Archive for March, 2009

Rokia Traore’s ‘Tchamantché’

26 March 2009

I’ve come a bit late to Rokia Traore’s most recent record Tchamantché, and I might have missed it completely but for Stern’s world music shop displaying it prominently in store. But better late than never, because it’s hardly been off my record deck since I bought it.

It is a gorgeous set, which manages the difficult feat of combining African and ‘Western’ instrumentation, and African and American songs, while maintaining an utterly African sensibility and identity.

The opening track, Dounia, is above, courtesy of you tube, and it sounds like a fine version of a traditional west African song*. But for me the best track is a sensational cover of ‘The Man I Love‘, the George and Ira Gershwin song made famous by Billie Holiday. It opens with a fractured jazz-inflected introduction, goes into a lyric where her accented English seems to make her more fragile, as if she was clinging to her man only by her fingernails, and then ends with a section which combines scat with an African idiom. But don’t take my word for it. You can hear it via the US radio network NPR, which had it as its ‘song of the day earlier this year.

Without wishing to seem over-excitable (at my age I’m supposed to be world-weary about music, after all), the frisson I got from listening to the record reminded me of the first time I heard Salif Keita or Ali Farka Toure (to whom the record is dedicated). There are glowing reviews all over the net, from the Guardian, to Feminist Review, to Dusted. And more on You Tube.

* I may be wrong about this: the CD’s notes  say that Rokia Traore wrote all the songs except for The Man I Love.


Irish routes

25 March 2009


I’m going to the north of Ireland on holiday quite soon, so I’m tuned in to stories about Irishness at the moment. The writer Nick Laird was complaining about the way he had been classified by his publisher, as an Irish poet (the Heaney effect?) but a British novelist:

On forms, under nationality I write Irish/British, though I’d be happier with Ulsterman, since Ulster itself (incorporating Northern Ireland and the Irish counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) is a province administrated by both Dublin and London. The poet John Hewitt put his own position thus: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

It gets more complex. Later in the same article Laird explains how he evades the certainties which Americans try to pin on him by establishing his religion – by drowning them in the detail of family history:

In America, where I live at the minute, you’re Irish, but when you qualify that you’re from Northern Ireland, you get the little glimmer of (mis)understanding. Then they say, pleased with themselves: “So are you Protestant or Catholic?” Cathestant or Protholic? … I hate this question, as the interlocutor thinks the answer will explain everything about you, about whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor. I bamboozle them with detail. My mum was raised Covenantor in Armagh and my father Church of Ireland in Donegal – part of the republic but in Ulster. My mum’s family’s originally from Cork (where, as Protestants in the 1920s, they were burnt out and fled north). They glaze, and change the subject. But why should the situation not be complicated?

I come from England, as does most of my family, albeit from one of those peripheral regions far enough from London to have an identity of its own. But some of my family detail would be complicated, too, for despite the trite conventional wisdom (that in the olden days everyone grew up and died in the same village) in the past people moved around far more than we imagine. It should be complicated, for our histories and identity lie inside that complexity.

Poetry: news that isn’t news

21 March 2009
Photo by Fiona Hanson, Reuters

Photo by Fiona Hanson, Reuters

Now that Andrew Motion is standing down as Poet Laureate after a ten-year stretch he’s been writing about the experience. Although both the Queen and Tony Blair told him when he was appointed that he didn’t have to write anything, the nation’s newsrooms had a different view.

You’ll just have to take my word for it: every time there’s been a royal birth or wedding or death in the past 10 years, a terrible low rumble has begun in newsrooms across the country. A rumble that has soon led to people ringing me up to ask whether I’m “thinking of doing something”. The voice at the other end of the line puts the question in such a way as to make me feel that I’ll be castigated as an idle sherry-swilling republican if I don’t take the top off my pen and start rhyming at once.

But of course, the arrival of a new ‘royal’ poem – he’s written eight – wasn’t of itself news.

I sent them to my agent, who sent them to newspapers, where they landed on news editors’ desks. News editors don’t think a poem is a story in and of itself, so they then get on the phone to as many people as it takes to find someone who doesn’t like the poem – then they have their story: poet laureate writes another no-good poem.I’m not the first laureate to complain about this. … The point is: it’s bad for poetry in general – but journalists apparently have some difficulty (or, more likely, no interest) in grasping this.

The accelerating decline in newspapers is well-documented, and much of it is down to digital technology and generational change. But I can’t but wonder – I write this as a sometime journalist myself – whether this ingrained cultural response by journalists, which frames so much of the way the ‘news’ agenda is constructed and framed, hasn’t also got something to do with it.

Steam and speed

17 March 2009


I came across a quote in the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre which captured a passenger’s first experience of train travel:

Everything is near, everything is immediate – time, distance, and delay are abolished.

Of course, it conjures immediately Turner’s famous painting, and it happens that I went to look at Rain Steam and Speed in the National Gallery a few months ago. Reproductions, by their nature, emphasise the rain and the steam. The picture itself has much detail of the world that is about to disappear under the onslaught of speed; the boat on the river, the figures below, in the fields, the hare on the bridge trying to escape the train. (There’s a charming animation of this by Kathryn Miller from the hare’s perspective at the National Gallery site).

It’s hard to see this detail and not to be reminded of Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

But there’s an important inversion. In Auden, and in the Breughel painting which inspired it, the ploughman (and the passengers on the ship, a couple of lines later), can get on with their lives even as Icarus falls out of the sky. In Turner’s painting, there is no turning back from the age of speed. Everyone’s life will be affected, sooner or later, as distance and delay are abolished.

The reproduction of Rain Steam and Speed is from The National Gallery.

