Stravinsky’s opera The rake’s progress(1951, with libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallmann, is loosely inspired by a series of paintings by William Hogarth.
I got to know the opera in 1979 through playing it in the pit with Riccardo Chailly and the London Sinfonietta in Milan for La Scala, with sets by David Hockney. With performances only every couple of days, it made a wonderful three-week holiday, giving me my first opportunity to explore Milan and the nearby towns of north Italy (Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo, Verona, and so on), long before our 1990s’ tours of Mozart operas in Parma and Ferrara (for more Italian inspirations, see here). “But that’s not important right now“.
As ever, Richard Taruskin‘s perspectives on Stravinsky’s opera are stimulating (The danger of music, pp.109–17). It also gives me another pretext to admire the wonderful Barbara Hannigan—here she is in concert, singing, and conducting, Anne’s aria from Act 1:
To follow Susan MccLary’s incisive comments on the astounding use of the harpsichord in Brandenburg 5, I admire its sinister use in the Act 3 graveyard scene.
Bill Bryson’s Notes from a small island is full of perceptive observations about the British (for diverse comments on How to be English, see here). These vignettes also make a companion to my posts on the challenges of communicating in Chinese and Greek.
On a trip to Glasgow, Bryson finds that one doesn’t have to venture to exotic climes to experience the language barrier:
I wandered along a series of back lanes and soon found myself in one of those dead districts that consist of windowless warehouses and garage doors that say NO PARKING GARAGE IN CONSTANT USE. I took a series of turns that seemed to lead ever further away from society before finally bumbling into a short street that had a pub on the corner. Fancying a drink and a sitdown, I wandered inside. It was a dark place, and battered, and there were only two other customers, a pair of larcenous looking men sitting side by side at the bar drinking in silence. There was no-one behind the bar. I took a stance at the far end of the counter and waited for a bit, but no-one came. I drummed my fingers on the counter and puffed my cheeks and made assorted puckery shapes with my lips the way you do when you are waiting. (And just why do we do that, do you suppose? It isn’t even privately entertaining in the extremely lowlevel way that, say, peeling a blister or cleaning your fingernails with a thumbnail is.) I cleaned my nails with a thumbnail and puffed my cheeks some more, but still noone came. Eventually I noticed one of the men at the bar eyeing me.
“Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I replied.
“He’ll nay be doon a mooning.” He hoiked his head in the direction of a back room.
“Oh, ah,” I said and nodded sagely, as if that explained it.
I noticed that they were both still looking at me.
“D’ye hae a hoo and a poo?” said the first man to me.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“D’ye hae a hoo and a poo?” he repeated. It appeared that he was a trifle intoxicated.
I gave a small, apologetic smile and explained that I came from the English-speaking world.
“D’ye nae hae in May?” the man went on. “If ye dinna dock ma donny.”
“Doon in Troon they croon in June,” said his mate, then added: “Wi’ a spoon.'”
“Oh, ah.” I nodded thoughtfully again, pushing my lower lip out slightly, as if it was all very nearly clear to me now. Just then, to my small relief, the barman appeared, looking unhappy and wiping his hands on a tea towel.
“Fuckin muckle fucket in the fuckin muckle,” he said to the two men, and then to me in a weary voice: “Ah hae the noo.” I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement.
“A pint of Tennent’s, please,” I said hopefully.
He made an impatient noise, as if I were avoiding his question. “Hae ya nae hook ma dooky?”
“Ah hae the noo,” said the first customer, who apparently saw himself as my interpreter.
I stood for some moments with my mouth open, trying to imagine what they were saying to me, wondering what mad impulse had bidden me to enter a pub in a district like this, and said in a quiet voice: “Just a pint of Tennent’s, I think.”
The barman sighed heavily and got me a pint. A minute later, I realized that what they were saying to me was that this was the worst pub in the world in which to order lager since all I would get was a glass of warm soap suds, dispensed from a gasping, reluctant tap, and that really I should flee with my life while I could. I drank two sips of this interesting concoction, and, making as if I were going to the Gents’, slipped out a side door.
One is reminded of the classic Billy Connolly story:
To be fair, Bryson has problems in the American south too (The lost continent):
Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I couldfeel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?”
This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?”
“I said, how yew doin’?”
“I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.”
“Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”
“I say, Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”
I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I say” — and he repeated it more carefully — “how do yew lack Mississippi?”
It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I sighed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Several commentators take Bryson to task for getting cheap laughs at the expense of people who are different (e.g. here; cf. Molvania), though some defend him. Indeed, I tend to feel he’s laughing at his own preconceptions and incomprehension.
In Xinjiang, the Uyghur people, and their whole culture, remain under severe repression. Still no news emerges of the great anthropologist Rahilä Dawut.
The Uyghur dancer, film-maker, and anthropologist Mukaddas Mijit, based in France since 2003, has a creative engagement with the beleaguered culture of her homeland. Do consult her website, and her YouTube channel,
Among her short films, I note this documentary on the Centre for Muqam Transmission in Qumul, inaugurated in 2009 with UNESCO support, some years before the clampdown. The Centre, like others of its kind, makes a classic instance of staged commodification, a world away from Uyghur folk culture—showing how the Chinese state attempts to sanitise it through reification, under the insidious banner of “safeguarding”:
One senses the reservations of the senior muqam masters recruited to the Centre. What has become of such flagships for Uyghur culture amidst the current genocide?
It’s not that an autonomous Uyghur nation wouldn’t be capable of such reification. Such initiatives have long been common among independent nations in Central Asia and elsewhere.
Here’s Mukaddas Mijit’s artistic tribute to her parents’ hometown of Ghulja—long among the flashpoints for ethnic tension in the region, and the site of a 1997 massacre:
She also pays attention to Uyghur rock music—here’s the band Qetig, recorded in Urumqi:
Meanwhile the fate of Uyghur culture at the grassroots—life-cycle observances, pilgrimages, and village celebrations like the mäshräp—looks bleak. For Mukaddas Mijit’s recent film on Uyghur meshrep in Kazakhstan, see note here.
For a conference at SOAS on “Surveillance and repression of Muslim minorities: Xinjiang and beyond”, click here.
For a fruitful way of spending your time under isolation, The Windsors (Channel 4, three series now available) has much to delight in—not least linguistically.
The entire cast is brilliant. Charles (Harry Enfield) and Wills (Hugh Skinner, gormlessly idealistic to follow his cameo as feckless Will in W1A) have great fun with their posh accents and mannerisms; but it’s the personas, and voices, of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Ellie White and Celeste Dring, wonderful) that I find most fascinating (or rather fascinatoring).
Along with their spectacular vapidity, their facial expressions and body language contributing to the effect, they both mangle and relish their vacuous words, constantly finding new ways of distorting vowel sounds—and even lavishing their regal attention upon the last word of a sentence, managing to elongate final consonants.* So just as you think the sentence is fizzling out with its usual innocuous ending, there’s a whole concentration of extra input. It’s like a VAR replay, slowing up even more to show if the ball really crossed the line.
