Memphis 68

Memphis cover

The meshing of social history and musical detail is a cornerstone of ethnomusicology (see Society and Soundscape, and cf. What is serious music?!). To follow my paeans to Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67 and Young soul rebels, every bit as enthralling is his

  • Memphis 68: the tragedy of southern soul (2018),

by turns passionate and dispassionate. Working month by month through 1968, the short chapters, with their snappy titles, unveil a wealth of insightful vignettes, showing a real feel for the streets and for the dazzling cast of troubled musicians in search of stardom, social justice, or just struggling to survive. Cosgrove’s vivid descriptions make one reach for YouTube—so below I complement my introduction with some of the many tracks he evokes so well.

The story hinges on Stax Records, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4th April 1968, and increasingly violent protests. Vietnam, and the obdurate Memphis city mayor Henry Loeb, also loom large. Stax has already been the subject of several studies, such as Rob Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A. (1997) and Robert Gordon, Respect yourself (2013), as well as several documentaries.

Cosgrove’s opening chapter, “Roosevelt Jamison’s blood bank”, segues seamlessly from the segregationist rules for blood donation to Jamison’s thriving sideline nurturing soul bands.

  • James Carr, The dark end of the street (1967):

In Hank Cherry’s words, Carr “dove into his own embattled soul and pulled from the painful reaches of his psyche”. Another star discovered by Jamison was O.V. Wright, who had a series of hits, including

  • A nickel and a nail (1971):

The brilliant Otis Redding was only 26 when he was killed in a plane crash late in 1967, along with the Bar-Kays. Sittin’ on the dock of the bay was posthumously released on 8th January 1968:

Unlike the more controlled Motown system, or, more famously, the Hollywood studio system, Stax was informal, haphazard, and collegiate.

The company, “an oasis of racial sanity”, smashed through segregationist rules. Its (white) owners were Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton; the school system produced a wealth of black talent. The Bar-Kays were educated at the Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis, still almost entirely black, “informal academy of southern soul”. Stax prodigies Booker T. Jones (no relation!) and the M.G.’s had a hit with the instrumental Green onions as early as 1962:

Another senior mentor was sax player, bandleader, and studio boss Willie Mitchell. At first Stax had a mutually beneficial relationship with Atlantic Records in New York and its “emperor” Jerry Wexler. Among the performers Atlantic sent to Memphis were Wilson Pickett and Don Covay, as well as Sam and Dave—all of whom were volatile and hard to work with.

  • Mustang Sally (1965):

  • Hold on, I’m coming (1966):

But then came the break with Atlantic, as they came under the wing of Warner Brothers—which soon ensnared Stax in knotty legal disputes with a soulless conglomerate.

As young black musicians returned from Vietnam—such as John Gary Williams, a member of the Mad Lads—a group of activists called the Memphis Invaders led student unrest, closely watched by the FBI.

  • James Brown, Say it loud I’m black and proud:

A lengthy garbage workers’ strike—publicised by WDIA, the voice of black Memphis, and supported by charismatic ministers—came to the attention of Martin Luther King. He arrived in Memphis on 28th March as another violent protest march was under way. In successive chapters Cosgrove tells the story of the murky chain of events surrounding King’s assassination on 4th April.

MLKDr King’s supporters point in the direction of the shooting.

King had checked into the Lorraine Motel, where Stax regularly put up visiting black singers. Sax player Ben Branch was due to give a fundraising concert that night, and just before the shooting King addressed his last words to him from the balcony:

“I want you to play Take my hand Precious Lord, Ben—play it real pretty, sweeter than you’ve ever played it before.”

The inner cities now erupted.

King was among those religious men torn by a “civil war inside”, captivated by sex and love, revealed in the tension between sacred and profane, gospel and blues. Bettye Crutcher was a gifted composer of candid songs about betrayal and infidelity, including

  • Johnnie Taylor, Who’s making love:

Stax, hitherto a model of racial harmony, was polarised by King’s death, with black activists increasingly concerned to claim equal rights.

Like Miles Davis, Booker T. Jones had chosen popular music over the orchestral world. He made his name on the Hammond B-3 organ, taking it beyond gospel towards rock and soul. Ironically, while working on the soundtrack for Jules Dassin’s political movie Uptight (watch here), he escaped the turmoil of Memphis to fly to Paris for a round of post-production, only to witness the May riots there.

Cosgrove gives an aside on “black bohemian” Melvin Peebles and his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss song, whose soundtrack was also taken up by Stax. Isaac Hayes, who had assumed the persona of Black Moses after his album Hot buttered soul, went on to win an Oscar for Shaft (playlist here), his extravagant stardom playing a major role in Stax’s later travails.

More socially engaged than the “bubblegum soul” of Motown, Stax was rebuilt by Al Bell after the fall-out with Atlantic, aiming at the new market for albums. Another hit single of this period was

  • William Bell and Judy Clay, Private number:

The 1972 Wattstax festival, “the Black Woodstock”, with Isaac Hayes heading the bill, was immortalised in a film—here’s a trailer:

Young mother Juanita Miller led a Poor People’s March by mule train on Washington DC, which turned out less to be far less successful than Martin Luther King’s vision, ending in disarray.

  • The Staple Singers, Long Walk to DC:

As black power became more militant, Cosgrove introduces Dino Woodard, a “devout brute” who served as security guard and enforcer for Stax. With his fellow hardman Johnny Baylor he propelled Luther Ingram to stardom:

  • (If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right (1972):

After Vietnam and some time in prison, John Gary Williams went on to reflect the changing times with The whole damn world is going crazy (1973):

Olympics 68

The Black Power movement spread to the 1968 Olympics. Athlete Bill Hurd, from Memphis, narrowly missed selection. He was also a sax player brought up in the jazz and the marching band tradition of Manassas High School, where he was trained by Emerson Able—as was jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr, “the greatest soul musician that never was”. Newborn also passed through the Plantation Inn, another cradle for soul, whose house band were Ben Branch and the Largos. * Meanwhile Bill Hurd retired from athletics and became a successful opthalmologist, travelling internationally; later he reconnected with his fellow students at Manassas High to record soul albums.

Also visiting Memphis in 1968 was Mahalia Jackson, who remained faithful to her gospel roots at a time when many singers were crossing over to pop and soul. Of course, like the church, the gospel scene was far from pure, with “religious parasites, false preachers, and furious commercialism”. The battle between sacred and profane was again in evidence. Jackson’s Glori-fied Chicken franchise, part of the move towards black-owned businesses, had a branch at Stax corner. Here she is singing Take my hand precious Lord at King’s Atlanta memorial service:

This leads Cosgrove to feature the songs of Ann Peebles, such as I can’t stand the rain:

and Margie Joseph, whose reworking of Stop! In the name of love, with its introductory rap, was influential:

By December, Memphis “had been battered by a divisive rage that few cities in the world could survive, yet it not only survived, it thrived and expanded”.

