From the holy mountain


The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.

Travel writing takes many forms, from Evliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.

William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southern Peloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including

Xanadu

His first book

soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.

In his own words,

In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.

His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.

He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.

At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.

The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem

the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.

But as he notes,

This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.

Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes

the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.

In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.

They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:

“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.

“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”

Gok medresse

In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.

Laura chador

As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:

The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.

They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.

Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.

They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.

Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.

There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.

Uyghur kids KeriyaUyghur children, Keriya.

In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.

Sabine KashgarWedding band, Kashgar 1988,
from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.

Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.

By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.

I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.

After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.

Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.

WD and Lou
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.

* * *

While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.

Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,

It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.

Holy mountain map

Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.

In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.

Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow

could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Moreover,

In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.

Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:

It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.

And the following chapter opens:

Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.

He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:

My cell is bare and austere. **

Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.

But his quest is only just beginning.

As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.

He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that

visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]

It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]

They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.

Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where

Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.

In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.

Holy mountain 2
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.

Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.

Holy mountain 1

In search of clues to living Nestorianism, he is told:

“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”

Ealing?”

“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”

Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.

After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:

The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.

Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.

Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.

Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.

En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:

Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]

It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.

In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.

Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.

As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them

the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.

Holy mountain 3
The monastery of Mar Saba.

Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).

Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:

What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.

And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.

His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.

He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.

In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.

In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.

Indeed, Plato had already lamented the discovery of writing!

Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:

Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]

There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…

I’d love to find videos of such rituals.

After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:

In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.

* * *

Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive. 

FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and aways accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.

* * *

Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.

His pacifist credo is clear from the documentary Sufi soul: the mystic music of Islam that he presented for Channel 4 in 2005, directed by Simon Broughton (cf. the 2-CD set The Rough Guide to Sufi music). Filmed in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco, the programme offers a broad survey of Sufi musical traditions:

The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…


* Later, Frances Wood‘s doubts that Marco Polo even reached China have not been well received.

** Perhaps someone can give me a more accurate version of the spoof on the classic opening for a crime novel that goes something like this:

Dead.

That’s what the portly middle-aged man lying in a crumpled heap with blood seeping over the bare warehouse floor from a gaping wound in his skull was.

Querying the notion of gender equality in Alevism

17+

Among the women commenting astutely in the recent online discussion on Freedom of Belief and Gender in Turkey was Ceren Ataş, who is part of a group called 17♀ Alevi women (Twitter: @17AleviKadinlar; Facebook, etc.).

Ceren Atas

At a considerable remove from the patriarchy of mainstream Islam, gender equality is a beacon of Alevism (cf. here and here)—so it’s worth listening to Alevi women challenging the truth of the notion, as Ceren Ataş did in her presentation (from 37.15), and succinctly here (following an interview with Gülfer Akkaya) on a useful forum (see also e.g. here).

Gendered identitiesA more detailed discussion is

  • Fazilet Ahu Öhmen, “Alevi women and patriarchy”, in
    Rasim Özgur Dönmez and Fazilet Ahu Öhmen (eds),
    Gendered identities: criticizing patriarchy in Turkey (2013).

As to theology, Alevis don’t subscribe to the genesis myth: all (both women and men) share one ungendered can “life, soul”. Still, the debate hinges on social experience. Alevi women may indeed enjoy rather greater latitude in lifestyle than their mainstream Sunni counterparts; and in cem ritual practice, both women and men take part actively—sitting, praying, and dancing together.

Alevi cem 17

Sema dance at cem ritual, Istanbul 2021.

However, even if flanked by a respected “Mother/Sister” wife, the (male) dede elder remains dominant. He is the mentor of the community, presiding over the cem and taking responsibility for social and economic decisions. The portraits of the Twelve (male) Imams gaze down sternly over the proceedings. Many Alevi women, discouraged from working outside the home (even in the big cities, where their earning power is important for the family), are still disadvantaged—partly as a consequence of seeking not to alienate the Sunni majority by appearing too different. Of course it’s hard to generalise, either about urban and rural Alevi women, or about women’s roles in Turkey more broadly. But the theory of equality deserves to be checked against social reality.

The genius of Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix 1

In the late 60s, fatefully indoctrinated in the classics, my awareness of pop was largely limited to The Beatles, and it took my ears a long time to open up to the gutsy, intense physicality of unmediated rock and blues. Still, even I couldn’t help noticing the genius of Jimi Hendrix (YouTube channel; wiki), a shooting star who exploded onto the scene, as if the 60s weren’t already wild enough.