A taster (“I think a job is where you have to go into a building, or something…”):
In their attention to enunciating vowels and consonants I detect a progression from series 1 to series 3. Good start-up words to practise include “now”, “house”, “years”, “money”, “water”.
The princesses deserve an award for elocution, if perhaps not for advancing the cause of women.
* BTW, the extensive stammering tag on this blog is worth consulting. One feature of speech impediments is that we (that’s an inclusive “we”—disfluencies of all kinds may afflict royalty and their loyal, servile subjects alike) tend to stammer on initial consonants: it’s getting going that’s the problem. One technique in “prolonged speech” therapy, a means of desensitisation, is to elongate the consonants, smoothly (easier for ssssustainable nasals and fricatives, whereas p-p-p-plosives have to be repeated). Now the fragrant princesses have got me wondering if it might be fair to give the neglected final consonants a chance too.
Caroline Moorehead, A bold and dangerous family: the Rossellis and the fight against Mussolini (2017).
The book is framed by crucial murders: of Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, and of the brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli in 1937.
The rise of fascism in Italy is amply studied by scholars such as Richard Bosworth. Yet the focused, personal angle of biography makes an engaging perspective on the political upheavals of the 20th century—as we find for China (e.g. here; see also under Cultural Revolutions, including my work on the Li family Daoists).
The present physical and mental landscape of Europe is shaped by the events of the past century (for fascism—Italy 1922–45, Portugal 1933–74, Germany 1933–45, Spain 1939–75—see this wiki article). I’ve outlined the rise of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the context of their singing cultures. And as in China, it can be tempting to retreat into nostalgia for early cultural grandeur.
Amelia: the early years While the fate of the brothers is the main story of the book, their lives shouldn’t overshadow that of their mother, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870–1954), Jewish feminist, playwright, and translator.
Reminding us that Italy was only unified in 1870, Moorehead evokes Amelia’s early life in Venice; alongside its splendour, she notes its decaying, sinister feel (D.H. Lawrence: “abhorrent, green, slippery”). She was excited by the launch of the first vaporetto in 1881. Her father died when she was 14, whereupon she moved to Rome. She came to share the ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini, a family friend who spent much of his exile in London. His
patriotism, his hatred of xenophobia and imperialism, his honesty and moral clarity, were all crucial to the Rossellis’ view of themselves and the world they lived in.
Amelia at the time of her marriage.
After her wedding in 1892, the couple took a honeymoon of nearly three months, visiting Naples, Nice, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, France, and England. In Vienna Amelia became more politicised, absorbing feminist ideas; becoming multi-lingual, she soon gained a reputation for her challenging plays. After returning to Rome, she gave birth to three sons. But as the couple grew apart, Amelia took them off to live in Florence in 1903, a rather benign separation. There, as Moorehead notes with perspective on modern architectural vandalism, in the last fifteen years alone,
one of the most famous city centres in the world had been stripped down—26 old streets destroyed, along with 40 piazzas—in the name of modernity and hygiene.
Florence (also with a lively expat English community) now made a lively venue for Amelia’s creative talents. Her plays in Venetian dialect were well received. She took part in the evolving feminist movement. Politics played a growing role; as anarchists fostered strikes among the many poor city-dwellers, later battle lines were drawn between reformers and reactionaries. Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), an inspiration for the Rossellis, was among the most long-lived anti-fascist historians.
While thinkers were keen to free Italy from the passatismo cult of the past, some futurists also extolled war, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; it was important, he wrote, to liberate Italy from
its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, Ciceroni and antiquarians. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards. […] We will glorify war, the world’s only hygiene […] and scorn women.
Hmm—just when it was going so well…
Amidst the cataclysm of World War One (Moorhead notes that as many as half of the Italian soldiers were illiterate), the death of Amelia’s oldest son Aldo in the Dolomites was devastating.*
The rise of Mussolini, and the resistance The unhealed scars of hatred from the war led to the rise of Mussolini. Major strikes of workers from 1920 to 1922 were countered by “punitive expeditions” against “subversives” by fascist squadristi, egged on by the police, army, and judiciary.
Carlo became part of a committed anti-fascist circle that included Filipo Turati, Giacomo Matteotti, and the young Piero Gobetti. Through Salvemini he met the Englishwoman Marion Cave, who would become his wife. In 1923, after a trip to Paris, he got to know the Italian community in London, busy with its own political tensions.
The first Italians, pedlars, organ-grinders, and jugglers had arrived in London early in the 18th century, and settled in Clerkenwell, turning its narrow, modest streets into a little Italy, where few of the women spoke English. England had been welcoming to these exiles, as it was to the artisans, barbers, asphalters, carpenters, tool-makers, cooks, and ice-cream makers who travelled up through France and across the Channel all through the 19th century. Arriving in Clerkenwell, they felt at home among the flowering window boxes and the sheets hanging from the windows. Some sold ice from the back of a cart. Others opened boarding houses. Pasta was made at home, then hung from the washing line to dry.**
Among the more affluent Italian community in London many were sympathetic to the fascist cause, including groups like the splendidly-named Ice Cream and Temperance Refreshment Federation. But others lampooned the fascists.
After taking part in a Fabian gathering in genteel Hindhead, Carlo visited Birmingham and the Midlands, “the real England, smoky, dirty, industrial, ugly, productive”—though he found no redeeming features in English food of whatever social level.
After a brief period of ambivalence towards women’s rights, by 1923 Mussolini went on the attack against feminism. Soon
magazine articles showed pictures of comely peasant women in national dress. And sturdy peasant men “mirthful”, yet “sober in their habits”, enjoying “health” and “praiseworthy” pastimes. Private dance halls were closed “for reasons of morality”. People were urged to become lean, willowy, sinewy. “I have no pity,” declared Mussolini, “for the fat”. The new Italian was to be “Herculean”, potent, granite-like, made of steel.
Italian youth were indoctrinated in the Balilla movement (not to be confused with the Barilla pasta company, latterly unlikely sponsors of the wonderful Coco Gauff). Mussolini sent a mission to England to sudy Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts.
The last photo of Matteotti (centre), shortly before his murder.
The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a decisive moment, shocking the younger dissidents into political action. It was now clear that Mussolini could not be defeated by legal means.
As repression intensified in Italy, Carlo visited London again to observe guild socialism and the new Labour government. Back in Florence, fascist squadri were ever more active. In Monteleone a sculpture was erected of a Madonna and child brandishing a club, La Madonna del manganello. Salvemini was forced into exile.
