Issue 281 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Music, Dreams and Desire

Mike Gonzalez commemorates the extraordinary music of the Buena Vista Social Club

Old cars in decaying Havana
Old cars in decaying Havana

The last time I saw Rubén González play piano he finished one tune with a visual joke: running his fingers up the keyboard, he continued beyond the edge of the piano, playing in the air. It was as if his extraordinary dexterity and skill had conquered what was there and needed some new challenges. Bumping into him a little later in a bar near the theatre, I realized how tiny he was, and how bent and arthritic his hands were. It made his artistry even more astonishing.

Rubén learned piano in the 1930s and 1940s, when George Shearing and Art Tatum were leaping the keys and making pianos jump. He moved to Havana from his provincial home in the early 1940s, just in time for the great age of Cuban music. The sextets and septets playing in the clubs and hotels of the capital had brought the son, the traditional Cuban dance rhythm, from the east of the island, and added trumpets to the original percussion and guitars. Then came the big bands, and the beginnings of the traffic between Havana and New York. It was a musical dialogue that brought jazz and son into a kind of long love affair. Dizzy Gillespie played in Cuba and with Machito's Afro-Cuban All Stars.

The other side of Cuban music was the romantic ballads of people like Beny Moré--florid, sentimental stories backed by the sensual music of Oriente.

That was the world that Rubén González came from. But his was a music that belonged to a pre-revolutionary era, and it was eclipsed by 'nueva trova'--the new, visionary, political songs of the new Cuba. The 'old' trova was fuelled and invigorated by the relationship with musicians in the immigrant communities of New York. It was an unexpected effect of the US economic embargo--officially imposed in February 1960--that the creative, exhilarating musical conversation across the water stopped dead. Some musicians went into exile--others stayed at home. Rubén González was one of them.

You could always hear the groups of ageing men in the characteristic caps and loose guayabera shirts playing in the little local clubs--the 'casas de la trova'--across Cuba. But they seemed to belong to a different era--a barely remembered decadent Havana before the revolution, full of jazz clubs, sleazy bars and American tourists looking for sex. The songs were gentle, romantic, full of naive double entendres and stories of love and loss--though the music was rich and varied, with influences from jazz, son and soul. The musicians grew older and were left in a kind of benign neglect. By the mid-1990s Rubén was a caretaker whose piano had fallen apart, the singer Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes, and Omara Portuondo sang to tiny audiences while Compay Segundo, the bassist, lived a kind of errant life of an elderly urban conman.

And then came Buena Vista Social Club, world fame, an album that sold 6 million copies, was played in every bar and restaurant in the world (or so it seemed anyway), and brought these elderly artists fame and late fortune. My very first column looked at the explosion of Cuban music, which began with that album, produced by Ry Cooder. Five years later Compay is dead (at 95) and now so is Rubén (at a mere 84). But the fashion they started has found its own rhythm. There are salsa clubs everywhere, dozens of collections and reissues of Cuban music in the shops, and several groups of elderly musicians enjoying a second (or third) adolescence across the world.

The old Havana implied and evoked in this music has returned to the cultural universe of the west. It's as if that style more than any other defines nostalgia. Perhaps the age of these wonderful musicians was part of their attraction. Wim Wenders' film Buena Vista Social Club fed on that backward glance. It was billed as a documentary, but it was much closer to a studio photograph, carefully staged to create a fiction. Behind Cooder and his son riding through Havana on their motorbike, the city faded into soft focus--the decaying, neglected buildings of the city centre seemed dreamlike, the old cars confirming that sense of returning to the past.

Halfway through the film Ibrahim and Compay are shown wandering through the streets of New York gasping at shop windows, as if they had just returned from deep sleep.

The phenomenal success of the album seems to me to flow from that backward glance, the rediscovery of timeless, sensual places where dreams and desire merged in a comfortable, evocative music. It was not the real Cuba, of course, either then or now--though the Cuban government is happy for the burgeoning tourist industry to enjoy the fruits of this confusion. It was and is a place of the imagination--or perhaps a dream of a time to come. But the soundtrack to it will be poorer for the loss of this virtuoso with the gnarled hands who made his piano melt whenever he played.