Born in Seattle in 1942, following a stint of army service he moved to Nashville, touring in backing bands. After a brief stay in Greenwich Village, in September 1966 he moved to London, “like a Martian landing”. Lured there by Chas Chandler, himself just starting out as a manager, for Jimi it was a leap in the dark; but when after just a week he got to jam with Cream, Eric Clapton was amazed by his playing of Howling Wolf’s Killing floor.

He soon formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience band, with the dynamic energy of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. In London he experienced less racism than in the States, and brought an Afro-American tinge to what was still a largely Caucasian pop scene, a “black hippie”. When he returned to the States in 1967 for the Monterey festival, he was still largely unknown there.

A deeply serious musician, he synthesised blues (already unfashionable among the new generation of African Americans), soul, folk, R&B, jazz, and psychedelic rock. He was at the heart of the whole countercultural zeitgeist; even his exotic sense of fashion was iconic. His vocals (“warm, wistful or lascivious on cue”) make a counterpoint to his astounding guitar playing. Like Coltrane, he was gentle and softly spoken.

Jimi cover

His three studio albums are

  • Are you experienced (double LP, 1967, contemporary with Sgt Pepper!):

opening with Purple haze, and including Hey Joe, The wind cries Mary, Foxy lady, and Third stone from the sun.

The wiki article has a section on Jimi’s innovative use of equipment: guitars (notably the Fender Stratocaster, restrung for a left-hander), amps, wah-wah pedal and Uni-vibe (cf. Bach’s inspiration from new technology).

Jimi 2

Jimi’s appearance at the 1967 Monterey festival must have been one of the great gigs of all time. The band opened with yet another stunning rendition of Killing floor, immortalised here; in Hey Joe Jimi plays guitar with his teeth, and behind his back (like the pipa players of the Tang dynasty…):

Yet Jimi never indulged in empty virtuosity; such iconic scenes are integral, sincere. He ended the set with Wild thing, setting fire to his guitar and smashing it (“I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar”):

For the Woodstock festival in 1969 Jimi had a new lineup. I must confess it took me some time to tune into his legendary reworking of The star-spangled banner (for some other versions, click here). I’m used to jazzers transforming standards with complex melodic and harmonic changes, and our ears are tuned to the dense, manic textures of rock; so, misled by Jimi’s sparse monodic rendition (Like, Hello?), it took me a while to hear that the meaning resided in the timbre—“an act of protest”, as Paul Grimstad observed, in which

bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion. At one point, Hendrix toggles between two notes a semitone apart while burying the guitar’s tremolo bar, turning his Fender Strat into a doppler warp of passing sirens, or perhaps the revolving blades of a helicopter propeller. […]

All the exalted ideals of the American experiment, and the bitterness of its contradictions and hypocrisies, are placed in volatile admixture through an utterly American contraption, a device you might say is the result of a collaboration between Benjamin Franklin, Leo Fender, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mongrel machine that Hendrix made into a medium for a new kind of virtuosity. In the Woodstock performance of the national anthem, we find that an electric guitar can be made to convey the feeling that the country’s history could be melted down, remolded, and given a new shape.

Typically, Jimi deflated all the hype:

All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it… It’s not unorthodox … I thought it was beautiful.

Yeah right.

Amidst legal disputes, Jimi parted with Chas Chandler, continuing to explore; his new band Band of Gypsys was an all-black power trio with his old friend Billie Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Despite mixed reviews, their live album at the Fillmore East includes stunning solos from Jimi like Machine gun:

and Who knows:

* * *

Following Joe Boyd’s celebrated 1973 film, a BBC documentary has some good interviews, despite the baffling lack of music in this YouTube version!

There’s something cute about Hendrix being a neighbour of Handel in Brook street, albeit not at the same time. Both were migrants catering to a changing modern market, both experimenting in different styles—but while some of Handel‘s arias are admirable, he can hardly compete with Hendrix’s genius… *

By 1970 Hendrix was dead, yet another member of the fateful 27 club: Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin (all between 1969 and 1971), and later Kurt Cobain (1994) and Amy Winehouse (2011)… (cf. my list at the end of The spiritual path of John Coltrane).