Confino After managing to help Turati flee to Paris, Carlo was thrown into prison. Though the sentencing of the defendants to a mere ten months at the “trial of the professors” in 1927 seemed like some kind of victory against fascism, Mussolini still sent them off for five years’ confino on a succession of remote island penal colonies. Meanwhile Nello married Maria Todesco; but he too was soon sentenced to confino.
Banishment to penal colonies was a common method of dealing with opponents of the fascist regimes in Europe (for Portugal, see here; cf. The first gulag), and had a long history as far back as ancient Rome. As elsewhere, in recent years these islands—Ustica, Favignana, Lipari, Ponza, Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Le Tremiti—have become tourist destinations, their painful histories often ignored. In recent years they have also become staging posts for desperate migrants on the route to Europe.
Though conditions were spartan, the islands had a certain rustic charm, and compared to many other such camps conditions were relatively benign. Those with sufficient funds were able to find their own dwellings; they received basic supplies from relatives, and educated themselves—and the locals. The Rossellis’ wives and children, and Amelia, were permitted to join them. Early in 1928, Nello was released from Ustica, though he remained under surveillance.
Meanwhile Carlo was on Lipari. Again the confinati kept busy, selling doughnuts, organizing deliveries of Parmesan, giving talks on Dante.
Left: Nello’s house on Ustica, with a crowd of confinati. Right: Carlo, with Nitti and Lussu, escaping from Lipari on their way to freedom.
Fleeing from such islands was considered impossible; yet in 1929, after several attempts, Carlo managed to escape with two other confinati by boat to Tunisia, eventually reaching Paris, where he joined a lively community of anti-facist exiles; soon Marion and their young children arrived. Nello was soon returned to Ustica before being moved on to Ponza, but he was released again by November.
The struggle continues Though Mussolini’s network of spies was active in Paris, Carlo and his comrades still managed to stage demonstrations in Italy against fascist power, dropping leaflets by plane over Milan. Such resistance may seem largely ineffectual, but it was significant.
In 1930 Nello spent time in England, meeting up with Salvemini and English supporters of the cause. Amelia joined him. Her nephew Alberto Moravia also arrived; though he was now fêted for his novel Gli indifferenti, Amelia and Nello were disturbed by his cool cynicism. Stopping off in Paris on his way back to Italy, Moravia met up with Carlo, who asked him to post a letter in Rome for an anarchist friend, which he did reluctantly.
This passage may sound familiar:
The Italians were fed inconsistencies, falsehoods, contradictions, differing interpretations, all designed to mystify and confuse, many of it [sic] couched in stentorian, martial tones over the radio. It was forbidden to mention failures.
As the indoctrination of youth continued, we can imagine Amelia’s reaction:
As for girls, who had to be protected from the “unnatural desires of English suffragettes” and the frivolity and worldliness of “French coquettes”, they were made to dance, garden, iron, and knit, and given “doll drills”, in which they were taught how to hold babies the correct way. When, in the early summer of 1928, thousands of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 were brought to Rome for the first gymnastic-athletic competition, they were told to discipline their muscles and take part in rifle practice, while at the same time to study “good mothering”, in order to become “neither feeble… nor gloomy”. (Pope Pius XI protested about the rifles: if girls raised their arms, it should “be always and only in prayer and charitable actions”.)
Marinetti continued to propound his wild vision: he
wanted to “fascistise” all culture, do away with classical architecture and fill Italy’s squares with electric trams and overhead wires. He wanted to industrialise Venice and ban everything foreign—films, food, orchestras, and even languages—within “our virile, proud, dynamic pensinula”.
Being antipassatista involved being anti-pasta:
And since the new man had to be futuristic inside as well as out, he launched a campaign against pasta, saying that it had made Italians gross, lazy, complacent, and stupid, and led to pessimism and prostitution. “Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats, and oxen,” he declared in an article on Futuristic cooking. The new man would do better to eat black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats, and as he ate, stroke sandpaper and velvet, enjoying the contrast in taste and texture, while a waiter sprayed carnation-scented water on to the back of his neck and from the kitchen were relayed the roars of aeroplane motors. At the Holy Palate, his proposed Futuristic restaurant in Turin, diners would be given a boiled chicken accompanied by ball bearings in whipped cream, served by a “woman of the future”, bald and wearing spectacles. Compared to the remorseless severity and humourlessness of most fascist dictators, Marinetti’s crazy fantasies had a certain innocent charm.
We want to create a kind of magical eye which keeps Italians under control and can at any moment provide me with a complete, up-to-date picture of everything being said and done in the whole of Italy. Men … with the craftiness of a fox and the speed of a serpent, they need to learn the difficult art of provocation, how to insinuate themselves into a crowd, how to fit into every situation and every social circle.
a “moral cleansing” was launched, with campaigns against swearing, pornography, immoral plays, and indecent fashions. “Eroticism” was done away with, wherever it occurred. Girls were enjoined not to dance the Charleston, and to wear thick stockings and blouses with long sleeves. Dance halls were closed down. There were calls to ostracise “Northern habits”, such as Christmas trees.
Amelia resigned from the Lyceum, once a lively forum for ideas.
The anti-fascists continued their work. In October 1931 leaflets were dropped over Rome. But the secret police were ever-vigilant.
Turati, whom Carlo described as the moral leader of Italy, died in Paris in 1932. With the aid of Sylvia Pankhurst (but not the British government), Carlo attempted to help Matteotti’s widow leave Italy for Paris.
After Hitler came to power in Germany, he came to Venice in 1934 to meet Mussolini for the first time—neither was enamoured.
In 1935 the remaining members of the anti-fascist network in Turin were arrested—including Carlo Levi, whose months of exile in a southern village prompted him to write Christ stopped at Eboli.
Full of bellicose imperial ambitions, Mussolini launched a brutal campaign in Abyssinia. The reproaches of the British government prompted another tirade from the ever-reliable Martinetti, decrying British snobismo, alcoholism, degeneracy, lack of genius, and above all their “sexual abnormalities”.
Carlo was now recognized as leader of the Paris exiles, and, for the spies watching him, the main threat. In Italy, Moravia had just published Le ambizioni sbagliate, but he rebuffed Carlo’s attempt to recruit him to the cause.
Spain, and the assassination In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out, with Franco supported by Mussolini. As the anti-fascists sought to redeem their past failures, Carlo set off for the front with a band of volunteers. But with the resistance soon riven by dissent, Carlo returned to Paris in January 1937. That year too, Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, died after eleven years in prison.
In Florence anti-semitism was ever more flagrant. Just as a cell of French Cagoulards, with the blessing of Mussolini, was plotting to have Carlo eliminated, Nello, fatefully, resolved to meet his brother in Normandy. In June 1937, after a happy reunion, they were ambushed and murdered as they drove through the woods—Carlo was the target, Nello an unfortunate collateral victim.