Film

THE ABSURDITY OF BEING EARNEST

The Last Samurai
Dir: Edward Zwick


Tom Cruise dances with samurai
Tom Cruise dances with samurai

The essence of both comedy and tragedy has been described as the gap between people's aspirations and reality, between great ends and insignificant means.

And so teeth-settingly earnest films like The Last Samurai constantly teeter on the edge of complete hilarity.

The motives behind making this film (yes, apart from greedy, money-grabbing capitalism) seem to be noble. The film explores an interesting, relatively unknown period of history. As the imperial phase of capitalism kicked in, nations which had not already unified, democratised and begun the process of industrialisation had to find ways of keeping up. Unlike previous national revolutions, the Japanese Revolution was a top-down affair.

The conflict in the film stems from the contradiction between feudal and industrial Japan, the samurai and capitalist ministers around the emperor.

We begin with Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) amusing crowds as a travelling entertainer. Algren is a captain in the US army responsible for many great victories over Native American tribes. He's a man with a conscience, haunted by the slaughter he was ordered to carry out in the name of progress and civilisation. His flashbacks, like all the early battle scenes, are shot in cool blue light.

After giving one particular display he is pounced upon by Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly, of all people). Algren is brought to see a Japanese minister. He is made an offer he can't refuse--sackloads of money to train the new Japanese army in order to put down the samurai rebellion led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Tired of his life, Algren grudgingly accepts.

The clichés begin to stack up. Algren stands on the boat, stares out into the sea, the internal monologue mutters about loneliness. The training is a slow process but the ministers are impatient. Algren, Gant and Colonel Bagley are sent out into battle without adequate troops. Algren despises Bagley because he was the one giving orders to massacre whole villages. He promises to kill him for free, which he inevitably does.

Not surprisingly the battle is lost. Algren is left cornered, desperately trying to fend off half a dozen samurai with a broken flag. Katsumoto decides to spare his life, seeing a certain 'something' in him. Algren is taken to Katsumoto's village.

And what a village! A place where people wake at dawn to spend the day 'dedicated to the perfection of their art'. Algren is initially hostile, but after a few strolls in the hay and a couple of enigmatic conversations he feels drawn toward the samurai way of life.

I can see the scriptwriters pitching it now: 'It's Dances With Wolves... in Japan.'

Over the winter Algren is trained in the samurai arts. He achieves cinematic atonement by helping defend the village against marauders, in the process saving the life of the eldest son of the woman Algren was living with, Taka, whose husband Algren killed in the opening battle. She also happens to be the sister of Katsumoto.

A dreary process is set in motion. Algren becomes part of the family. He's 'like a father' to Taka's children. They fall in love before the final battle.

When Cruise steps out in the bright red armour belonging to Taka's former husband the urge to giggle is too much.

Algren returns to Tokyo as Katsumoto makes a final desperate appeal to the emperor, who he only wants to serve. Katsumoto is arrested and sentenced to death. Algren makes his final decision when he helps Katsumoto to escape.

The final battle is a minor curiosity. Faced with overwhelming numbers and the superior weaponry (rifles, cannons, machine-guns) of the fully trained Japanese army, Algren uses a guerrilla tactic common in the American war of independence--tactical withdrawal, luring the enemy onto difficult territory. Any comparison with the war in Iraq?

The samurai inflict serious casualties on the Japanese army but are eventually overwhelmed. Everyone goes down to a noble death, except for Algren of course, who mysteriously wins the respect of the army and, eventually, the emperor, who rejects the American government's treaty in favour of Japanese traditions.

This film is a good idea, vetted, backlit, smoothed over, glossed, stretched back, and told to stand up straight and smile. Which is a shame.
Adam Marks


KETCHUP AND SMOKESTACKS

Tokyo Story
Dir: Yasujiro Ozu


Family tensions are unspoken in 'Tokyo Story'
Family tensions are unspoken in Tokyo Story

The establishment of the DVD format as a replacement for video means we are gradually seeing more classic films released, and not just the usual Hollywood blockbusters. To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Tartan has released his most famous film, Tokyo Story, coinciding with its theatrical re-release.