Meanwhile, FWIW, white stars were making the pilgrimage too. Dusty Springfield (white only reluctantly) came to record an album—although she ended up recording the vocals in New York. Elvis showed up, recording a comeback TV show with a strong Memphis element. Janis Joplin, who also idolised the Memphis sound, did a misconceived gig there with the local regulars. She turned up for Jim Stewart’s Christmas party, “one of the most bizarre events in the history of soul music”. The following November, strung out on heroin, she joined the tragic 27 Club. (The lure of Memphis has persisted—among later pilgrims, on a quest for blues rather than soul, was alternative Chinese singer/novelist Liu Sola).

The Bar-Kays re-formed, reinventing themselves as pioneers of street funk. On stage with Isaac Hayes at the Tiki Club they broke new ground in an innovative cover of By the time I get to Phoenix, with a rap intro—“a mesmerising piece of soul alchemy that took classic Nashville and reimagined it as Memphis soul”. Here they are in the version on the visionary Hot buttered soul album, all 19 minutes of it:

With the obvious exception of jazz, most forms of popular black music had been constrained by the needs of commercialism and the demands of radio stations. Motown had perfected telling stories of teenage love in under three minutes, and not until Hayes broke the mould had any soul artist ever dared to extend songs or disrupt the rules of the marketplace.

In an Epilogue Cosgrove ponders reasons for the “banal and ignominious” demise of Stax records in the 70s: expanding too far from the centre (“like many a dying empire”), bruised by rash financial dealings, and over-indulgence.

Amongst all the creativity of the 60s (Coltrane, Hendrix, Beatles …), the story of Stax Records, beset by social trauma, is remarkable.


* Like Charlie Parker, Newborn spent periods in Camarillo State Mental Hospital—cf. Bellevue in New York, among whose inmates were artists such as Leadbelly, Mingus, and Dusty.

Alevi ritual in Istanbul, 2: Karacaahmet

Kahmet cem for blog

Following my initial explorations of Alevi ritual in Turkey (Istanbul; Anatolia), it was good last week to visit another Alevi place of worship, this one near my home base of Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

I tend to feel more comfortable with the atmosphere of smaller “places of gathering”; some are inconspicuous, resembling house churches. But even the larger centres, like that of Şahkulu, have a modestly-sized cemevi where rituals are held.

In Üsküdar the Karacaahmet Sultan dervish lodge (Karacaahmet Sultan dergahi) occupies a prominent position on the main road. It’s the site of a major türbesi mausoleum, with a large Janissary and Bektashi cemetery. Despite the enigmatic heading

Karacaahmet is a great saint an insane came to him starts behaving sensibly,

the English-language brochure is rather useful.

The 13th-14th century dervish * Karaca Ahmed, a contemporary of Hacı Bektâş Velî, came to Anatolia from Khorasan. He is linked to healing, in particular for issues of mental health.

The centre was busy with followers gathered to pay homage to the tomb and to receive the midday distribution of lokma food in a large canteen. The hospitable dede gave us a blessing over the lokma offering that we had ourselves brought; and he reminded us of the spiritual symbolism of the components of the bağlama plucked lute (cf. the Chinese qin zither, as described e.g. by Robert van Gulik).

Kahmet sheep for blog

We observed the ritual blessings for the sheep about to be slaughtered—it’s also a considerable commercial enterprise serving clients elsewhere in the city. The centre also organises study courses, and has an impressive bookshop.

When we visited the upstairs cemevi, though, the simple ritual was sparsely attended; rather few of the hizmet duties were filled, and the final sema dance was slow and somewhat perfunctory. Later the dede confirmed to us the triple dilution of Alevi ritual, from rural Anatolia to migrant communities in Istanbul and thence to the diaspora.

I pondered the use of amplification, which has become standard around the world despite the poor quality of most sound systems (cf. Chinese shawm bands, who need it like bankers need lower rates of tax).

Several videos from Karacaahmet appear on YouTube, such as this far more impressive cem ritual in honour of the saint Abdal Musa in 2018:

The state still hinders Alevi culture rather than supporting it. Like other cemevis, Karacaahmet is funded by private donations; we were reminded of the Alevis’ frustration at being caught in a Catch-22 whereby their buildings can’t be registered as sites of religious worship and are thus liable to exorbitant utility bills. Moreover, recent assaults on Alevis in the provinces (e.g. here, here) and in Istanbul are disturbing. For all that, the atmosphere at such centres is most welcoming and supportive.

See also Querying the notion of gender equality in Alevism. For much more on the cultures of west and central Asia, click here.


* On the plane out to Istanbul I absent-mindedly watched a kitsch Turkish movie about a young dervish, with the usual picturesque timeless landscapes, gorgeous protagonists, blah blah. We needn’t worry about the plot—apart from gnomic utterances about dough and fire (the kinda thing that sounds just great coming from Rumi), it was full of Pythonesque remarks like this, when the dervish’s wife, abandoned while he goes on a lengthy Quest for Truth, is consoled by her mother (surely a part for Terry Jones):

“That’s how dervishes are—they lose themselves when it comes to Divine Love…”

cf. “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very Naughty Boy”:

This might (but only might) lead us to the different Quests of Gurdjeff and Dalrymple.

Lhasa: streets with memories

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Lhasa cover

Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:

  • Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).

Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.

The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflicting memories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.

He opens the Preface with some broad context:

Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…

Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.

Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that

some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.

In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.

Lhasa 1904Plan of Lhasa, 1904, by L.A. Waddell. Source.

Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent

not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.

Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.

A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).

Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.

Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.

Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:

Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.

Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.

Lhasa 1950s
Lhasa, late 1950s.

Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date

to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.

Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.

Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.

As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,

the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—

until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.

It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.

Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.

À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,

the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.

In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.

I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.

Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,

building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.

From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:

Comrade Editor,
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…

By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.

Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.

Lhasa 96

Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.

Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.

Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.

Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.

Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:

As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.

As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others

is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.

Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students

mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.

In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:

“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”

And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.

The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.

In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.

Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.

While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.

Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.

Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.

It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.

Echoes of Dharamsala

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Diehl cover

  • Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala: music in the life of a Tibetan refugee community (2002)

is the fruit of ten months that the author spent from 1994 to 1995 in the hillside capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northwest India, “perched in the middle of one of the world’s political hotspots”. Despite the presence of the revered Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is no mystical paradise.

Diehl 37

As Diehl explains in the Introduction, Dharamsala felt somewhat over-subscribed as a topic, and she had hoped to study Tibetan refugee communities elsewhere in India; but she was drawn back there by circumstance, and soon became a participant observer playing keyboards with The Yak Band. This informs her thesis on the performance and reception of popular music and song by Tibetan refugees—including traditional folk genres, Tibetan songs perceived as “Chinese”, Hindi film songs, Western rock, reggae, and blues, new Tibetan music, and Nepali folk and pop.

In the Introduction she notes a contradiction between scholarship on displacement and the people whose experiences generated it. Whereas anthropological theory tends to celebrate “transgression, displacement, innovation, resistance, and hybridity”,

it became clear that many of the displaced people I had chosen to live among and work with were, in fact, striving heartily for emplacement, cultural preservation, and ethnic purity, even though keeping these dreams alive also meant consciously keeping alive the pain and loss inherent in the exile experience rather than letting or helping these wounds heal.