The truth emerged only gradually; Pablo Picasso and André Breton were among a group of intellectuals who wrote that if the death of Matteotti had signalled the death of liberty in Italy, that of the Rosselli brothers has signed its death warrant in the whole of Europe.
From Alberto Moravia, Amelia’s much loved nephew, there was total silence. No telephone calls, no letters, no flowers. She did not take it well.
Amelia, broken, left Italy with Maria to Switzerland; soon Marion joined them. Seeking wider horizons, in 1939 they moved to an English village. In 1940 the Germans invaded France; the family now felt it wise to emigrate again to the USA. In New York too, politics were divisive. They met up with like-minded exiles, including the senior Salvemini, who had taken up a teaching post at Harvard in 1934 after going into exile in Paris in 1925.
In a household of women, the matriarch Amelia was now in her seventies; more than either of her daughters-in-law, she approached the New World with curiosity and openness.
Mussolini was ousted from power in the summer of 1943 before he was executed in April 1945. From afar, the Rossellis learned of the liberation of Florence and Rome. Trials were now held for the murders of Carlo and Nello. The family returned to Italy in June 1946, learning how their friends and acquaintances had collaborated with the fascists. In 1951 the bodies of Carlo and Nello were moved from Père Lachaise cemetery to Florence.
Moravia In 1945 Alberto Moravia had at last written to his aunt Amelia trying to explain his inability at the time, under surveillance, to express his condolences for the murder of Carlo and Nello; but she considered him to have acted “out of opportunism, or, at its most charitable, out of weakness”.
Moravia (1907–90) comes poorly out of this whole story. His novel The conformist (1951), which Bertolucci made into a wonderful film (see this post), reads as a telling denunciation of fascism, and is based on the lives and deaths of the Rossellis. The story of Marcello, the damaged protagonist falling prey to the fascist cause in his vain search for “normality”, contrasts with the principled, life-affirming exiles in Paris; his betrayal of Professor Quadri leads to the horrifying assassination of him and his wife in the woods. Yet Moravia remained distant from the Rosselli family. Was his novel a plea for absolution? Of course, not everyone could be as brave as the Rossellis: at the time, and for many years to come, people had to make uncomfortable moral choices throughout Europe (e.g. the GDR), Russia, and China.
Carlo’s widow Marion died in 1949, and “the Rosselli heroes left sad legacies of depression and troubled minds”. Amelia, ever strong, died at the age of 84 on Boxing Day 1954. Melina, daughter of Carlo and Marion, became a successful poet, but committed suicide in 1996 on the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, whose work she had translated.
* * *
As this review notes, Moorehead makes use of contrasting sources: not only the family archive of letters, shot through with love and shared political passions, but also the huge stash of documents, inspired by suspicion and hostility, from the network of spies who documented their every move.
Now I look forward to reading her account of the resistance around Turin, A house in the mountains: the women who liberated Italy from fascism (2019). And then onto all the murky politics of later Italian politics, and the continuing threat of fascism.
Why didn’t I know, or care, about all this through my youth? Alas, my interests were so abstruse. It’s also a world away from the concerns of the Burlesque-only generation; yet the scars remain, and as fascism turns out not to have been erased, it seems ever more relevant. Like Neil MacGregor, I also wonder,
What would we have done?
* In England such trauma was to be movingly evoked by Vera Brittain, who lost her brother Edward in the same region.
Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.
Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan.  As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).
As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary
Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).
It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.
It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.
Here’s the film—notat allfor the faint-hearted:
A restudy would be interesting.
This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:
The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.
As ever, the commodified urban performances of dervishes for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.
 For trance mediums in Amdo, see here. For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013), perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). And now she has published The battle for fortune: state-led development, personhood, and power among Tibetans in China (2018). Among several other articles, see e.g. Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995); articles by Katia Buffetrille, including her chapter in a special volume on Mediums and shamans in Central Asia; and Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD). For more references, see Isabelle Henrion’s extensive Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §8. Note also R. Solomon Rino, Deity men: Reb gong trance mediums in transition (2008).
There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi-with the sort of … raffia-work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers, that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.
Beyond our own oojamaflip, thingamajig, whatchamacallit, gizmo, and doohickey, the useful site Europe’s not dead now enables the Europhile to tour throughout the continent and make an impression on the natives with a convincing grasp of idiom in a variety of languages—from Italian coso, Portuguese coiso and cena, chisme in Spanish, and the French truc to a wealth of words in Scandinavia (not least the Norwegian duppeditt and snurrepipperi) and around central and east Europe. Many are genital in origin; and for the organologist, in Belarus people sometimes use bandura—erstwhile a plucked lute, big and inconvenient to carry.
What’s more, a lengthy, erudite Twitter thread has supplemented the list with languages around the world. BTW, Chinese nage shenme (“that what?”) may be colloquially abbreviated, with classical economy, to nasha.
Seriously though folks, while taking care to avoid over-using such terms, allaying suspicion that one doesn’t actually know any words at all in the language in question, it’s precisely idioms like these that allow us to endow our colloquial conversations with authenticity.
Let me see now, what did I come in here for again?
*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, click here!*
The photo shows a gathering of music masters in Nepal, c1900.
While immersing ourselves in the melodic and rhythmic riches of Indian raga we may forget that, like any other musical culture (including WAM), it is an evolving product of a social system, and that “music isn’t a thing, but an activity“. Bruno Nettl’s imaginative citing of the north Indian gharana system in his book on the schools of WAM reminded me to re-read the important early study
Daniel M. Neuman, The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1980, with updated preface, 1990).
Nettl ranks Neuman’s work alongside other ethnographic studies of a similar vintage, such as Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli, Paul Berliner on the mbira, and Lorraine Sakata on Afghan musicians. It also makes a good instance of Nettl’s own taxonomy of responses to change in musical traditions around the world.
Bearing particularly on traditions of “art music”, Neuman’s points may vary significantly for regional folk genres, for India (see under Indian tag, e.g. Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia) and elsewhere around the world (such as flamenco, the festivities of Morocco, or—you guessed it—Chinese shawm bands), where intensity and communication are just as relevant but depend more on constant exposure than on rigorous formal training.
From afar I was absorbed in raga long before I began visiting China. It was a pioneer on the scene later dubbed “world music”, invigorated by the hippy vibe of the 1960s. Raga (at that stage mainly considered as a solo instrumental genre) seemed a pure, spiritual art—and that is indeed part of the story. Like WAM (see links under Society and soundscape) and Chinese music (e.g. Debunking “living fossils”), it may seem timeless, autonomous; and most early studies focused on disembodied musical analysis, notably on the art of improvisation. But change, both social and musical, is a constant theme—a process going on since at least the mid-19th century and still proceeding apace. Neuman’s analysis makes an important corrective to those who still prefer to leave their orientalist fantasies of the Mystic East untrammelled.