Made in 1953, it is a very subtle, gentle film about family relations in postwar Americanised Japan. The plot is simple. An elderly couple set off from their village to visit their grown up children in Tokyo. Their arrival is greeted with formality and politeness, but there is also tension. The son is a busy doctor, the daughter married to a businessman. They have little time to pay attention to their parents. The houses they live in are small and cramped, and the visitors are under everyone's feet. They plan to take them to visit the city, but work gets in the way. The parents are left to hang around the son's home, almost an embarrassment. The children then treat them to a holiday in a nearby resort. Yet this is a thoughtless present, for it is merely to get rid of them. The hotel the parents stay at is for young people who party all night. After several sleepless nights the old couple decide to return to their village, accepting that their children have no time for them.

Yet, far from being sentimental, this is a film that is almost cold hearted as it deals with the new relations between old and young. The backdrop is the city of Tokyo. This is shown in the film not as postcard pretty, but as a place busy with industry, sprawling, run down suburbs, and tiny cramped homes set amid vast railway yards. Made a year after the end of the Allied occupation of Japan, it captures the reconstruction of a country devastated by the war. It is not just the physical rebuilding we see, but the change that takes place in the hearts of the people themselves. They have no time for visiting parents--the grandchildren are rude and distant to the old couple. The family is no longer the centre of things--it is replaced by a ruthless work ethic that turns the parents into nothing more than a nuisance.

Yasujiro Ozu is seen as one of the great film directors, and Tokyo Story as one of the greatest of Japanese films. Yet upon its release the film mirrored the fate of the parents. Distributors decided not to give it an international cinema release because Ozu made films in the genre of shomen-geki, or the domestic drama. At the time Japanese cinema was dominated internationally by the samurai epics of director Akira Kurosawa. These portray the changes in postwar Japan, from a militaristic society to a modern liberal democracy, in a way perhaps more understandable to an international audience. In Ozu's films action is replaced by subtlety and detail: the grandchildren are worried about their English exams; the kitchen now contains bottles of ketchup from the US; cherry tree blossoms make way for smokestacks. It is a new Japan that buries prewar cultural values.

Though very quiet and simple, this film is a brilliant look at the real changes that affected ordinary Japanese lives after the war. It is relevant today to all of us as we are force fed the neoliberal diet of Blair and Bush's capitalism. This film is a study in detail of how human relationships melt into dust before the onslaught of the market.
Nigel Davey


HOUSE OF THE RISING SONS AND DAUGHTERS

Casa de los Babys
Dir: John Sayles


Rita Moreno as matriarch in 'Casa de los Babys'
Rita Moreno as matriarch in Casa de los Babys

Six assorted North American women united by a desire for motherhood rub shoulders at Casa de los Babys, a Central American adoption centre. Delayed by local laws from completing their transactions, the women banter their time away in bistro, beach and bedroom locations.

As ever, John Sayles eschews mainstream Hollywood formulas in favour of his own. He learned Spanish to write his novel Los Gusanos (1991), and a recurring element of this drama is familiarity--or not--with the language. There's no unflawed character to easily identify with, no camera pyrotechnics or special effects, and no neat ending. The script is paramount, so the casting of actors becomes crucial in the speaking and performing of it.

Like Woody Allen, Sayles can command the low cost participation of some top notch on-screen talent. Of the six women, Darryl Hannah still appears as other-worldly as she did in Blade Runner (1982), to dramatic effect as her back story emerges. Mary Steenburgen plays a surprisingly laissez-faire Southern Christian. There are many other great performances, not least from a bunch of street urchins who illustrate the begging, homeless lives that the adoptees will escape.

But the scene stealer is 72 year old Rita Moreno, almost 50 years after her debut in Singin' in the Rain, and best known as Anita in West Side Story. She plays Señora Munoz, proprietor of Casa de los Babys, mother of a stoned, overweight, good for nothing leftist son, and wife of an anti-imperialist who has fled to the US to live with a woman half his age. She carries off so much complex narration, with every eyelash and fingernail working overtime, that it is hard to realise she actually has very little screen time.

Sayles tries to say as much in any one of his films as a whole year of other US films. This time he may have stretched himself just a little too far. The themes of tourism as cultural imperialism, language, working life, femininity, childhood and the borders of each--echoing concerns in all his recent work--are so densely interwoven here that it is impossible to gather all the threads at one go. This is even with some breathing spaces provided by his usual musical partner Mason Daring and cinematographer Maurizio Rubinstein.