* That’s how I originally wrote that last sentence—in the interests of brevity, not wanting to try the patience of Hendrix junkies. In view of Eric’s entertaining comment below, I might now augment it, perhaps like this:

While some of Handel’s music is admirable (see my tribute to some gorgeous arias), over his long career the ratio of drudge to ecstasy is rather high (and “I’ll have you know, I’ve played more Messiahs than you’ve had hot dinners”!). Handel found himself, as you do (or at least, as baroque composers did), dutifully churning out a lot of mundane fugues by the square yard. I’m not knocking the routine, bread-and-butter craft of artisans, but this is far from the evanescent genius of Jimi—and, I’d say, in a more sensible comparison, far from the constant spiritual inspiration of Bach. OK, for a more refined assessment of “the class of ’85”, see John Eliot Gardiner, Music from the castle of heaven, ch. 4 (cf. A Bach retrospective, Rameau, 1707 at the Proms, and many posts under https://stephenjones.blog/category/wam/early-music/).

Some recent posts

anthem 2

If summer is distracting us somewhat, here’s a roundup of recent posts that may have slipped through the net.

On Kurdish culture (further to Dervishes of Kurdistan):

In praise of a wonderful Turkish TV series:

And I wrote a superficial introduction to

All these are part of an extensive series on West/Central Asia, not over-burdened by expertise…

Moving west from Songs of Asia Minor, I explored

Further west,

further east,

and still further east:

Also of note  are

And the weathermen [sic] say there’s more to come…

Gansu: Return to Dust

Li Ruijun

Though I’ve never ventured as far as Gansu, I’m always keen to include it in our picture of the culture of northwest China. *

Among the talented younger generation of Chinese film-makers is Li Ruijun 李睿珺 (b.1983). A native of Gaotai county of Zhangye prefecture in Gansu, his style is based on the challenges faced by the dwindling populations of his poor rural home.

I included his Fly with the crane (2012) in my list of documentaries and verismo movies on rural life in China. Inspired by films such as Bicycle thieves, Li (like recent Iranian directors) adheres to the splendid tradition of using amateur actors, judiciously training professionals to immerse themselves in the local lifestyle—as in his latest movie Return to dust (Yinru chenyan 隐入尘烟, 2022), premiered recently at the Berlin International Film Festival (interview; reviewed e.g. here). Here’s a trailer:

and an excerpt:

For more northwestern verismo, Jia Zhangke continues to bear the torch for rural Shanxi; and for Shaanbei, I’m still enamoured with The story of Qiu Ju, among the movies featured in Chinese film classics of the early reform era. Further south in rural Hunan, note the documentaries of Jiang Nengjie. Given the ongoing repression of the cultural scene, young directors are showing remarkable creativity in negotiating the shifting sands of censorship.


* On Gansu, I’ve introduced

Greek–Turkish rapport in Chiswick!

Acton Green

Drenched in Mediterranean sunshine on our way into town for a concert of Indian raga the other day, a delightful scene greeted us at the Acton Green terminus of the 94 bus, a fabled route that is something of a bridge between East and West—albeit somewhat less exotic than the boat across the Bosphorus.

While the cheery Greek bus driver was waiting to set off, he was taking photos outside for a family of four Turkish kids and their mum, visiting her brother-in-law (an Istanbullu living in Chiswick), * before they boarded the bus. As they all chatted away, the uncle took group photos with the kids and the driver, and my companion Augusta got chatting with them too, reminiscing about Istanbul.

All we needed was a little table of succulent meze, retsina, some rebetika from Roza Eskenazi and a chorus of Kardeşin Duymaz, the bus passengers all joining in a handkerchief dance. Go easy on the bouzouki though… **

The tableau was just the kind of thing that never happens to me in Chiswick! OK, the warmth of the Kuzguncuk mahalle is special, but it seems to envelop Augusta wherever she goes.


* For the charms of my mahalle (“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”), click here.

** This is somewhat akin to the touring musos’ restaurant fantasy.

Inter-faith ping-pong

Mardin ping pong

Charming images from Mardin in Turkey, where World Table Tennis Day featured a match between an imam and a Syriac church chorister:

Mardin ping pong 2

Of course, the winner was friendship, peace, and table tennis. 

FatmaThis may sound a tad Kumbaya, * but it’s in line with the pleas of Fatma Yavuz for greater religious tolerance in Turkish society. Incorporating gender into the debate, she was among a group of thoughtful, articulate women speaking at a recent series of online panels on Freedom of Belief and Gender in Turkey—here’s the third session, with Fatma’s contribution from 49.18:

More on that initiative coming up soon.