In a preface for the 1990 paperback edition, Neuman observes change even over the years since he carried out his original fieldwork, such as the boom in institutions, festivals, and research (both in India and abroad), further technological revolutions, a broadening in class, the increasing importance of pop music—and the scene has continued to transform since. While the general sound of the tradition has proved quite resilient,
how such a characteristic, yet elusive and ephemeral, cultural phenomenon continues to maintain its integrity and autonomy in a world so vastly changed from that which gave it birth.
He reminds us of the 19th-century background of elite private patronage, with musical events taking place in the noble courts and homes of the wealthy, rulers going to great lengths—as in baroque Europe—to sustain a top-ranking musical establishment. And from the 1920s, the scene was partially redefined by the tastes and economic power of the rising middle class and the search for a national identity, with musicking becoming one of the social graces of the bourgeoisie, not least among women—as in 19th-century Europe. From the 1930s new radio stations, and the film industry, played an increasing role in patronage; the culture of art music was becoming urbanized and diversified.
I like Fox Strangways’ comment (1914!):
India has had time to forget more melody than Europe has had time to learn.
In Chapter 2, “Becoming a musician”, Neuman focuses on riaz “practice” and the guru–shishya relationship between master and disciple that defines the gharana stylistic “school”. Riaz is a source for many stories of extreme, ascetic devotion to practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”), many of which have taken on a mythic air. Such tales of the moral virtues of perseverance put my tribulations with Ševčík violin studies in the shade.
Often when I met musicians, the very first thing they asked me was whether I had been practicing hard; and while saying this, one would take my left hand and look at my nails and cuticles for the “hard” evidence. If the cuticles were built up into a horny ridge, and if my nails had grooves at the point where the nail meets the cuticle, then the evidence was there.
He discusses the transition from the dedicated discipline of the disciple to maintenance in later years, as “the leisure of the idealized village of the past or the princely patronage system is replaced by the scramble to earn a living”. As Ram Narayan observed, an important stage is learning how to practice correctly. Again, parallels here with WAM.
Exploring the relationship between disciple and master, Neuman cites a venerable ustad on the possible demise of the surbahar bass sitar, with a simile that precisely recalls the Chinese proverb “playing the qin for an ox” 对牛弹琴:
You think that the ustads want to keep the surbahar to themselves. It is wrong to think that way. We want to teach, but who is going to learn? It is such a big science, and if anybody asks for it and we give it then it would be like playing the vīṇā [the bīn] in front of a water-buffalo, so we can only play for those who understand.
Some “secret” ragas, too, are conveyed only to exceptional disciples.
In Chapter 3, “Being a musician”, Neuman discusses music as divine expression. But
although music and God are closely related, music and religion are not.
By “music”, he’s referring to the raga tradition—the soundscape of Indian ritual practice is another subject. He mentions rāgMalkauns, considered especially attractive to jinn spirits. But the move to the concert stage has attenuated such knowledge:
Musicians are, in a sense, twice removed from the sacred and magical. They believe in the power of music, but rarely seem to experience it. Like riaz as a sacred duty and the guru-shishya system as a hallowed relationship, musicians as magical performers are becoming a thing of the past. “It is the common man,” as some musicians are fond of putting it, “who calls the tune”. The piper’s patron which has emerged is a very complex mixture of people, and musicians are now listening carefully so that they know which tune to play.
This leads Neuman to a discussion of the listening public. As audiences have become more diverse, musicians adjust their repertoire. Sometimes they perform in special mehfil gatherings for connoisseurs, including other musicians—the most intimate and satisfying context (I think of the flamenco juerga, or the qin gathering in China).
But usually in recent decades they have to perform on the concert platform for a large, unfamiliar audience, or even (as often in the case of radio) with no listeners present as they play. Neuman gives instances of audiences around India considered more and less discriminating, and discusses amplification. He mentions the verbal reactions of audiences—at prescribed junctures—such as kyā bāt! (“what a thing!”) or javāb nahī (“no answer”), yet again reminding one of the jaleocalls of flamenco (olé, agua, and so on).
The move to the concert stage has made performers tailor their repertoire, calibrating the sequence and length of more highbrow alap and vilambit, and the more virtuosic sections of the raga, including crowd-pleasing sawāl-jawāb question-and-answer exchanges.
The book wisely refrains from discussing the substantial variations in length of the preludial alap in the various vocal and instrumental genres. Rather than a simple modern abbreviation of a once-grandiose form, in some cases it may be the opposite. The advent of recording, with its limited capacity, may have influenced performance practice to some extent, but doesn’t seem to correlate closely with the varying duration of alap in live performance. A major factor may be the performer’s assessment of the changing audience’s discernment.
Neuman discusses musicians’ own evaluations under the headings of competence, appropriateness, and affect. His account doesn’t quite resemble the contrast between an abstract study period and having to make a living in the real world (cf. Training Daoists in Shanghai).
In Chapter 4, “The social organization of specialist knowledge”, Neuman attempts an etic taxonomy, observing hierarchies. As in many cultures, there is no common term for “musician” (and even our term is extremely vague). Neuman unpacks the term “professional musician”—an occupational category that subsumes a variety of performing specialists from various social groups. He discusses performers by ethnic origins (based in Delhi, he found that most musicians came from hereditary Muslim families), community, caste; by gender, residence, and age; by the extent of their musical knowledge; and by the type of music that they performed.
Musicians acknowledge the distinction between soloists and accompanists: a singer with an accompanying instrument (harmonium increasingly replacing sarangi), or a melodic instrumentalist with tabla. Vocal genres (dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazal)—ranked on a scale of seriousness—are a constant theme.
Neuman notes that the sarangi player Ram Narayan was rare in making the transition from accompanist to soloist; and he discusses the female vocalists, formerly associated with the courtesan tradition. While most soloists still perform on sitar and sarod, performers of other instruments such as shahnai oboe, bānsrī (bansuri) flute, and violin have occasionally come to achieve celebrity (see also Indian and world fiddles).
He goes on to consider the sarangi and tabla accompanists, mostly belonging to specific occupational groups and “associated by outsiders with dancing girls, tawaifs, and brothels”. The sarangi players are mainly associated with khayal, but never accompany dhrupad. Their knowledge is different from that of soloists (“artists”): while less creativity is expected of them, they are skilled, expert craftsmen (“artisans”). The role of the tabla, previously subsidiary, has grown. Neuman unpacks their basis in the caste system, with historical leads involving rural and urban origins.
In Chapter 5, “Gharanas: the politics of pedigree”, he notes conflicting views about the value of the gharana, yet another fluid system formed with “the introduction of the railway and telegraph system in the 1850s, the great uprising of 1857 with its concomitant social dislocations, and a slow but steady increase in urbanization”.