Further, much of the scholarship that does include ethnographic case studies tends to emphasise

the richness, multivocality, dialogism, and creativity of their subjects rather than their deep conservatism, xenophobia, and dreams of emplacement.

Diehl gives cogent answers, in turn, to “Why study refugees?”, “Why refugee music?”, “Why refugee youth?”, and “Why Tibetans?”. Exploring “zones of invisibility” (and inaudibility), she seeks to

fill in some of the gaps left by the many idealised accounts of Tibetans. Through its generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity and cultural preservation in exile, much of the available information on Tibetan refugees exhibits a troubling collusion with the community’s own idealised self-image. […]

After four decades in exile, many Tibetans realise not only that the utopian dream is still an important source of hope but also that it can be a source of disappointment and frustration that has very real effects on individuals and communities who are raised to feel responsible for its actual, though unlikely, realisation.

She introduces the “Shangri-La trope”, analysed by Bishop, Lopez, and Schell, and notes the “disciplinary bias within Tibetan Studies towards the monastic culture of pre-1950 Tibet”—a bias that applied also to Tibetan music, largely interpreted as “Buddhist ritual music” until the mid-1970s (cf. Labrang 1). Since Diehl wrote the book, the whole field has been transformed by new generations of scholars at last able to document Tibetan culture within the PRC.

She notes Dharamsala’s position at the “literal yet liminal intersection” of a “geographical and conceptual mandala”:

Diehl 27.1

Diehl 27.2

What complicates this apparently cut-and-dry native point of view is the fact that […] sounds and musical boundaries are, ultimately, immaterial and are therefore felt and experienced in personal and varied ways.

Chapter 1, “Dharamsala: a resting place to pass through”, depicts the town as both a centre and a limen, a destination for pilgrimage which refugees hope eventually to leave. Besides them, the ever-shifting population also includes civil servants, nomads, traders, aid workers, dharma students, and tourists.

Members of the oldest generation in exile came to India from Nepal, Bhutan, or India’s North East Frontier Area (now Arunachal Pradesh) after escaping from Tibet in 1959 on foot over the Himalayas, travelling in family groups under the cover of darkness, following their leader into exile. Since then, for forty years, Tibetans have continued to escape from their homeland in a procession whose flow varies with the seasonal weather, the attentiveness of Nepali border patrols, the effects of specific Chinese policies in Tibet, and the varying intensity with which these policies are implemented in different regions of the country and different times.

Diehl identifies three general waves of migration:

The first escapees (between 1959 and the mid-1960s) came from Lhasa, Tingri, or other southern border areas of the country. Few Tibetans escaped during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but in the 1980s a second wave of refugees, a number of whom had been imprisoned during the first decades of Tibet’s occupation, fled Tibet. Since the early 1990s, a third wave of refugees from Amdo in the northeast, known as sar jorpa (“new arrivals”), have arrived in exile, putting the greatest demands on the government-in-exile’s resources and institutions since the first months spent establishing tent camps, clinics, and schools in 1959.

Besides regional aspects, I note that there are political and class considerations here too, as the old generation that included aristocrats and former monks from the Lhasa region was replaced by commoners (and former monks) from a wider area, brought up under the routine degradations of de facto Chinese occupation. At first the shared plight of exile tended to homogenise interactions:

It was irrelevant, even laughable, to insist on special privileges or respect because one’s father had been a regional chieftain in Tibet, when you had no more power to set foot in Tibet than your neighbour, the son of a petty trader from Lhasa.

But social, regional, and sectarian divisions later re-emerged.

Some refugees in the diaspora avoid Dharamsala altogether, specifically because of the ambition, materialism, self-consciousness, and conservatism engendered by its status as an international hub of activism, tourism, and bureaucracy and because of its overcrowdedness and uncleanliness.

Refugees (and the Indian population) depend to a large extent on the influx of tourists, including the transient “dharma bums” and those on more committed spiritual or welfare missions. The new refugees find themselves

outside the rigid structures of Tibetan society, perched at the margins of Indian society, and inferior to all around them owing to their utter dependence.

Chapter 2 explores the notions of “tradition” and the “rich cultural heritage of Tibet”, which “authenticate the past and largely discredit the present”. The chapter opens at a Tibetan wedding, with a group of older chang-ma women singing songs of blessing and offering barley beer in toasts to the couple and the guests.

Diehl 58

Groups like this had been common in Tibet before 1959, but only became popular in Dharamsala in the 1980s. The women performing for the wedding had all fled from the Tingri region of Tibet, working in Nepal as day labourers, petty traders, or wool spinners before reaching Dharamsala. They had recently pooled their memories of weddings in old Tibet to create a suitable repertoire.

At some remove from such non-institutional groups, Diehl examines the role of government-sponsored community and school events in “cultural preservation”, headed by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).

In exile the official drive was inspired both by the dilution of Tibetan culture after exposure to Indian society and by fears over the destruction of traditional culture inside Tibet after 1959 (this mantra, still repeated by rote, probably needs refining in view of research on the state of performing traditions in Tibet since the 1980s). The reified cause of “preservation” required perpetuating a sense of “loss and victimisation” among the second and third generations, who had no experience of the homeland.

But the nostalgic canonisation of certain genres

does little to account for (or respect) the complex mosaic of cultural practices that are continually being constructed in exile through the choices and circumstances of even the most “traditional” Tibetan refugees and that constitute their day-to-day realities.

Nor does it reflect the diversity of culture inside Tibet before the 1950s, and since the 1980s.

Diehl scrutinises the annual ache-lhamo festival of the TIPA Tibetan opera troupe (see here, a post enriched by wonderful videos), as well as TIPA’s international touring activities. But locals note that the school appears demoralised, its performances lacking vitality—the emphasis on preservation apparently leading to “cultural death”, just as in China.

Diehl notes the uncomfortable position of the sar-jorpa “new arrivals” from Tibet:

Rather than being valued as fresh connections to the increasingly remote homeland, as might be expected, these Tibetans more frequently cause disappointment by failing to validate the hopeful dreams of those living in exile. Instead, their apparent foreignness only confirms dire thirdhand news of cultural change (namely, sinicization) in Tibet.

Still, educated Tibetans in Dharamsala told Diehl that

the children escaping nowadays from Tibet (rather than those carefully schooled in exile) are the most likely to maintain a strong commitment to the “Tibetan Cause”, since they have personally experienced the consequences of living under Chinese occupation.

She illustrates the conflict with a telling scene at the Losar New Year’s gatherings. Besides the chang ma singing songs of praise and dancing, a group of new arrivals from Tibet were also taking turns to sing namthar arias from ache-lhamo opera, with loud amplification—a performance shunned by the locals.

It seemed a perfect illustration of the separate worlds refugee Tibetans and Tibetans raised in the homeland inhabit, even when living and dreaming in the same close physical proximity. No Tibetan in the temple that morning wanted to be celebrating another new year where they were, and all knew exactly where they preferred to be, but the differences between their relationships to those reviled and desired places [were] being expressed in ways that exaggerated the temporal, spatial, and cultural experiences that had been their karmic destiny, seemingly muting their commonality.