* The wiki entry on Kumbaya is interesting. The song goes back way before the 1950s, when it emerged from its African roots in the southern States to enter into the wider consciousness via the civil rights movement. By the 1990s it was often used in sarcastic criticism of the kind of consensus-compromise politics “that allegedly does not examine the issues or is revelatory of cockeyed optimism”; “singing Kumbaya is not a foreign policy strategy”. More e.g. here.

Raga at Kings Place

*For my series on north Indian raga, click here!*

Shahid

I’ve been meaning to go to Kings Place for ages—there’s a lot of good stuff going on there. it’s remarkable how the formerly seedy area has been regenerated, leading out onto a scenic view of the canal.

For my first visit last week, I heard Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan give exquisite renditions of two north Indian ragas on sitar, accompanied by Sanju Sahai on tabla. The main hall isn’t too big (cf. Venues and music), and there was a good contingent of mehfil aficionados.

Shahid Parvez (b.1958; website; wiki; interview) is the seventh-generation representative of the Etawah gharana, a style that he inherited through his uncle, the great Vilayat Khan (some of whose performances I’ve featured under Malkauns and Yaman).

Imdad group
Masters of the Etawah gharana: left to right
Ashiq Ali Khan, Enayat Khan, Imdad Khan, Wahid Khan, Sakhawat Hussain Khan,
Calcutta, c1910. Source.

His great-grandfather Imdad Khan (1848–1920) was so devoted to the discipline of riaz that he is said to have practised sitar in a state of chilla isolation for some twelve years. Alongside other early 78s that I’ve featured (Hazrat Inayat Khan, Gauhar Jan), he is heard on the first recordings of sitar in 1904—here’s an excerpt from rāg Sohini:

Yaman Kalyan:

and (Mishra) Kafi:

* * *

Shahid Parvez started with a lengthy alap in a raga that I wish I could identify. The scale was diatonic, using all the pitches except for the second degree Re, with stresses on Pa, ma, and Ni. In the second half he gave lighter renditions of a rāg that sounded to me like one of the avatars of Kafi, with both flat and natural versions of ga and ni. From his extensive YouTube channel, here are two brief alaps in rāg Kafi:

and click here for a rendition of rāg Marwa.

More composite characters

couplets for blog

Checking in with the Li family Daoists, in the same vein as Li Qing’s poem to the Eight Immortals (Literary wordplay), his grandson Li Bin has just sent me this image of a cute New Year’s duilian couplet that he spotted, pasted up at a gateway in Anjiazao village in Gucheng district, south of the Daoists’ base at Upper Liangyuan.

At least, it looks like a duilian, with upper (right) and lower (left) columns both apparently comprising seven characters. Actually it’s another of those series of composite characters, each one containing four characters within it. The deciphered text is a fairly standard auspicious New Year’s wish for prosperity, but the visual effect is striking. As you will soon discern, the motto at the top reads

万事如意,招财进宝,三羊开泰,出门见喜。

The right-hand mottoes read

岁岁平安,五谷丰登,春满人间,八方来财,紫气东来,日进斗金,欢聚一堂

and to the left,

年年有余,四季安康,和春京月,七星高照,吉祥如意,恭喜发财,金玉满堂。

In a poor county where literacy levels were low right until the 1990s, I’m impressed by this creativity with the script.

57 shengguan trio

The shengguan group, 2011: left to right Li Bin, Wu Mei, Yang Ying.

Meanwhile, as the world lurches from one crisis to the next, Li Bin and the Yanggao Daoists are busy as ever providing ritual services to their local community (click here for a roundup—and do watch our film, if you haven’t already!). During the pandemic, while he couldn’t lead a ritual band for funerals, he was still in demand to determine the date, site the grave, supervise the encoffinment, and so on; and now that the initial alarm has receded in Yanggao, he again leads his band for the rituals culminating in the burial.

Kaliarda, Lubunca, Polari

Fleeting flirtFrom the journal Πεταχτό Κόρτε (Fleeting Flirt), “one of the risqué magazines of the time, with half-naked women drawn on the front cover, cartoons with innuendo-laced captions showing ladies in negligées, poems and witticisms full of double entendres”. Source.

Further to the French Verlan, and the secret language of blind musicians in China, the work of Elias Petropoulos (see under Rebetika) led me to Kaliarda, the cant of underworld homosexuals in Athens. Nick Nicholas has written a whole series of twenty-four erudite articles online, starting here.