Chapter 6 concerns adaptive strategies. He returns to the theme of changing patronage; for the former musical parties of the nobility he reminds us of Sayajit Ray’s 1958 film The music room. A fine section follows on the important role of All India Radio, which became a major employer of vocalists and instrumentalists. Neuman discusses the accompanying role of the harmonium, now standard: commonly used in India since the 19th century, it became popular with vocalists themselves. As it came to threaten the livelihood of sarangi players, its use was controversial; All India Radio banned it in the 1950s, but had to recant by the 1970s (cf. the violin in Crete).
An image of Gauhar Jan led me to this 1902 recording—with harmonium:
For another early instance to illustrate that the use of harmonium is not just a modern abomination, listen to Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1909 here.
Neuman then discusses public performances, fixing fees, “foreign returned” artists, contacts, and changing modes of tuition, including educational institutions. Against the broad and superficial teaching of such schools,
professional musicians are often heard to say that it is far better to concentrate on one or a very few rags, exploring each in depth to enable the disciple to extend his understanding of many other rags quickly. “If you practice rag Yaman intensely, and come to really know it, then the knowledge of other rags will come of itself”
Again, this reminds me of the Chinese qin zither: Wu Jinglue, one of many senior masters recruited to the conservatoire yet never wholly absorbed into its ethos, gave me just the same advice. More broadly reminiscent of Chinese music are the decline of elite patronage, and social change since the traumas surrounding independence—though the historical trajectories of China and India are utterly different.
In Chapter 7, “The ecology of Hindustani music culture”, Neuman ponders the perceived constancy amidst social change and a radically altered cultural terrain (again recalling Nettl’s parameters). On producers of music, he further ponders themes such as the increasing diversity of the scene, hereditary and non-hereditary musicians, and the growing participation of women.
Such changes are reflected in repertoires. Returning to rāg Malkauns, he comments:
When rāg Malkauns ceases to be the rāg of jinns and becomes a pentatonic scale, the music becomes something different because it means something different.
As to consumers, Neuman includes advertising and sponsorship in his discussion, as well as the role of the state and audiences for live and recorded music. For modern stage performances, he distinguishes “courtly” and “devotional” models, noting stage presentation and costume. He discusses technologies of production and reproduction and their influence on performance practices—again a popular theme in studies of WAM. He suggests a decrease in the diversity of performance styles along with an increase in the variety of experiments and forms.
Chapter 8, “The cultural structure and social organization of a music tradition”, further unpacks the relationship of musicians and audiences to the imagined past. While there is not always a harmonious equilibrium between social and cultural changes, Neuman suggests that the structure
can adapt to changing social conditions because it is constructed from elements which allow both contradictory intepretations and a continuing potential for revision.
* * *
Among the accompanying instruments, the sarangi has long been prominent, though (as we saw) threatened by the harmonium. The remarkable website of Nicolas Magriel contains a wealth of information on individual players, along with a treasury of precious audio and video field recordings—made just at a time when the system was going into decline. As he comments in this interview,
“One thing that’s really unique is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players—I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician—people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.” […]
“The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music. It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.”
Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars—the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordinances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”
Still, while Magriel finds a growing shallowness in the music, along with Indian art music in general, he doesn’t entirely subscribe to the notion that the sarangi is endangered.
One of the first sarangi players to attract attention abroad was Ram Narayan, who was largely responsible for elevating the sarangi as a solo instrument on the international concert stage, and who collaborated with Neil Sorrell in Indian music in performance: a practical introduction (1980), just as Neuman was writing. Joep Bor (compiler of the indispensable annotated CD set The raga guide) also paid great attention to sarangi players.
Having featured rāg Marwa in a previous post on Heart of glass (yeah, I know), here’s a version by Ram Narayan:
What I find so attractive about this raga is the challenge of having to struggle to keep track of the scale and its relationship with the tonic. This is always true, actually—just that in this case one is forced to engage with the pitch hierarchies.
While our interests in the diverse ways of musicking around India, and elsewhere, have broadened substantially, the northern raga tradition remains a major topic, for which Neuman’s work was an important early ethnography.
The perils of tourism, from the 1986 album World service by Lost Jockey’s successor Man Jumping—
a band formed to “take the Lost Jockey minimalism in the direction of pop, dance music and jazz, to get paid to play, and to concentrate on recording”.
Brian Eno described us as “the most important band in the world”—or did he? No-one was ever quite sure. The sales were disappointing. Managers were bought in, and mostly succeeded in irritating us. We probably would have benefited more from psychotherapists.
So here’s The perils of tourism—a concept almost, but not quite, before its time:
Their output also includes Lenin tempted by a job in advertising, a title of which Alexei Sayle would be proud. All this deserves to be far more popular—but it’s never too late. BTW, Orlando’s site has a wealth of drôle creative writing on his early travails on tour and the struggle between creativity and survival.
His later work continues to enchant. Continuing the theme of re-imagining world music, here’s a playlist of The world encompassed (2017), written for the enterprising viol consort Fretwork, about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world—the title taken from a book by Drake’s nephew. As Orlando explains,
My approach is to imagine the viol players returning to England at the end of the voyage. Their friends say, so what was it like, this exotic music you heard? And they say, well, er, not so easy to give you an idea, but it was a bit like this……. And their version of the local music is as unreliable as the account of the voyage in The World Encompassed—biased, half-remembered, and severely compromised by the choice of instruments.
The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the
Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]
on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.
Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).
Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui神仙會), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,
China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.
Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:
1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi歲 時)
2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan農諺)
3) Birth (shengzi生子)
4) Marriage (hunjia婚嫁)
5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou生日、祝十和祝壽)
6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang喪葬)
7) Prayers (qidao祈禱)
8) Miscellany (zazu雜俎),
with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.
But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county  Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.
As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes.  Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.
* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.
In the history of the Holocaust, the Porajmos (“Devouring”, though among the Roma the term is controversial and little used), far less publicised than the Jewish genocide, is often reduced to a footnote.
The exhibition explores Roma and Sinti life in Germany and Austria prior to the Second World War, and genocidal policies starting in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It also examines the post-war lives and legacies for Roma and Sinti, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for their oppression. It reflects on the situation in Britain and Europe today, with prejudice and discrimination against them still common—featuring the testimony of Józef Sadowski, the only known Roma survivor of Nazi persecution living in the UK today.
A most compelling ethnography is
Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing: the gypsies and their journey (1995); she reflects on the Porajmos in ch.7.
Gypsies have no myths about the beginnings of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations—that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest person among them. The rest, as it were, were not history. […]
The Second World War and its traumas are certainly within living memory; but there is no tradition of commemoration, or even of discussion. Some thought that such talk might actually be dangerous: “Why give them ideas?” a young Hungarian Rom asked, fifty years after the event. Under the Nazis, the Gypsies were the only group apart from the Jews who were slated for extermination on the grounds of race. It is a story that remains unknown—even to many Gypsies who survived it.