The videographer Jim Clark has made a ‘virtual video’ of Auden reading Musee des Beaux Arts, which can be found here.

Parker and Stravinsky

16 March 2009


Even half a century after his death, when we must know everything there is to be discovered about the life of Charlie Parker, he still has the capacity to surprise. Take this passage, in Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise:

Jazz musicians sat up in their seats when Stravinsky’s music started playing; he was speaking something close to their language. When Charlie Parker came to Paris in 1949, he marked the occasion by incoporating the first notes of the Rite [of Spring] into his solo on “Salt Peanuts”. Two years later, playing Birdland in New York, the bebop master spotted Stravinsky at one of the tables and immediately incorporated a motif from Firebird into  “Koko”, causing the composer to spill his scotch in ecstasy.

The picture is from a long interview with Paul Berliner about improvisation, on the Afropop Worldwide site.

Acts of grace

15 March 2009


I’ve always been interested in stories about technique – how stories work – and there’s a good example this weekend in a review by Frank Cottrell Boyce:

Stories are chains of consequence, one thing leads to another. But some of the most sublime stories end when an act of grace or love that means “it ain’t necessarily so”. Abraham doesn’t have to sacrifice Isaac. The Green Knight has the right to decapitate Gawain but barely nicks him with his sword. The prodigal son thinks he has spent all his father’s love but discovers that it is endless.

I’m a sucker for such moments: impossible, for example, for me to watch It’s A Wonderful Life without a lump in the throat during the final scene. And without necessarily wanting to imply a religious meaning (although it’s revealing that two of Boyce’s examples are Biblical), I think the ‘sublime’ aspect comes from the moment of transcendence embodied in such acts; the creation through choice and action of a different meaning.

The picture is from The Evolution of Jeremiah blog.

Michael Donaghy’s ‘Machines’

9 March 2009


The poet Michael Donaghy died suddenly, and relatively young, in 2004 at the age of 50. He was a gifted poet, and now Picador Books has published both a Collected Poems and a ‘collected prose’ – a volume of criticism and articles.

One of my favourites from his work is Machines, which, brilliantly, links a technical explanation of why we stay up on a bicycle with our emotional experience of music.

Michael Donaghy

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

from Shibboleth, 1998

‘The machinery of grace is always simple’. What a great line that is.

The picture of Michael Donaghy is from the South Bank Centre, which hosts a tribute to him on 14th March.

Mixing ‘The Message’

8 March 2009

We’re so used now to the sound that Grandmaster Flash created in the early ’80s that it’s hard to remember how different – and innovative – it was when he and his music first appeared.

Like other black music innovators – Gil Scott-Heron comes to mind, and Charlie Parker, come to that – he’s had his problems with drugs. He’s touring again, with a new record, and so was interviewed by Andrew Purcell in the Guardian, to whom he explained how he evolved his sound, in an age before ubiquitous personal computers or digital sound. As the article reminds us, he was the first person to mix two records without losing the beat; the first DJ to use drum machine loops live; the first to scratch;  and the first to make a record entirely of samples.

His method required technology that didn’t exist. “I needed a way to have the platter continuously spinning while I’m moving the record back and forth,” he says. “I went to a fabric store. When I touched this hairy stuff – felt – I found it. I rubbed spray starch on both sides and ironed it until it became a stiff wafer. After that, I was able to stop time.” DJs have taken slipmats for granted ever since.

When he tried out his technique in public, the crowd stared as if he was mad. Flash, only a teenager, ran off stage, threw up, went home and cried for days. But he couldn’t stay away from his turntables for long. Soon he began searching for a bigger, louder system. “I went to junkyards, abandoned car lots. I asked supermarkets for the big jugs they put pig guts in, to make cabinets for my bass speakers.” He worked out that traffic light sensors made good tweeters.

At home he dismantled domestic electronics like hairdryers and  radios in search of the perfect sound. There’s also a great line about wearing out records as you scratch them:

I ask him how many copies of the Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache he has worn out, in half a lifetime of playing it for its drumbeat, since the earliest parties at the Black Door club in the South Bronx. “About 30,” he reckons. Really? That’s fewer than one a year. “Oh yeah, but I play it until it’s disgusting, because the deeper the cavern is, the more you can do with it. I play it until it sounds like eggs frying on a Sunday morning.”

The wrong genre

7 March 2009
Kelly Sotherton, by Phil McElhinney

Kelly Sotherton, by Phil McElhinney

You get so used to the routines – or cliches – of sports interviews that it’s always refreshing when something breaks out of the frame. In this week’s Sport magazine, the heptathlete Kelly Sotherton is asked:

If you were writing the novel of Kelly Sotherton’s life, how would it end?

Of course, what the question is supposed to do is to invite the athlete to imagine themselves in the classic ‘sports biopic’, where they come from behind to clinch an elusive world title against their long-standing arch-rival.

What she actually answered was this:

It would be a horror – like Steven King – and I’d be found dead, half-eaten by my cats in my living room. Or something like that.

The journalist was so surprised they had to ask the question a second time, a different way around (“Let’s phrase that another way”). Definitely more John Carpenter than Any Given Sunday.

The great photograph at the top of this post was taken by Phil McElhinney – see his photostream on Flickr here.

Burrowing on the underground

6 March 2009


I’ve always liked artists who play with texts and typography – as Tom Phillips did in his monumental A Humument. The picture at the top of the post is of a ‘found fragment’ by the artist Ian Kiaer, one of the hundred works commissioned by London Underground last year to mark its centenary of commissioning original posters from artists.

In case the text is hard to read on the image, it runs like this:

Meanwhile brought back     to the subterranean action of    economic facts, the “old mole” revolution   hollows out chambers in decomposed soil repugnant to the delicate   nose of the utopians.