The speakers of Kaliarda were a cohesive social group, who associated with each other, had their own tavernas and beats, were persecuted by the police, and were socially marginalised. They were gay, they were bottoms (and spoke in derogatory terms about tops), and they referred to themselves with feminine terms. Some of them were prostitutes, and some of them we would now refer to as trans women. 

Kocek miniature
Köçek troupe at a fair” at Sultan Ahmed’s 1720 celebration of his son’s circumcision.
Source: wiki.

Here’s a short documentary:

In Turkey a similar cant called Lubunca [1] was also used by sex workers and the gay “community” (as one says These Days); indeed, in the late Ottoman era it was spoken by the cross-dressing male köcek dancers. Based on Romani, it contains elements of Greek, Arabic, Armenian, and French.

* * *

This leads us closer to (my) home with Polari, a British cant that has declined since the 1960s. Paul Baker has written two books on the topic. [2] Mixing Romance, Romani, and London slang, It was used by “some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and the gay subculture”; it’s said to have been used by Punch and Judy street puppet performers. Later Polari incorporated some Yiddish and 1960s’ drug slang.

Some vocabulary:

  • bona good (in Shakespeare! Unlike Philomena Cunk’s putative neologisms)
  • ajax nearby
  • eek face
  • cod tacky
  • lattie room (to let)
  • nanti not, no
  • omi man
  • palone woman (from Italian paglione, “straw mattress”)
  • riah hair
  • rozzer cop (natural adversaries of the subculture, aka “Betty bracelets”, “lily law”, “hilda handcuffs”, “orderly daughters”). 
  • TBH “to be had”, sexually accessible
  • zhoosht smarten up
  • vada see.

I like arva, “to screw”, from Italian chiavare (cf. Burlesque-only’s immortal characterisation of Angela Merkel).

As in other secret languages such as that of blind musicians in China, numbers are interesting:

PolariSource: wiki.

Among words that have entered the mainstream lexicon are

  • acdc
  • barney
  • bevvy
  • bijou
  • blag
  • butch
  • camp
  • cottaging
  • hoofer
  • khazi
  • mince
  • ogle
  • scarper
  • slap [makeup]
  • strides
  • tod
  • [rough] trade.

Julian and Sandy

Polari minced into the wider public consciousness in the 1960s with Julian and Sandy on BBC Radio 4’s comedy series Round the Horne. I had little idea what it all meant, but that was kinda the point. There’s a clip on this page from Polari magazine.

As Paul Baker observes, after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, and as the gay liberation movement gained ground, the need for a secret language passed. While it was now associated with stereotypes often considered, well, naff, the camp image has maintained a certain frisson.

Here’s another bijou documentary:


[1] On Lubunca, the brief wiki article is augmented here; see also e.g.
https://hellenisteukontos.opoudjis.net/kaliarda-xiii-the-turkish-gay-cant/
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lubunca-lgbtq-language-slang-turkey
https://attitude.co.uk/article/the-secret-language-used-by-lgbtq-people-in-turkey-1/23524/
https://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/119989-sanatcilardan-ayrimciliga-nakka
https://web.archive.org/web/20210722160725/http://glm.uni-graz.at/etc/publications/GRP-Kyuchukov-Bakker-1999.pdf
https://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2013/12/istanbul-slang.html
https://theworld.org/stories/2015-01-14/world-full-secret-languages-one-used-turkeys-lgbt-community
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/17/turkish-languagesexworkers.html

[2] On Polari, some other sites include
https://web.archive.org/web/20190907173251/http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/polari.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2000/dec/10/life1.lifemagazine3
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jan/17/gayrights.comment
https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-polari-the-curious-after-life-of-the-dead-language-for-gay-men-72599
and The Polari Bible.

In memoriam Richard Taruskin

Taruskin
Photo: EMTA, Estonia.

Richard Taruskin, who died last week, was a great musical guru, his polemical and compelling prose deconstructing both the modern “classical” scene and the early music movement—which he realised was another manifestation of post-war modernity. Writing in a period when “classical” music was becoming ever more marginalised, he paid great attention to both politics and performance, connecting social and musical change rather as in ethnomusicology (cf. Bruno Nettl—who also saw the wider picture in integrating the WAM scene into musicking around the world).