Diehl goes on to ponder the competing claims to cultural authority in Tibet and in exile. The singers visiting from Tibet were not making explicit claims to “tradition”, but, rather,

employing the range of their musical knowledge […] to express conservative and religious sentiments. Because they had recently come from the physical homeland, their potential space-based authenticity was actually a liability in the context of Dharamsala rather than a resource for claims to cultural propriety. […]

Young Tibetans in Tibet and in exile are not faced with a simple either-or choice between traditional or modern “styles”. […] It is difficult to assess most traditions as simply “preserved” or “lost”. *

Still, cultural pundits in Dharamsala see the risk of Chinese influence as more pernicious than that of other kinds of foreign music such as rock-and-roll. Exiles have criticised the vocal timbre of Dadon, a Tibetan pop singer who escaped Tibet in 1992, as sounding “too Chinese”; even more strident was the controversy over Sister drum.

Chapter 3, “Taking refuge in (and from) India: film songs, angry mobs, and other exilic pleasures and fears”, discusses refugee life in the here and now of contemporary India, when

few voices in the conversation grapple with, or even acknowledge, the Indian context in which the exile experience is actually taking place for the great majority of Tibetan refugees.

The shared disdain of many Westerners and Tibetan refugees for the day-to-day realities of India—hardship, corruption, poverty, and filth—is an important ingredient in the often-romantic collusion between these groups.

The Indians’ resentment of the refugees is “restrained by considerations of economic self-interest”, but ethnic conflicts sometimes arise, as in April 1994, when a fight between a Tibetan and a local gaddi led to a rampage against the refugees. The Dalai Lama’s offer to move out from Dharamsala was clearly in no-one’s interest, and so peace-making gestures were made.

Living in India, Tibetan refugees are no more immune than the rest of the subcontinent to the ubiquitous Hindi film music, with all its “fantastic dreams of sin and modernity”, in Das Gupta’s words. Commenting on the wider consumption and production of such songs among Tibetan refugees, Diehl reflects in a well-theorised section on the similarities and differences between the original and the mime.

Although Hindi film songs had long been adopted by Tibetan refugees as “spice” (or “salt-and-pepper”) at weddings and other events, they were to make a more conflicted choice for Tibetan rock groups. Diehl takes part in the Yak Band as they perform concerts that include some such songs, featuring the demure young schoolteacher Tenzin Dolma, who imitates the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, “the Nightingale of India”. Tibetans’ enjoyment of this repertoire is a guilty pleasure. The Yak band were aware of the risk that the “salt-and-pepper” might become “bread and butter”.

Having added India into the mix, Diehl reflects further on her time with the Yak Band in Chapter 4, “The West as surrogate Shangri-La: rock and roll and rangzen as style and ideology”, exploring the often-idealised romance with the West, and the quest for independence.

Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have been part of the lives of Tibetans born in exile since childhood. Western rock brings as much cultural baggage as the soundscapes of traditional Tibet, modern India, and socialist China. Diehl notes the scholarly tendency to interpret youth culture in terms of “resistance” or “deviance”, downplaying cases where it may be conservative or centripetal. Referring to Bishop and Lopez, she surveys the Western fascination with first the “spirituality” of Tibet and then the high profile of the Tibetan political cause.

Social divisions in Dharamsala are further amplified when Tibetans who have gained residency in the USA return for a visit; those still left behind in India, not realising the hardships their fellow Tibetans have had to endure in the States to gain a foothold there, envy their apparently affluent lifestyle. But as refugees continue to arrive from Chinese-occupied Tibet, opportunities for those still in India remain limited; the lure of the West is strong.

Still, plenty of Tibetans of all ages in Dharamsala (including “new arrivals”) felt that Western pop and rock “have no place in a community engaged in an intense battle for cultural survival”.

On the one hand, there are very strong, politically informed reactions against any Tibetan music that sounds too Chinese, too Hindi, or too Western. On the other, many Tibetan youth respect traditional Tibetan music but find it boring.

In Chapter 5, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down: making modern Tibetan music”, Diehl ponders the challenges of creating a modern Tibetan music. She provides a history of the genre from its origins around 1970, introducing the TIPA-affiliated Ah-Ka-Ma Band before focusing on the Yak Band.

Paljor was brought up in Darjeeling, trained by Irish Christian missionaries. His late father was a Khampa chieftain who had been trained by the CIA in the late 1950s to fight Chinese incursion. Thubten, grandson of a ngagpa shaman, had escaped as a small child from Shigatse to Kalimpong in 1957, going on to spend seventeen years in the Tibetan regiment of the Indian army. Phuntsok was born in Dharamsala; Ngodup was an orphan schooled in Darjeeling.

In a community wary of innovation, even traditional musicians have a lowly status. Whatever people’s private tastes within the family, public musicking is subject to scrutiny.

Chapter 6 turns from sound to the crafting of song lyrics, with their narrowly solemn themes such as solidarity for independence, and nostalgia for the loss of a beautiful homeland—themes which demand expression in a language that is largely beyond the literary skills of the younger generation. Diehl talks with the official astrologer for the government–in-exile, who provided poetic lyrics for the local bands, and introduces the early work of Ngawang Jinpa, Paljor’s teacher in Darjeeling. Diehl cites a rather successful lyric by Jamyang Norbu (former director of TIPA, editor of the 1986 Zlos-gar, an important resource at the time; see e.g. The Lhasa ripper, Women in TIbet, 2, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes), “poetic yet accessible, evocative rather than boring”.

She gives a theoretically nuanced account of what song lyrics communicate, and how; and she explains the refugees’ rather low level of literacy, official efforts to create a standard language among a variety of regional dialects, and the link with sacred sound. Love songs are also composed, but hardly performed in public. It is considered more acceptable to write lyrics in bad English than in bad Tibetan, but such songs are rarely aired in public.

Chapter 7 unpacks public concerts that “rupture and bond”. In January 1995, the Yak Band made a major trek to the Mundgod refugee settlement in south India to coincide with the Kalachakra initiation ceremony there, with the Dalai Lama presiding. Their choice of repertoire over fifteen nightly performances revealed “a comfort with cultural ambiguity and a passion for foreign culture that is disturbing to some in the community”.

Diehl 243

Over the course of the concerts the band agonised over their set list. While their inspiration was to share their songs of praise for the Dalai Lama, their longing for a homeland they had never seen, and compassion for their compatriots left behind in Tibet (exemplified in their opening song Rangzen), they varied the proportion of modern Tibetan songs, “English” rock songs, and Hindi and Nepali songs in response (and sometimes resistance) to the reactions of the multi-generational audiences—which included, at first, young monks, before their abbot imposed a strict curfew on them. While hurt that the audiences preferred “silly Indian love songs” to their core Tibetan offerings, the Yaks reluctantly succumbed to popular demand.

One of the Yaks’ reasons for their visit to Mundgod was to get their tenuous finances on their feet by selling their cassettes, but they returned to Dharamsala having made a loss. Moreover, they now suffered from hostile public opinion about their repertoire.