As Fonseca observes, whereas the Enlightenment brought European Jews opportunities for education and commerce previously closed to them, the Roma remained the “quintessential outsiders of the European imagination”, rejecting assimilation.
Belzec camp, 1940: left, perhaps Jozef Kwiek, self-proclaimed King of Polish gypsies; right, Kalderash gypsies from Romania.
Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, a law “Combatting Gypsies, vagabonds, and the work shy” was passed in Bavaria in 1926, with a counterpart in Prussia the following year. The plight of the Roma became ever more acute through the 1930s. The Nazis regarded gypsies as congenital criminals, subsuming them in a litany of “undesirables” or “asocials”—along with communists, social democrats, trade unionists, pacifists, homosexuals, dissenting clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, freemasons, Slavs.
Rough estimates of Roma murdered during the war (and their populations of the time) vary widely: from between 220,000 and 500,000 (25% to over 50% of slightly under 1 million Roma), to about 1.5 million out of 2 million.
Although German Gypsies had been out into German concentration camps as early as 1934, in November of 1941 Łódź became the first place in Poland where Gypsies were gathered for extermination in a camp setting. Here they were completely sealed off, and were out of sight; only the few Jewish doctors who treated a typhus epidemic, and then Jewish gravediggers, witnessed their end.
Apart from the Sinti of central Europe—German, Austrian, Polish, Czech, Slovak—those rounded up came from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and the Baltic states; from Norway, Belgium, France, and Holland. Many were herded into ghettos and deported to camps—including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen—and subjected to forced medical experiments and sterilisation. In Auschwitz they were housed as families in Zigeunerlager; but the atrocious conditions there soon led to fatal epidemics.
And as Timothy Snyder points out, in the Bloodlands those summarily executed in mass shootings far outnumbered those who perished in the camps.
From 1979, in that youthful idyll that one somehow took for granted, I delighted in taking part in the summer music festivals of Montepulciano (Mahler 10!!!),* Batignano (Mozart’s Zaide!!!), Pesaro (Rossini’s Mi manca la voce!!!), and the Arena di Verona. Meanwhile I avidly began exploring the whole region—Florence, Siena, Perugia, Urbino, Pisa, Orvieto, Arezzo, and so on (see also The rake’s progress).
Here’s St Fina (1238–53, sic), patron saint of the town, clasping a model of it (or possibly a birthday cake), as depicted in a series of scenes from her legend on a reliquary tabernacle (1401–2) by Lorenzo di Niccolò Gerini.
Some of these guidebooks are impressively erudite. In English, estimable research like that of Enzo Raffa in San Gimignano by the beautiful towers has been pleasantly garbled, supplementing education with giggles—always a winning combo. It opens with evocative images:
Seen in the distance, it seems an inaccessible town. Going up from the Poggibonsi way, which is the most common, the towers lose their prospective and get down** till disappearing among olive trees. The brown silver color of leaves increases the silence around red bricks of walls. From the Certaldo way, the town is more braggart. Towers are as straight as halberds be they wet by the rain or burnt by the sun, they always keep the very same color and maintain the same soleliness of the black and closed cypresses of these places.
He then goes all Zen on us:
And here, in the space enlarging at a bell’s touch, a strange sensation of surety embraces our soul.
As he takes us through the usual catalogue of medieval strife, some elements in the social picture are timeless:
A few families, the richest ones, try to impose their sovereignty through the joke of reincharges.
With Italy currently a major centre for Coronavirus, some recent articles have made parallels with historical disasters such as the 1629 outbreak in Florence. Still earlier, as Raffa relates, San Gimignano was stricken by the Black Death pandemic:
Where the interior struggles could not get, the pest arrived. The great pest of 1348, the one killing the sweet Laura of Petrarca poet, along with a great number of persons.
And he’s aware of other modern parallels:
For a town like San Gimignano, the destruction of walls would have been equal to the taking off of a suit at the open air in a rigid winter day. […] San Gimignano is refusing.
Once upon a time it was said that San Gimignano had 72 beautiful towers. Only 25 were standing up in 1580. Today there are 14, others may be numbered but they are either included in buildings or docked to a great extent. Their architecture is a speaking sign of the mentality made of surety, of offense and of pride.
As the author explains:
The holes we can still see on the facades were used for the quick building of bridges which could be used either for reaching friend families’ towers or to attach enemy families’ towers.
I’m sure he’s right, but I wonder if anyone spotted a design flaw there.
Piazza della Cisterna.
Elsewhere I read that a common, if one-off, pastime in San Gimignano was to commit suicide by throwing oneself off a high tower. But another popular way of ending it all, in Italy as in China, was by throwing oneself down a deep well. The most elegant method, I surmise, would be to throw oneself off a high tower into a deep well, as Freud and Jung might have suggested—one possible target for the ambitious acrobatic depressive might be the well in Piazza della Cisterna.
Well (sic) might one exclaim, like a duty roster for the Wigan emergency services as read in the voice of Alan Bennett:
From Assisi, home of Saint Francis, I moved on to Gubbio, enjoying the miracle of the saint taming a wolf that terrorized the town until it meekly offered its paw to him. Actually, it was a peace deal:
“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”
“Giving in to terrorism”, as it might now be called.
The wolf of Gubbio is one of many panels that Sassetta painted from 1437 to 1444 for an altarpiece in San Francesco at Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo. And now I can go and admire it, alongside some gorgeous Duccio panels, at Room 52 of the National Gallery in London!
Describing the wolf, my Italian guidebook to Gubbio contained the delightful phrase quadrupede feroce—an expression that later my Italian partner and I always tried, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to shoehorn into our conversations revolving around cuddly domestic pets.
The troubled background of such picturesque old towns can now be neatly packed away under cultural history; and they are not mere cultural playgrounds for tourists—real people have to make a living there through changing times (cf. Venice daily life in a theme park). Still, basking in these guidebooks now, with their lavish illustrations of exquisite medieval archecture and painting, I find it intriguing that only a few years later I graduated to traipsing around grimy dilapidated towns in north China, where little trace has survived of any material culture predating the 1950s (see also Molvania).
And the villages are hardly more idyillic: among decrepit single-storey dwellings from the Maoist era, the alleys are strewn with litter. The great compensation, of course, is the expressive culture of rural China.
To follow my earlier posts on Coronavirus (1, 2, 3), I’ve been catching up, remotely, with the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggaocounty of north Shanxi, 300 km west of Beijing on the way to the city of Datong—in normal times, ever more accessible. Whereas my previous posts on the crisis have concerned responses online and behind the closed doors of temples, here we find how ritual activity is still being maintained for routine burials.