While we await Alex Ross’s tribute in The New Yorker, this NYT obituary is good.

Taruskin covers both modern and early scenes in The danger of music and other anti-Utopian essays (2009), which I outlined in this essay. He’s always my first port of call for insights into modern WAM. I’ve cited his views on Messiaen in The right kind of spirituality?, and in posts on Ives, Krenek, and Korngold.

I suppose I’m quite relieved that his attention was never drawn to my lengthy reflections in What is serious music?!, where I set forth from his stimulating views. Anyway, he got me thinking there, as always. For critiques of Taruskin’s ouevre by Susan McClary, click here, and John Butt, here.

Whether or not you go along with his verdicts, his writing is always engaged and invigorating. Now I really must get round to reading Text and act (1995).

Line judges

line judges
My Brilliant Friend Augusta always has a lot to explain to me when I visit her in Kuzguncuk—even including the laws of perspective. Now that she’s braving the English “summer” and my lowly Chiswick hovel, I’ve been inflicting Wimbledon tennis on her. She’s game, and can basically follow what’s going on (cf. The first snooker commentary). However, at one stage, noticing the three statuesque people lined up at the back of the court, she asked,

“What are those people doing standing there?”

It does indeed look rather as if they’ve adopted a crafty method of gatecrashing, having failed to get tickets. They don’t seem to be enjoying it much, though—the severity of their demeanour, their identical clothing, and their limited range of robotic movements, suggest a Kraftwerk tribute act, so one keeps hoping they’re about to burst into song.

Kraftwerk
At least Augusta didn’t ask how another ingenious spectator has managed to wheel on a high chair and park it right in the middle of the arena to watch the match. They even get to sit down—such brazen effrontery.

umpireSource: wiki.

Such are the kinds of challenges that face us in seeking to interpret the rules of Chinese ritual zzzzz (cf. Nigel Barley among the Dowayo).

For more on tennis (as well as football, rugby, snooker, and archery in Bhutan), see A sporting medley.

New musics in Iran

Forbidden

I’ve been trying to get an impression of the underground music scene in Tehran.

While this sub-culture naturally attracts journalists and film-makers, this is not merely exotic decoration for our jaded palates, but a manifestation of urgent issues confronting young people in Iran—in particular, the options for women to express themselves within tight constraints (cf. Persepolis). This alternative scene makes an outlet for frustration (cf. GDR, China)—and often a route to emigration.

Your go-to authority on the variety of musicking of Iran is Laudan Nooshin. Further to her survey in The Rough Guide to world music (2009), she has published significantly on the popular music scene— [1] a scene, of course, that continues to evolve. 

A few vignettes that I’ve spotted via the media: [2]

On the underground metal scene, here’s the incisive short feature film Forbidden to see us scream in Tehran (Farbod Ardebili, 2020) (see e.g. here, here, and here):

Earlier films include Not an illusion (Torang Abedian, 2009) and No-one knows about Persian cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009):

Here’s an excerpt from No land’s song (Ayat Najafi, 2014; wiki, here, and here):

Sanam Pasha

For Sanam Pasha (who chose to remain in Iran) and her all-female rock band, here’s an interview from 2018:

A related scene is rap and hip-hop (e.g. here and here)—here’s Salome MC (wiki, and here):

And there’s a sub-culture of electronica.

Of course all this a minority culture (even in Tehran, let alone Iran), but the endeavours such musicians face are just some of the myriad challenges faced by women and men there daily.

On the broader soundscape, the Sonic Tehran project has much interesting material.

For more on Iran, see under my roundup of posts on West/Central Asia. See also Punk: a roundup.


[1] E.g.

  • “Subversion and countersubversion: power, control, and meaning in the new Iranian pop music”, in Annie J. Randall (ed.), Music, power, and politics (2004)
  • “Underground, overground: rock music and youth discourses in Iran” (2005)
  • “The language of rock: Iranian youth, popular music, and national identity”, in Mehdi Semati (ed.), Media, culture and society in Iran: living with globalization and the Islamic State (2007)
  • “ ‘Tomorrow is ours’: re-imagining nation, performing youth in the new Iranian pop music”, in Laudan Nooshin ed., Music and the play of power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia (2009)
  • “Whose liberation? Iranian popular music and the fetishization of resistance” (2017).