Diehl 259Disillusioned by the lack of support in Dharamsala, the band drifted apart, but they were able to put on a reunion gig for the Dalai Lama’s 60th birthday—when their preferred Tibetan set list was eminently suitable.

In the Conclusion, Diehl reminds us of the importance of musicking

as a crucial site where official and personal, old and new, representations of Tibetan culture meet and where different notions of “Tibetan-ness” are being confronted and imagined.

In a brief coda she updates the stories of the Yak Band.

* * *

For all the book’s excellent ethnographic vignettes, some sections bear the hallmarks of a PhD, with little adaptation to a more reader-friendly style—which is a shame, since the topic is so fascinating. I’ve already confessed my low tolerance threshold for heavily theorised writing (see e.g. my attempts to grapple with Catherine Bell’s outstanding work on ritual).

From within the goldfish bowl of Dharamsala, Diehl only touches in passing on the changing picture inside Chinese-occupied Tibet. While repression there has been ever more severe since 2008, research on regional cultures there had already become a major theme, with a particular focus on Amdo (see e.g. here, including the work of Charlene Makley, Gerald Roche, and others, as well as chapters in Conflicting memories). For the pop scene, useful sources are §10 of the important bibliography by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (including work by Anna Morcom), and the High Peaks Pure Earth website (see also Sister drum, and Women in TIbetan expressive culture). Within occupied Tibet, performers of popular protest songs have been imprisoned, such as Tashi Dhondup; in another thoughtful article, Woeser explores the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions.

Diehl refers to a variety of publications such as those of Marcia Calkowski and Frank Korom, and I cite some more recent sources in n.1 here—among which perhaps the most useful introduction to the topic is

  • Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile? Comparative observations on doing research among Tibetans in Lhasa and Dharamsala”, in Sarah Turner (ed.), Red stars and gold stamps: fieldwork dilemmas in upland socialist Asia (2013).

For contrasting lessons from occupation and exile, see also Eat the Buddha. Despite the presence of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has begun to occupy a less iconic position in our images of Tibetan culture. For all the growing disillusion with the political promises of Western countries, refugees continue to move on, while “new arrivals” have come to make up a significant component of the town’s Tibetan population—see e.g. Pauline MacDonald, Dharamsala days, Dharamsala nights: the unexpected world of the refugees from Tibet (2013), critically reviewed here. The growing popularity of satellite TV from the PRC, and the issue of Tibetan culture in the growing Western diaspora, further complicate the story.

Ethnographies, however definitive they may seem at the time, are always overtaken by more recent change. While soundscape is always an instructive lens on society, more general studies of Dharamsala lead us to a wealth of research on Tibetan refugees in south Asia by scholars such as Jessica Falcone, Trine Brox, Rebecca Frilund, and Shelly Boihl.

See also Lhasa: streets with memories. For the perils of “heritage”, see this roundup, and for a broad discussion of “authenticity”, note Playing with history.


* One of my own more disconcerting moments came while hanging out with young performers from TIPA on their tour of England in May 2004. Several of them were refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, but they were quite happy to speak Chinese with me. Much as I am attracted to Tibetan culture, apart from lacking the language skills, my whole background in Chinese culture has always made me wary of doing fieldwork in Tibetan areas. Whenever I meet Tibetans I am at pains to point out that my Chinese peasant mentors have also suffered grievously at the hands of the state, but I’m still anxious that they might consider me tarred with the brush of the invaders. Still, incongruously, several of the TIPA performers who had fled the PRC were now keen that I should sing them some Chinese pop songs to remind them of their old home, and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t oblige.

A god retires

Federer 2

As the divine Roger Federer retires, Barney Ronay has come up with an unbeatable entry for Pseuds’ Corner: *

His backhand was frankly ridiculous, overblown, hilariously good. This, one thought, watching that thing—the flex of the knee, the flourish of the wrist—is a kind of artefact, a European cultural treasure, like a Bach cantata or a complete acorn-fed Iberian ham, the kind of backhand a power-crazed Bond super villain might try to steal from its laser-guarded case and transport to the moon.

And he’s right, of course—while other players achieve greatness by sheer brute force, Federer’s grace as he glides around the court is supreme.

Requiring less athleticism, but just as poetic, is Ronnie‘s elegance around the baize. For more on snooker and tennis, including Cocomania and A playlist for Emma and Leylah, see under A sporting medley. My Bach retrospective has links to the cantatas…

Highlights of Federer’s last match, playing doubles with Rafa Nadal:


* Pipping to the post cake baking as creative inspiration for Renaissance music, and my own likening of Stewart Lee’s reformulations of previous work to those of Bach and Miles Davis.

Godard and the Nouvelle Vague

with a further note on Last tango in Paris

Godard Karina

In 1970s’ England, while my musical tastes were already imbued with Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez [Weirdo—Ed.], continental cinema offered an exotic escape from the drab insularity of our lives. French and Italian movies made a particularly important education for us.

The films of Jean-Luc Godard, who died last week (obits e.g. here and here), were iconic. It’s of no great consequence that his ouevre never quite appealed to me, but I’m just trying to work out why. It’s not that I balk at abstraction—I love Rivette’s Céline and Julie go boating, for instance (although you may say that its surreal fantasy is underpinned by the plot of a conventional mystery thriller).

Godard’s images and framing are strikingly original:

But for all the visual attraction of such posing, I suppose I was wary of poseurs. In Bertolucci’s Last tango in Paris (whose main theme is not sex but pain; see under The conformist) the character of Tom is a parody—perhaps more of Truffaut than of Godard, but anyway a satire on the whole pretentiousness of the Nouvelle Vague. To cite this review,

Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.

Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema…

Similarly, this article comments:

Tom, of course, is a parody of the Godardian New Wave filmmaker, running around putting up his fingers to make camera shots out of everything, and apparently not knowing or caring what Jeanne is doing. He is fittingly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was discovered by Truffaut as a child and has since played in many New Wave movies, looking increasingly like Truffaut himself. Tom is characteristically in the New Wave ethos in trying to make a film about the progress of his love affair leading up to his marriage. His crew creep around after Jeanne, filming her meetings with Tom and then filming her childhood mansion complete with relics from the past. Real life and the world of their film become so entangled that it is hard to say anymore what their reality is. Jeanne’s life becomes the film; the film becomes their reality together; they live the film rather than making a film imitating their lives.

Bertolucci shows clearly the superficiality, irresponsibility, and triviality of Jeanne and Tom’s world together. It is a shrewd comment on contemporary, fashionably “hip” worlds where people are so sophisticated and blasé about everything that they have ceased to be human beings living in the realities of our society and historical moment. It is an entirely escapist world with all the inevitable consequences of shallowness that follow escapism.

