintegration Loops blaring from his studio below, he decided to release the four volumes as an elegy.
Since then, Basinski has been releasing one archival work and one new piece each year. His current project, tentatively titled Particle Showers, is a tangled mass of synthesizer overtones. While the viscous ambience of Basinski’s compositions tends to mute foreground and background, “This one is more like the big bang,” Basinski says. “It benefits from being heard quite loud.” He is also restoring an archival recording called Variation for Piano and Tape for release on his own 2062 label this summer. Basinski suggests it might carry the subtitle of Pantelleria as it “reminds me of an idyllic vacation I had on that extraordinary, remote and beautiful Italian island a few years ago”—a real life Arcadia.
While the personal and critical coup of The Disintegration Loops may have alleviated some of the melancholy, Basinski still keeps a copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholia at his bedside in his Los Angeles studio. Remembering a thought he had while wandering around Rome recently, Basinski muses, “The world ended 2,000 years ago, this is just the dust settling.”
THE VILLAGE VOICE
September 26, 2006: Review of Pere Ubu’s Why I Hate Women (Hearpen/Smog Veil)
“This is an irony-free recording.” So reads the disclaimer on Why I Hate Women, the latest diatribe from Cleveland’s longest-running art-rock band named after Jarry’s Ubu Roi. They mean what they say and they say what they mean. In 1976, David Thomas introduced himself to the world by puncturing a lung to the mangled tune of the Eddie Cochran hit “Summertime Blues”; while most kids his age were pining for Dad’s car keys, Thomas was insisting, with a healthy dose of irony, “We don’t need a cure/We need a final solution!” Still, he meant it.
Now, 30 years later, Thomas’s trademark vocal exercises—moaning cadavers and rockabilly bards on morphine come to mind—haunt a tableau of perfectly agitated lock grooves and weighty dirges. “Thelma’s in Houston is closed on Sunday/The best catfish in the state of Texas,” Thomas mumbles, in character, over a crunchy western guitar riff on “Texas Overture.” With a Tom Waits–lite drawl, Thomas enumerates a number of local delicacies, from whole chicken to half-chicken to green beans, then avers, “Texas is the land of the free.” Don’t ask what that means, but whatever it means, it’s not ironic.
SIGNAL TO NOISE
Summer 2006: “Pleasurehorse”
Shawn Greenlee is doing calisthenics between piles of battered music equipment, couches and miscellaneous junk in what looks like a former living room in Providence, Rhode Island. He falls toward the Powerbook sitting on a table in front of him, plants his hands on two circular discs resembling miniature turntables, spins them violently and pushes himself backwards. Yawning frequencies and frantically oscillating sine tones ricochet around the room—his elbows flail out as he presses his face toward the desk and twists the discs inward, the sound of the room groaning, crumbling, then reconstituting itself as he releases the discs and stumbles backwards.
The scene is an anomaly in the stolid world of laptop performances, which generally offer the chance to witness some guy squinting at his screen, conscientiously monitoring sound files and pensively clicking the mouse every few minutes. The physicality of Greenlee’s performance as Pleasurehorse are more at home in the land of miasmatic noise and punk agitprop; indeed, he hails from the vaunted Fort Thunder scene which produced Forcefield and Lightning Bolt, is a longtime member of free noise ensemble Landed, has played with Six Finger Satellite, and released his 2002 full-length Bareskinrug on Providence’s hallmark Load Records.
Greenlee says his solo work began with “the idea that I would use source material only from the bands I was going to open for,” reinterpreting their work before they got a chance to play it. Samples soon supplanted other bands’ records as creative fodder, and eventually Greenlee found himself making “panic-based booty bass,” slightly schizophrenic noise with apocalyptic dub rhythms and the feeling of technology gone wonderfully awry before your eyes, with Greenlee as its manic custodian.
Greenlee, who is 32, moved to Providence from Eerie, Pennsylvania to attend Rhode Island School of Design in 1992 and has lived there ever since, performing as Pleasurehorse since 1996, with occasional performances under his own name or the Seg moniker. Though he has not yet released an official follow-up to 2002’s Bareskinrug, he has released original work and remixes on a number of limited editions and compilations, as well as performing across the US and Europe with Nautical Almanac, Wolf Eyes and Black Dice, among others. Greenlee has also been a PhD candidate in Brown’s computer music program since 2001.
“For a long time, I only played in a noise rock context,” Greenlee recalls, remembering the mixed responses to his early solo performances. “It was weird.” Effects pedals, eight-track players, cracked electronics, even CD mixers were all fair game, but he was always ambivalent about bringing a computer to a shows where many tend to view technological anachronism as a virtue. When he did make that leap, “You would hear people say ‘Oh, he’s just checking his email.’”
“There’s a little bit of sorcery involved,” he says, acknowledging the recondite task of decoding the connection between the sight of Greenlee manhandling his equipment and staring down his laptop and the sounds being made. But every gesture is necessary to the performance. When he draws a two-inch line on his Wacom graphic tablet at a thirty-degree angle, applying ten pounds of pressure, a sample is fractured and delayed just so—there are no bare theatrics.
“What I do grows out of frustration with laptop performances,” Greenlee remarks, but also from a recognition that “not all music is about the staged performance.” To bridge the gap between sound and action, he has focused on building his own unique physical interfaces using the ubiquitous MAX/MSP signal processing software. Most of his recent work relies on a complex web of samples being recalled in a way that cannot be predetermined—Greenlee integrates and manipulates these samples on the fly, a sort of live-action collage of breakbeats, searing waves of digital distortion, and labyrinthine tonal reefs. The overall effect is that of a man fighting to extract and contort sounds that a computer is not supposed to be make, interrupting the process by which the machine turns zeros and ones into sounds. “With a tape deck, you can unscrew the back and look inside,” Greenlee observes. “With a computer, it’s a little more hands-off. It’s harder to interrupt the system—and if you truly interrupt the system, nothing works.” At times, this interruption seems almost victorious: Greenlee’s chronic grimace cedes to perverse exaltation as he collapses on the discs or submits the Wacom tablet to the weight of his entire body. The sound is compacted, an unwieldy hive reduced to a trembling bee; seconds later he retreats and sonorous buzzing fills the room again.
Pleasurehorse’s characteristic swirling sonic detritus, frantic polyrhythms, and unyielding bass hits are on full display on Taitsu, released last year in Japan by Alienation, and Marined, released as a cassette in 2006 on Animal Disguise. On Taitsu, deliberate tonal explorations and unadorned swaths of viscous frequencies anchor passages of disorderly noise. But beyond the chaotic veneer there is a penumbra of delicate, even ethereal ambience, more pronounced on Marined. Toward the end of the first side, a single bass tone beats out a bleak rhythm, dragging along with it shards of tin and bags of glass. After trudging onward for a couple minutes the post-industrial haze dissipates and the beat stumbles into pieces of a melancholic melody; after a few placid moments, the melody scatters before giving itself away. On both records, there is a sense that Greenlee is penning a barely liminal narrative at the same time as he tears the pages of that story to shreds.