It is as if, in his drive to avoid Hollywood heroics, he himself as dominating auteur fulfils that function. Nevertheless, Sayles's bottom line remains a summit most other filmmakers should die for.
Nick Grant


Theatre

MAKING THE STRANGE OBVIOUS

An interview with Adriano Shaplin


A fatigued Riot Group
A fatigued Riot Group

American theatre company The Riot Group have achieved critical acclaim with Pugilist Specialist, their satirical attack upon US military operations in the Middle East. Mark Brown met up with playwright, director and actor Adriano Shaplin in California just as the US military announced the capture of Saddam Hussein.

How was The Riot Group established?

We started in 1997 as a protest against the theatre department of Sarah Lawrence College, which is a liberal arts college in New York state. We'd gone there with high expectations, but we found it very conventional and very commercial.

The group started when we began work ourselves, without sets, without lights, and without the help or approval of the college authorities. We scheduled our shows to compete directly with theatre department shows. We distributed flyers saying, 'If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the theatre department.'

Your work tends not to employ direct political messages--it's not agitprop. Instead it is heavily ironic. How does that help you to achieve your political effects?

The task for the political theatre artist is very difficult. You have to navigate between the two dominant ways of representing politics. On the one hand you have politicians, like George W Bush, who supposedly have this clarity of purpose. Their rhetoric is all about reducing the complexities of the world to an easily quotable soundbite that anyone can understand.

On the other hand you have the media, especially in the US, attempting to create this broad, 'objective' picture. They claim to cover everything, from the left to the right, with 'neutrality', and it's a fallacy.

As a political artist you have to reside between those two poles. You can't be like the media--you can't pretend to be objective. But on the other hand you don't want to make the mistake of doing what Bush does, having your clear message, your clear agenda that your audience can applaud along with.

It's a tricky move, because you have to take all the things that are invisible, that they try to cover up (the racism, the sexism and so on), and make them visible, expose them. But at the same time you have to take all the things that are legible, that are supposedly obvious in our world, and you have to render them illegible. You have to denaturalise them, scratch them out, and make them strange again.

Your 2002 play Victory at the Dirt Palace is a complex satire in which a father and daughter are rival news anchors as the twin towers are attacked. What inspired you to deal with 9/11 in this way?

There were two seeds. Firstly there was the sentimentalism of the media response to 9/11. There was this idea that there are two groups of people--those who feel sorrow and recognise automatically that what took place on 9/11 was wrong, and then there are those who don't, and those people aren't human, they are the terrorists. It was as if we, as Americans, came together to feel sorrow, and that our feelings filled the bombs that we dropped on Afghanistan.

Secondly I wanted to write about the father/daughter relationship, because in many ways it is the relationship that we have to our media and politicians. They are the daddy, and we are the feminised child who needs to be raised by them. This is the paternalistic relationship that has been set up between the American people and our leaders.

You talk about the sentimentalism around 9/11. Victory at the Dirt Palace cut against that--it is a strong political statement against the so called 'war on terror'.

I felt the need to shit all over people's sentimental responses to 9/11. There's something insulting about weighing and measuring the events of that one day against decades of US imperialism in the Middle East and coming up with the analysis that 9/11 was more awful.

Your latest play, Pugilist Specialist, provides us with very ironic representations of members of a US Marines assassination squad. They are contradictory characters with complex motivations, rather than one-dimensional bad guys. What were you trying to achieve by this sort of characterisation?

I wanted to avoid a good guy/bad guy dynamic on stage. I knew that this show would be playing mainly in the US and Britain, the two countries that participated in the war in Iraq. I felt that if I put a villainous American soldier on stage, contrasted with some sort of idealised anti-war hero, it would be an easy way out. All the lefties in the audience would be able to congratulate themselves for having the right opinion of the war, rather than identify with the military operation that was being executed in their name. I wanted to create a more dialectical situation on stage.

Pugilist Specialist is very much concerned with the US ruling class's need for enemies, and the ways in which those enemies are represented by the news media. Today they announced the capture of Saddam Hussein, describing him as hiding in a 'spider hole'. How do the images being used relate to what you are saying in the play?