The Nouvelle Vague was based on an aloof, impersonal ethos—for which I blame the alienated male auteurs, who were in charge, with women making decorative pawns. Call Me Old-Fashioned, but I still want a bit of plot, personality, communication. In many (perhaps all?!) films, such as La strada or The conformist, it’s the women who provide humanity while the men are swanning around being pompous and fucked-up. The women may be fucked-up too, but largely through being abused by all the fucked-up men. Revealingly, Godard showed his contempt for The conformist—as Bertolucci commented, recalling their meeting 37 years after the event:

He doesn’t say anything to me. He just gives me a note and then he leaves. I take the note and there was a Chairman Mao portrait on it and with Jean-Luc’s writing that we know from the handwriting on his films. The note says: “You have to fight against individualism and capitalism.” That was his reaction to my movie. I was so enraged that I crumpled it up and threw it under my feet. I’m so sorry I did that because I would love to have it now, to keep it as a relic. […]

Here are some trailers for Godard’s early films:

  • À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg:

  • Disprezzo coverLe mépris (Contempt, 1963), with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, is so overladen by Godard’s already signature style that it hardly seeks to do justice to the “humiliation and sexual frustration” of Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (English translation titled A ghost at noon):

Of Godard’s successive muses, Anna Karina (wiki; obituary) was the most captivating. Their first movie together was Le petit soldat (filmed in 1960, released in 1963), followed by

  • Une femme est une femme (A woman is a woman, 1961):

  • Vivre sa vie (My life to live, 1962):

as well as Bande à part (1964), and Alphaville (1965). Their last film before they broke up was

  • Pierrot le fou (1965):

—which reminds me rather of Betty blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986) (in the words of Peep show, “great sex-and-suicide flick—turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness”).

Godard’s originality emerged not only through his visual sense, but in musicMichel Legrand, known for working on less avant-garde movies, provided the soundtrack for Vivre sa vie:

Legrand also composed the soundtrack for Bande à part—this dance scene is actually endearing:

It’s as if all a male film director had to do was find a gamine muse (see under Moon river, and Ute Lemper), and success was guaranteed, no matter how minimal and inscrutable the plot-line.

I don’t mean to react merely with a surly Gallic shrug—each of Godard’s films was a tour de force (“too, er, deaf ‘orse”: Cheval trop sourd, unreleased?), and I quite see how epoch-making they were. Perhaps I should say not that his ouevre never appealed to me, but that it didn’t move me. But I guess that’s just the kind of bourgeois conceit that he was exposing; as Bertolucci continued in his recollection,

I had finished the period in which to be able to communicate would be considered a mortal sin. He had not.

Still, Godard’s stance against communication seems to dilute his radical political mission.

To end with an affectionate British parody, here’s a 1997 vignette from the Fast show:

An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

Musicking: the crutch of exegesis

Ravel prom

When I go to concerts, I’ve always resented forking out for a programme. Such insights as it may bequeath are sandwiched between an array of glossy advertisements, reminding us of the mundane capitalism from which the event promises to afford us temporary refuge. Sometimes I do grudgingly buy a programme in search of some nugget of wisdom, but ideally I’d rather not be distracted from the experience of live musicking.

Having broached the issue here, sorry to go all world music on you again, but I can’t help going back to the ethnomusicological studies viewing Western Art Music (WAM) through the eyes and ears of a Martian, like Christopher Small’s Musicking or Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions. Concert audiences being highly literate, they tend to use that literacy as a crutch, a comfort blanket, seeking verbal explanation for an experience that might otherwise be more somatic and socially immersive. I wonder if we’re not quite prepared to immerse ourselves thus, almost as if we need some kind of distraction to allay potential embarrassment—while clubbers enter more fully into the live experience, audiences at rock concerts are distracted by filming the event on their phones…

Literacy is enshrined among the orchestral performers too, faithfully reproducing the printed score set before them; the conductor’s score on the podium serves as a holy text (the “quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance”), with only some maestros enhancing the experience by conducting from memory.

Ahouach
Ahouach
festivity, Morocco.

Conversely, at the musical gatherings of communities around much of the world (take your pick: Aboriginal dream songs, a Daoist ritual, an Alevi cem ceremony…)—where the participants may not even be literate—no need is felt to explicate the event in words, to list the performers and the conductor’s glittering list of recordings and forthcoming engagements, nor to tell us what Haydn was doing in London in 1795; rather, expressive culture is part of the fabric of the community, not hived off into a museum. Tickets aren’t on sale. I should add that there are plenty of events in Western societies where you don’t have to buy a ticket, or a programme, for an enriching musical experience—weddings, lullabies, Irish pub sessions

As to fieldworkers, no matter how they immerse themselves in a community, through the very nature of their constant questions (“Do you always do it like this? Is there a crucial part of the ceremony? Why are you inviting two groups of ritual specialists today?”) they will never attain the state of the inhabitants, for whom musical events form an intrinsic part of their lives. Of course, local participants may be quite capable of reflection, aware of nuances in performance, and concerned with the rules of variation; but such awareness is embedded in their hearts and bodies. The discursive mission of the ethnographer can only violate this sense.

Having already tried the patience of my Daoist master Li Manshan over the years by seeking to unravel the functions of the family ritual manuals, the changing performance practice since the 1950s, and so on, once I began depping occasionally for funerals with his Daoist band, I was able to add a most important insight: this is jolly hard work!

For the little segment of modern Western society that attends WAM concerts, the written exegeses of the programme booklet may enrich our appreciation of the event as well as distracting us from it. I now realise that the copious ads (for insurance companies, corporate sponsors, posh schools, retirement homes), so diligently blanked out by those drawn to the repertoire by some kind of spiritual bent, are just as revealing as the programme notes. Whether or not the ads are welcome, they convey a subliminal message, making a telling commentary on the social demographic of the audience. Concert-goers may be seduced by the myth of “music as a universal language”, but advertisers know better; programmes don’t tend to feature ads for food banks, helplines for immigrants, or offers of legal aid for striking health workers. As often in fieldwork, seemingly peripheral aspects, easily neglected, can afford valuable insights into the nature of the event.

The concerns of an audience for Mahler 7, apparently—
perhaps not so different from those of participants at a Chinese folk ritual:
providing for the security of the family?

Just saying, like… See also under Society and soundscape.

A roundup of roundups!

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially

China:

and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Some other themes:

Western Art Music:

—a theme that also makes appearances under World musicking and ethnography:

Popular culture:

Drôlerie:

Yangzhou 1958: a glimpse of Daoist ritual

Yangzhou cover

I’m always concerned to trace the story of research on ritual in China under the first fifteen years of Maoism from the 1949 “Liberation” until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. I’ve introduced the impressive 1956 project on Daoist ritual in Suzhou, and Yang Yinliu’s remarkable fieldwork in Hunan that same year (following his 1952–53 study of the music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing); the “Buddhist music” of Wutaishan was an early topic; and my post on a 1960 report on “old customs” of Wenzhou includes further links, as does Images from the Maoist era. I’ve commented on how the very concept of “Daoist/Buddhist/religious music” misleadingly ringfences the topic, when soundscape should anyway be a major element of ritual studies.