[2] Some general introductions include
https://www.kierangosney.com/blog/banned-from-the-orthodoxy-punk-in-iran

https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/jun/04/irans-rock-stars-and-their-underground-scene

Desert Island Discs

Plomley

Writing in the LRB, Miranda Carter gives a thoughtful and entertaining survey of the history of Desert Island Discs.

Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:

Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.

Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].

Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.

Indeed, the show reflects the society’s whole demotion of WAM and the acceptance of other ways of being. Still, it’s good to find the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet and the Terzetto from Così fan tutte among the most popular classical choices.

When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]

Thatcher [1978]: When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.

Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?

And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:

Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.

Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]

Still in the 1960s,

the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]

But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.

As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:

Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.

I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.

As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.

After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme

became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.

And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.

Kirsty Young

Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:

A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.

For a variety of posts on Watching the Engiish, see under The English, home and abroad.

* * *

Meanwhile Eric Coates’ theme tune By the Sleepy lagoon [Bognor] has remained unchanged, a reassuring comfort blanket.

I’ve referred to the programmes of Klaus Tennstedt and Sophia Loren, Gary Kasparov and Elif Shafak (more unlikely bedfellows).

Over on Radio 3, Private Passions (benignly hosted by Micahel Berkeley) allows for more of both narrative and music—and the range of the latter is almost as eclectic. Among guests whose choices have inspired me are Philippe Sands, Camilla Pang, Piers Gough, Anne Seba, Vesna Goldsworthy, Natalie Haynes, and Mark Padmore (whose own singing, quite rightly, is a popular choice of many guests).

I can’t narrow possibly down my own playlist of songs, and it doesn’t even include Mahler symphonies or Messiaen

Folk traditions of Greece: Domna Samiou

 

Samiou sings

Zooming out from rebetika, Greek traditional music is a varied repository of regional cultures. [1]

Foremost among collectors was Domna Samiou (1928–2012) (website; wiki). On her fine site, note the biography and her own memoirs

Her parents were part of the vast wave of Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the population exchanges of 1922–23. Living in a shanty town on the edge of Athens, without water or electricity, she grew up in poverty. But at the age of 13, while attending night school, her life was transformed when she was trained by the musicologist and song collector Simon Karas (1905–99) (website, with some projects; wiki)—whose largely prescriptive work set forth from the study of Byzantine modes.

Samiou 1960s

Having endured German occupation and civil war, Samiou began working for the state-run radio station in 1954. Mass migration made Athens a convenient base to collect songs from all over mainland Greece and its islands. By 1963 she was travelling widely on recording trips. In 1971, with Greece still under the junta, she left the radio and started singing in public, opening the ears of younger generations to folk music. Inevitably, covering such a wide area, her forays sometimes remind me of the “gazing at flowers from horseback” style of lesser Chinese fieldworkers, with specially staged performances—but given her own background as a folk singer, the comparison would be quite unfair. Her surveys suggest the rich regional cultures of song, dance, and instrumental music—Thrace, Epirus, the Peloponnese, Asia Minor and Pontos, as well as the islands (Crete, Karpathos, Skyros, Skiathos, Lesbos, and so on).

From her 1966–67 TV series A musical travelogue with Domna Samiou (twenty episodes, usefully introduced here), here’s the programme on musicking in Evros, Thrace:

and on the music of refugees from Cappadoccia relocated to Plati (Macedonia) (1977):

This playlist includes some later videos:

Recording the mandilatos dance tune (2+2+3 beats—Taco taco burrito!):

Karsilimas from Marmara (Halkidiki), 1982:

Lazarines in west Macedonia, 1996:

We can explore a wealth of audio playlists here. Among Samiou’s albums of field recordings are

  • and, particularly dear to her heart, Songs of Asia Minor (playlist):

(don’t miss #18, a wonderful free tempo violin solo by Stathis Koukoularis!)

In her documentary on the music of Asia Minor, Samiou herself sings a song she learned from her mother, a refugee from rural Smyrna; she is accompanied by violin, kanun zither, and goblet drum:

As society continued to change, Domna Samiou’s work laid an important basis for later, more detailed ethnographies of regional traditions.

See also Musics of Crete, and The Pontic lyra, and cf. Italy: folk musicking.


[1] Apart from the material in this post, see e.g. this site; other starting points include wiki; The Rough Guide to world music and Songlines, The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, The Garland encyclopedia of world music, and so on.

Note also the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum, full of wonderful early 78s of rebetika, amanes, folk and ecclesiastical music, and more.

Kounadis