I think the media coverage of the capture of Saddam Hussein perfectly lays out what I mean by the politics of representation. These are the politics of metaphor--they say he was in a 'spider hole', they say he was caught 'like a rat'.

Saddam Hussein is sometimes portrayed as a super-potent rapist destroying and subjugating the Iraqi people. Sometimes he's an impotent, cowardly despot. Sometimes he's a rodent, or an insect. These are all strategies of dehumanisation.

For two hours following his capture he had a beard, so they distribute these pictures of him looking like Bigfoot. It shows very explicitly the way in which metaphor is used to turn the war into a conflict between human and non-human, with the US emerging as the human.
Mark Brown

Pugilist Specialist plays at the Soho Theatre, London, 14 January to 7 February, then touring. Full details of the tour can be found online at www.theriotgroup.com.


THE ROAR OF THE AUDIENCE

Radical Theatre


Nicholas Hytner's 'Henry V'
Nicholas Hytner's Henry V

'I went on the 15 February demonstration and was so angry that Blair could still take us into a war that I spent six months writing that anger into a play.' That play was Finding Bin Laden, a comedy which concluded that the US found it convenient not to find him, and was willing to kill reporters who might reveal US atrocities in Afghanistan. The writer Henry Naylor was not unusual in being deeply affected by the long struggle against Blair's war drive. The war against Iraq has had a particularly radicalising effect on those who produced and watched theatre during 2003.

In the last decade theatre has been generally uncritical of the way society is organised. You could tell things were changing when Justin Butcher spent a couple of weeks writing The Madness of George Dubya and turned it into a runaway success, transferring to the West End and then Broadway. The most electrifying moment in the play was an Iraqi's impassioned speech against the US/British treatment of Iraq. Audiences applauded at every pause in the speech.

In 2003 people were being stirred up at every level in the theatre. The artistic director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, made clear his opposition to the war, and gave us a ruthless Henry V who is shown lining up handcuffed prisoners with bags over their heads and then executing them. In the US critics received a statement from the Royal Shakespeare Company saying that their US tour should in no way be regarded as support for the war.

Other companies chose to revive anti-war plays. The Pleasance Theatre mounted a series of shows and debates. The Orange Tree Theatre put on John Galsworthy's The Mob, first performed in Manchester in 1914. It charts the resignation of a government minister who refuses to back an imperialist war. Instead he joins the campaign against it, speaking at an anti-war meeting. However, the most important play to make an appearance after a long absence was Sergeant Musgrave's Dance. A group of soldiers are shown returning from an imperialist war determined to turn their guns on the rich and powerful people who have waged that war. The play's climax is a scene in which Sergeant Musgrave tries to make common cause with striking miners.

The mass movement against war which marched 2 millions across London in February also made it normal to discuss imperialism and its consequences. This became a feature of a number of the new plays in 2003. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, explored reactions to an early adventure of US imperialism in his play Americans. In 1898 the US took over the Philippines. The show centres on Leon Crzolgosz, who is so enraged that the mass protest had failed to stop US atrocities in the Philippines that he assassinates President McKinley, only to find him replaced by the even more imperialist Theodore Roosevelt. In his speech before execution Crzolgosz warns that American brutality abroad will return to set fire to the cities of America.

Gregory Burke, who wrote the iconic play Gagarin's Way about two workers who kidnap and kill their boss, wanted to show what a campaign for war in Iraq could do to ordinary people in Britain. His chilling play The Straits shows how the Falklands War fractured friendships and generated racism among a small group of youths in Gibraltar.

The racism at the centre of Henry Adams's extremely funny play The People Next Door is directed against Muslims. An unpolitical lad is blackmailed by the police into doing undercover surveillance in a mosque. He finds no illegal activity but learns to respect Muslims he had earlier distrusted.

There were times last year when the war seemed to be popping up everywhere in the theatre. Even a play about Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland, included a scene in which the rich are cynically discussing the way they could use a spurious search for weapons of mass destruction to promote a war. In August the British Council held its biennial showcase week, at which the writer Mark Ravenhill was supposed to make a worthy speech in favour of the organisation's activities. Instead he made an attack on the warmongering of Bush and Blair which had the organisers wresting the microphone away from him.