1966 was the major cut-off point, but research (and ritual practice) was highly constrained after the Socialist Education campaigns began in 1963; and already by 1957–58 the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward had disastrous consequences (see Cultural Revolutions). We can find several more signs of life on the eve of the Leap, such as the Xi’an scholar Li Shigen’s 1959 report on his 1957 visit to the White Cloud Mountain in Shaanbei. And I just recalled another one,

  • Yangzhou daojiao yinyue jieshao 揚州道教音乐介绍 [Introduction to the Daoist music of Yangzhou], edited by the Yangzhou Cultural Association (Wenlian). [1]

This slim mimeograph of 37 pages, compiled in 1957 and published in 1958, consists mainly of cipher-notation transcriptions of the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu 清吹笛譜十番鼓 gongche solfeggio score for dizi flute of (paraliturgical) melodies for Shifan ensemble, a score which is said to have been handed down in the Chenghuang miao temple since the Ming dynasty.

By contrast with the outstanding work of Yang Yinliu, the pamphlet is entirely reified, with no social context at all on the severely-reduced conditions of ritual activity in the urban temples or the surrounding countryside—but at least it suggests a concern for ritual music at the time, that was only able to get into full swing as traditions and scholarship revived after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

After a nugatory, formulaic introduction, the transcriptions are in three sections: qingchui dipu 清吹笛譜 solo flute scores, daoqing 道情 popular vocal melodies, with texts, and—most interestingly—twelve zanjing 讚經 hymns, again with texts:

  • Baihe ci 白鶴詞
  • Jiuku zan 救苦讚
  • Putuo qu 普陀曲
  • Sanguan zan 三官讚
  • Kaijing zan 開經讚 (Songjing gongde 誦經功德)
  • Zhaoqing 召請 1
  • Zhaoqing 召請 2 (cf. the Invitation ritual in north Shanxi)
  • Huanghua dangxing tianzun 黃花荡形天尊
  • Zhuangzi tan kulou 莊子嘆骷髏 (again, cf. north Shanxi)
  • Qiyan Sanhua 七言散花
  • Zhuanlian ji 捲簾偈
  • Jishou guiyi 稽首皈依
  • Tan fusheng 嘆浮生

Yangzhou Sanguan zan
Hymn to the Three Officers (Sanguan zan).

Since the 1980s, the Anthology (see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3, 2003) sometimes affords valuable prospects of local ritual traditions—such as the household Daoists of Changwu, subject of a substantial section in the narrative-singing volumes for Shaanxi. Otherwise, “religious music” mostly appears under the “instrumental music” volumes—supplementing recent fieldwork with studies from the 1950s. For Jiangsu province the coverage of “Daoist music” gives pride of place to Suzhou, Wuxi, and Maoshan; Yangzhou is absent.

Yangzhou 2007 coverPerhaps there has been further study, but Zhu Ruiyun 朱瑞云 (b.1929), the main author of the 1958 mimeograph, finally published a much expanded revision in 2007, Yangzhou daojiao yinyue kao 揚州道教音乐考. Despite all the advances in China in the ethnography of religion since the 1980s, its 366 pages are still largely limited to hackneyed musicological concerns. Zhu had no training in Daoism, but since the 1980s many other cultural workers around China managed to educate themselves about their local Daoist ritual traditions—some (as in Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hunan) becoming considerable authorities, producing a wealth of fine ethnographic work.

The introductory material, including a brief account of ritual practice, consists largely of generic citations from early history; Zhu spectacularly avoids even the briefest reference to any modern ritual activity in Yangzhou. In the transcriptions (now in Western stave notation), the brief section of hymns, after the opening Kaijing zan, even dispenses with the ritual texts that he provided in the 1958 mimeograph.

At least we now learn that the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu score was provided by Sun Guiyuan 孙归源, fourth-generation abbot of the Chenghuang miao temple, to whom Zhu was introduced while he was working the Bureau of Culture in 1957. And the brief account by Sun Guiyuan’s son, written in 1991, tells us that the temple was demolished in 1950 and the score destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Alas, this is one book we can well do without. So Daoist ritual around Yangzhou still cries out for detailed research—not only on imperial history, but fieldwork on current activity (both temple and folk), [2] and studies of change from the Republican to Maoist eras. We may find the 1958 mimeograph meretricious (and a Happy New Year), but I still admire the work of scholars through all the travails of Maoism. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder to return to the splendid work on Daoist ritual around Suzhou and Wuxi.


[1] In Yangzhou, a more popular topic has been the lively (secular) folk traditions of qingqu 清曲 narrative-singing, which are the subject of many dedicated studies since the Yangzhou qingqu caifang baogao 揚州清曲采访报告 of 1962 (yet another impressive monograph from the Chinese Music Research Institute, in the lull between the famine and the Socialist Education campaigns), and the genre features prominently in the narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology.

[2] As usual, the most promising approach will be simply to spend time there “among the people”, chatting with locals and perhaps hanging out at funeral shops. Almost wherever one goes, household Daoist (and Buddhist) groups are in demand to provide services for mortuary rituals—as shown even by a popular article like this from 2016, in which the author, on a visit home to Yangzhou, is surprised to find that his father has taken up the Daoist trade late in life. For temple Buddhism, see e.g. this announcement for the Water-and-Land ritual as performed at the Daming si temple.

Ogonek and Til

For Nick

Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…

ogonek

As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:

So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…

Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation

V.S.—or try sink, Iga!

It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!

* * *

ao

Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in

  • não (no)
  • mão (hand)
  • pão (bread)
  • cão (dog)
  • limão (lime, for that caipirinha party)
  • canção (song)
  • Japão (Japan)
  • João (“John”).

Plenty of material there for a couple of niche limericks, to join Myles’s tribute to Ezra £; Alan Watts on Salisbury/Sarum; The young man from Calcutta; The young man from Japan, and The old man from Peru [typical bias against the middle-aged woman—Ed.]. Something like this, perhaps:

There was a young man from Japão
Who fed his cão pão with limão
Waving a mão, he burst into canção
Until João came up and said “Não“.

Estêvão, Çisiq 2022.

Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.

Noh drum
Source.

Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.

* * *

Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:

There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.

Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!

Iga
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”

And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:

To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!

Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.

* * *

Click here for Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding Oulipean anagram series. See also Language learning: a roundup. For more practice with Polish names, and some amazing music, see Folk traditions of Poland; Polish jazz, then and now; and Polish migrants to the USA are among the cast of Annie Proulx’s splendid ethnomusicological novel Accordion crimes. For the Portuguese footballer Jesus, click here. For more ą, sorry I mean on, both football and tennis, see under A sporting medley—including this tribute to the multicultural musical heritage of Emma and Leylah. See also Oh Noh!, featuring Brian and Stewie; and for the clichés of blurb-writing, click here.

Mahler: a roundup!!!

Mahler 1907

Mahler is such an important figure on this blog (and indeed in “Western civilisation”!) * that I thought I should offer a roundup of posts—my The art of conducting links to many of these, but it’s always good to remind ourselves of his astounding body of work.

Mahler cartoon

Note the definitive four-volume study by Henry-Louis de La Grange—and online, his series here, with essays on all the symphonies (cf. conductors’ ideas). Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (2010) is engaging and instructive. For recording guides, see here.

I began writing about Mahler with a post musing on performance practice, vibrato, and Daoism, and went on to offer reflections on the individual symphonies, all overwhelming in their different ways—with plentiful A/V embeds of some of the great interpreters like Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, and Rattle:

Urlicht from the 2nd, and the Adagio of the 4th.