In recent years, as the wonderful Li Manshan has begun to take things easier in his eighth decade, his son Li Bin, working since 2007 from the base of his funeral shop in the county-town, has been worked off his feet (for their busy diaries, see here and here; and for the tough life of the household Daoist, here). Not only does he book and lead a band to perform funeral rituals throughout the villages, but he has to organise every stage of the mortuary procedure from death to burial—as well as making routine individual consultations to “determine the date” for weddings, health, journeys, selecting auspicious sites for new buildings, and so on.
Since the Coronavirus scare, strict measures have been in place in north Shanxi, though no cases seem to have been reported there. Many neighbourhoods in Datong city were sealed; in Yanggao town the gated communities monitored all activity. Restaurants and schools have been closed. For a change, there are no traffic jams at the crossroads just north of Li Bin’s funeral shop (my film, from 4.17).
Wedding festivities are on hold, and bereaved families are not currently allowed to invite Daoists or shawm bands to perform group funeral rituals (known as “opening the drum” kaigu 开鼓), as is normally de rigueur. So regular members of the Daoist sextet like Wu Mei and Li Sheng, normally busy reciting the scriptures with wind and percussion for the sequence of rituals they perform for funerals over two (sometimes three) days, now find themselves temporarily unemployed. Golden Noble, another core member of the band who leads the vocal liturgy, can perform the solo mortuary procedures like determining the date, siting graves, and supervising the burial, so he has picked up a bit of work in the immediate vicinity of his home township Houying.
One accomplished Daoist who has only rarely been able to appear with the ritual group since seeking work as a migrant labourer in 2004 is Li Qing’s nephew Erqing. Whereas the other Daoists are active over a small radius, his work has taken him over a large area of north and south China. He has been an important member of our foreign tours. Like Gansu singer Zhang Gasong and countless others, since returning home for New Year he has found himself exiled there.
Erqing (right) with Wu Mei, funeral 2009.
Despite the crisis, Yanggao didn’t go into total lockdown. Remarkably, Li Bin is still in considerable demand, individually, to meet people’s routine needs for mortuary procedures; indeed, he is just as busy as ever—the boss continuing to prosper as the workers are laid off?! Few customers have been venturing out to his funeral shop, but he fields constant messages on his smartphone. So he is still called out constantly, driving throughout the countryside but now having to pass through a laborious series of checkpoints on the main roads and at the entrance to every village, where temperatures are taken and all movements registered. Li Bin’s work is considered a legitimate cause for such journeys.
Checkpoints in Yanggao, February 2020. Photos: Li Bin.
In these poor villages that are depleted yearly by urban migration, with the population ageing, conditions of hygiene may have improved since around 2000, but remain far from ideal (for earlier epidemics in Yanggao, see here). Routine burials still need to be held—though currently by the immediate family alone, with one single Daoist carrying out the necessary procedures (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.185–200).
After a death, the immediate task is to summon Li Bin to use his almanacs to determine the date for the burial—which may vary, as usual, from around five days to over a month. Then he has to write the placard announcing the death (yangzhuang 殃狀), supervise the encoffinment, and provide mourning clothes for the kin as well as the paper artefacts (which he and his wife make at their shop) to be displayed and eventually burned at the grave; he has to decorate the coffin, write the tomb tile, depict talismans to be pasted up at the house of the deceased, and choose an auspicious fengshui site for the grave, using his luopan compass to determine its position and alignment. All these tasks are shown in my film, and even over this stressful period Li Bin still continues to perform them constantly.
Exorcistic talismans are pasted around the house of the deceased.
Left: reverse side of tomb tile; right, talismans. My photos, 2011.
Even in normal times some very poor families, unable to afford the elaborate funerary rituals of the full band, have long requested a single Daoist to preside over a simplified burial ritual (known as “settling the burial” anzang 安葬). During the current crisis this has become routine. Mostly it only takes an hour or two, though even now some families expect a rather longer ritual.
Li Manshan: decorating a coffin (2015), and exorcising the house (2013).
Just before the coffin is raised out of the central room of the deceased’s home (my film, from 1.16.31), the Daoist—now wearing a face-mask in addition to his red costume (fayi 法衣) and yinyang hat (riyue guan 日月冠)—exorcises the rooms (qiyang 起殃) by wielding a sheaf of gaoliang stalks and a cleaver, knocking them against the lintels and silently reciting the mantra Qiyang zhou 起殃咒. Then, as the coffin-bearers raise the coffin out of the house, the Daoist uses his cleaver to smash a food-bowl on the floor at the entrance to the room, marking the end of the son’s duties to feed his parent; indeed, “smashing the bowl” (dawan 打碗, more graphically “decapitating the bowl” zhanwan 斬碗) is the term commonly used to describe the whole simplified burial ritual. As he does so, the Daoist silently recites another mantra, the Zhanpen zhou 斩盆咒. These two mantras for dangerous liminal moments serve to protect the Daoist himself.*
Li Bin then accompanies the coffin through the fields to the grave he has chosen, and fine-tunes its alignment in the grave. After returning to the house he performs a further brief exorcism there. He then hurries off to other villages help more bereaved families.
Again, I note the adaptability of the “old rules”; in times of crisis, rituals can be simplified, yet a proper commemoration of grief is still needed. In Li Bin’s notebook he keeps a careful record of all his daily work, noting the precise date and time of death, details of the birth dates of the deceased and their sons and grandsons, the location of the grave, and the date that he determined for the burial.
Li Bin’s father Li Manshan too has to respond to the requests of his local clients, zooming round on his motorbike to determine the date, choose burial plots, and smash bowls. Sure, all this is their livelihood; but like their forebears right back to the 18th century, they are like parish priests, “serving the people”—a cliché now commonly used with a rather satirical edge, but in this case true. Meanwhile elsewhere in Yanggao, in neighbouring counties (see my other posts on Shanxi under local ritual), and doubtless further afield, other Daoists too will be continuing to meet the needs of their rural clients.
By 23rd February, with no new cases of the virus reported in Yanggao, roadside checks were easing and officials were only monitoring travellers’ temperatures, not registering their details. I wonder how long it will take for the more elaborate funeral rituals to be restored, with the other Daoists joining Li Bin in performing the full sequence of vocal liturgy, accompanied by wind and percussion.
Indeed, since late February the full ritual sequence has been restored, with Li Bin booking the whole Daoist band to perform funerals; but since he has still been busy doing all the solo mortuary tasks, only on 5th April could he lead his group for the first time since the lockdown, “opening the drum” at a funeral in Upper Liangyuan.
* Though the texts of these two silent mantras don’t appear in any of the Li family’s surviving ritual manuals, Li Manshan eventually found them for me in his little blue pocket-book, which he copied in the 1980s from a similar notebook of his late great father Li Qing (for whom, see e.g. here, and, for his ritual manuals, here).
Seeking instruction with Li Manshan one day, I joked that I had learned them, “reciting” them for him, lips firmly closed—providing us with another creative topos (e.g. in France).