The post-invasion lightning conductor for the anger against Blair was his lies about weapons of mass destruction and his attempt at a cover-up, which drove David Kelly to his death. The Tricycle Theatre's Justifying War reconstructed the Hutton inquiry into those tragic events.

The radicalising effect of the war will continue into 2004. Justin Butcher is following up The Madness of George Dubya with The Weapons Inspector Calls, and Alistair Beaton, author of Feelgood, has written Follow My Leader, a scathing satire on the war on terror. One of the most exciting shows touring Britain is Pugilist Specialist by The Riot Group from San Francisco. This is a witty, complex and disturbing show about a group of soldiers sent to assassinate a foreign leader.

The National Theatre is touring David Hare's The Permanent Way, a documentary account of the privatisation of the railways and the crashes this has caused. He was in part motivated to write about railway privatisation by his anger at a similar sequence of disregard for human life and the wishes of the majority which ended in the war against Iraq. He writes, 'All over the world this year, we are seeing the same phenomenon of electorates waiting, bewildered or furious for their own leaders to catch up with them, and trying to understand the mystery of their refusal.' We can expect theatre to increasingly reflect this discontent in 2004.
Keith McKenna


Music

PUTTING THE DISS IN DISSENT

Sonic Jihad
by Paris


Paris takes the diplomatic route
Paris takes the diplomatic route

Paris first graced the airwaves in 1990 with his black nationalist, anti-establishment LP The Devil Made Me Do It. Two years later he cemented his name as one of hip-hop's most militant lyricists with Sleeping With the Enemy, which was originally due for release before the presidential election in 1992, but suppressed by the recording establishment until the November after the election. The album was shrouded in controversy, with one song in particular--Bush Killa, a revenge fantasy about the assassination of then-president George Bush Sr--raising ire. The G Funk sound which had become prevalent in West Coast rap featured heavenly on Paris's third album, Guerrilla Funk. This sound followed him through to his fourth record, Unleashed, which was an angry rejection of an increasingly negative political climate in hip-hop.

Five years on, a stint as a stockbroker(!), one 11 September and an endless war on terror later, Paris is back and as militant as ever. Sonic Jihad, released on Paris's independent 'musical organisation' Guerrilla Funk recordings, initially sold out via the artist's website (www.guerrillafunk.com). After fighting tooth and nail to get distribution, it is now taking to the shelves of major retailers and looks set to garner Paris new fans. Encased in a jet black sleeve, the cover is hidden away so as not to offend. It depicts a plane heading for the White House. Paris acknowledges that it will cause offence, but responds that 'they complain about the imagery but remain silent when records come out every day that are endorsed by white corporations that degrade black people. Records with lyrics and imagery of black on black violence, drug use and degrading messages about our women. You know there's no outrage there.'

This album attacks the erosion of hip-hop creativity in an industry awash with negativity, genetically modified by major labels in the name of profit. Paris bigs up the anti-war movement in the US and showcases his view that the Bush administration played a key role in orchestrating the terror attacks of 11 September. Tracks like 'AWOL', where Paris adopts the persona of a poor young black male tricked into joining the military with promises of his own apartment, money and exotic world travel, exemplify Paris's ability to paint vivid pictures in your mind. His art of lyrical storytelling is further evident on the track 'Evil', a guide to becoming an oppressor. 'What Would You Do', musically the finest track on the record, calls on people to stand up and fight the common enemy (the US ruling elite): 'And now I'm hoping you don't close ya mind--so they shape ya/Don't forget they made us slaves, gave us Aids and raped us/Another Bush season mean another war for profit/All in secret so the public never think to stop it.'

This album is a breath of fresh air in an industry that is doing its best to silence dissent and reward ignorance. Guest appearances from fellow revolutionary rappers Dead Prez, Public Enemy, Kam and reggae legend Cappleton, alongside speeches from Jesse Jackson and other anti-war activists, add to the flavour of this truly angry vocal critic of US imperialism and the status quo. As Paris says, 'When ya see me, understand I'm representing a voice the majority would feel if given a choice.'
Anthony Casey


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