Here’s my detailed “programme” for the apocalyptic passage in the first movement of the 10th, with the “Scream”:

Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing, but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):

  • 16.15 the descent into hell begins
  • 16.44 rise of Nazism
  • 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
  • 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
  • 17.37 the concentration camp system
  • 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.

Mahler 10 scream

And most essential is the heart-rending song

Amidst all the pain and ecstasy of his searing vision, Mahler incorporates the sounds of popular, folk, and world musics.

Other posts of note include

Ending of the 9th, and Anna.

Of no consequence whatsoever is Mahan Esfahani’s mystifying incomprehension


* The quotes there alluding, you gather, to the much-cited but elusive Gandhi story: when asked “What do you think of Western civilisation?”, he is said to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea”.

Mahler 7 at the Proms

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*

Mahler 1908
Mahler (left) with Bruno Walter, Prague 1908.
Source: Mahler, Year 1908, with many more images.

As a self-confessed Mahler fanatic, I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by the 7th symphony (see e.g. here, and wiki)—and it transpires I’m not alone. I’ve finally got to know it better with the prospect of hearing the stellar lineup of Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Phil performing it live at the Proms (listen here).

Prom BPO

Mahler wrote the symphony in 1904–05, premiering it in Prague in 1908, over which period his family and professional problems had taken a serious turn for the worse.

Here’s a rather impressive review of the British premiere in 1913, led by Henry Wood—I like

It looked as if the audience had derived some pleasure from the performance, though they felt not sure whether they were right in enjoying it. [cf. Woody Allen’s “wrong kind of orgasm”.]

The opening movement is most substantial, after the opening melody on Tenorhorn with its unsettling tritone. Of course, Mahler thrives on extreme contrasts, but somehow I still find the symphony too disjointed; the collage sometimes reminds me of Ives. More intimate sections are all too fleeting, like that building from the bucolic passage (from 9.11 in Abbado’s performance below) and near the ending (from 17.01), before the climax of the coda—which I also find rather a challenge.

Between the more grandiose outer movements, the two pieces of nachtmusik are themselves punctuated by a spooky scherzo, foreshadowing Ravel’s La valse (“a surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”)—and featuring an fffff pizzicato in the cellos and basses!

The first nachtmusik is “grotesque, with friendly intentions”, according to wiki; the second, andante amoroso, is more intimate and human, with a transcendent ending—before the blazing, brash finale, which Michael Kennedy described as “a vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy”. Without Mahler’s typical extended passages of intense soul-searching, the final victory doesn’t seem sufficiently hard-won.

In this symphony the kitsch that is such a distinctive, poignant part of Mahler’s sound world rarely moves me. Even his use of cowbells doesn’t add up to much after the transcendental (if ambivalent) mood they impart in the 6th symphony. Mahler’s palette also makes use of guitar and mandolin—another suitable outlet for the Music Minus One franchise?

My struggle with the 7th may be partly to do with my personal history of getting to know the symphonies, but critics have long pondered its flaws; even if it has some impressive defenders, it it is famously difficult to make cohere.

As to recordings (see e.g. here and here, as well as Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? pp.267–8), I’ve chosen some outstanding live performances. Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra always make an exceptional team—here they are in 2005:

Of course, that’s rivalled by earlier performances—like Bernstein with the unrepentantly all-male Vienna Phil in 1974:

This 1993 concert by Tennstedt and the London Phil was his last recording:

and here’s S-Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil in 1999:

Back at the Proms, the Berlin Phil sounded fabulous (for the orchestra’s early history, click here, and here). But even hearing it live, much as I relish the building blocks, I must admit I still don’t really get the piece—it feels as if the pieces of the jigsaw don’t quite fit together. Still, it’s Mahler, and the standing ovation was richly deserved (see this rave review).

This season also features the 1st and 4th symphonies—as well as S-Simon conducting the 2nd, the event of the season. I will always enjoy hearing the 7th live, but it’s also a reminder to immerse ourselves in the miracles of the 2nd and 3rd, the 9th and 10th, the 5th and 6th, the 1st and 4th, as well as Das Lied von der Erde

Everyday life in a Syrian village

 

Syrian village 1

I’ve been watching

  • Everyday life in a Syrian village (Omar Amiralay, 1974, with Saadallah Wannus),

“the first documentary to present an unabashed critique of the impact of the Syrian government’s agricultural and land reforms” (source), in the wake of the Ba’ath party coup of 8th March 1963.

Omar Amiralay (1944–2011) studied in Paris from 1966 before returning to Syria in 1970 (see also this interview). Following his short and uncritical Film essay on the Euphrates dam (1970), Everyday life in a Syrian village is set in al-Muwaylih, a “stronghold of tribal power” near the city of Deir ez-Zor in east Syria.

Syrian village 3The film revolves around the harsh life of peasants working the land. Interviews with villagers, teachers, health workers, officials, and policemen, lamenting the peasants’ “lack of awareness”, reveal the problems of introducing modern education and healthcare to the poor countryside—issues that remind me of rural China (see e.g. Guo Yuhua). Indeed, the brief IMDb summary proclaims that Muwaylih is “a place plagued with tribalism, ignorance, and evil”.

The filming is brilliant, with haunting images. On the soundtrack, besides the howling wind, traditional flute music is used to accompany scenes of manual labour, contrasting with the noises of basic mechanisation.

From 47.18, the villagers gather for ritual chanting with frame-drums—in his 1973 film about Kurdish dervishes on the Iran–Iraq border, André Singer suggests that one role of such rituals is to inculcate subservience to the sheikh’s feudal power. From 51.40, in a startling juxtaposition favoured by film-makers (again underlined by the soundtrack), the bemused villagers are assembled by the visiting town Cultural Unit to gawp at an utterly alien documentary on the blessings of progress.

By contrast, Everyday life in a Syrian village remains banned in Syria—here it is:

Amiralay’s third film The chickens (1978), also beautifully filmed (watch here), is a critique of the declining livelihoods of farmers and artisans in the Orthodox village of Sadad to the west—and is also banned in Syria. Having played a leading role in the Damascus Spring of 2000, he revisited the Euphrates region in 2003 to make A flood in Ba’ath country (working title Fifteen reasons why I hate the Ba’ath Party).

Besides R. Shaleah Taleghani’s chapter “Docu-ironies and visions of dissent in the films of Omar Amiralay” in a collection that she edited with Alexa Firat, Generations of dissent: intellectuals, cultural production, and the state in the Middle East and North Africa (2020), all this makes me keen to read studies such as Sulyman Khalaf, Social change in Syria: family, village, and political party (PhD, 1981, published 2021; foreword), and the work of scholars who pay tribute to the book here.

Further up the Euphrates to the northwest lies Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017; for tribal manoeuvring in Deir ez-Zor since 2011 under Assad and IS regimes, see this report. The recent devastation of Aleppo is shown in the outstanding documentary For Sama. See also the early Turkish feature films Law of the border and Dry summer.

With thanks as always to Kadir.