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.

A meditation on impermanence

A Buddhist meditation on impermanence composed by the Shunzhi emperor—among the funerary texts of the Li family household Daoists in north Shanxi

Stephen Jones: a blog

In several posts I refer to the beautiful Buddhist meditation on impermanence Kangxi yun康熙云, actually composed not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61).

A variant of the poem forms part of the hymn volume of the Li family Daoists, the very first ritual manual that Li Qing recopied in 1980. This volume is not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts—I explain in some detail the process of recopying the manuals in this post (for the hymn volume, see under “Manuals and ritual practice”).

LMSHere I noted Li Manshan’s attachment to the text of the Kangxi yun (with a very rough translation), and began to wonder what it is doing in the hymn volume. And on my stay with Li Manshan last year (see my diary, under “Pacing the Void”) we sought further clues, speculating about how, and when…

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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.

Shaanxi in fiction: Jia Pingwa

Jia Pingwa

The Chinese novelist Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 (贾平娃, b.1952) maintains his reputation despite often falling foul of the censors—a pattern all too familiar to other artists such as film-makers.

Brought up in southeast Shaanxi in a village in the Shangluo region, Jia Pingwa studied at the provincial capital Xi’an from 1971. His novels exemplify “native-place fiction” and the blending of traditional story-telling and modern verismo. For useful introductions to his work, click here and here.

I’m particularly keen to read

  • Feidu 废都 (“Ruined city” or “Abandoned capital”, 1993; translation by Howard Goldblatt, 2016), and
  • Qinqiang 秦腔, 2005; (forthcoming translation “The Shaanxi opera” by Dylan Levi King and Nicky Harman—see here, and here).

King introduces both novels in an evocative account of a trip on which he and Harman followed Jia back to his home village, now converted into a theme park…

“Native-place” writing has a clear affinity with the movies of Jia Zhangke (no relation!). Indeed, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and the female writer Liang Hong are the subjects of Jia’s 2019 documentary Yizhi dao haishui bianlan 一直游到海水变蓝 (“Swimming out till the sea turns blue”)—characterised by Liu Qing, in her critical review from a gender perspective, as “fixated on the self-mythologising of ordinary men”. Here’s a trailer:

For the use of local dialect in ethnography and fiction, see Guo Yuhua, under “Language”, and n.7 there. See also Chinese film classics of the early reform era, and Liu Sola; for Shaanxi under Maoism, cf. the memoirs of Kang Zhengguo. One might even venture into Shaanbei-ology and the traditional story-tellers of the region…

Buses—red, green, yellow

red and green
The bus on the left isn’t ripe yet.
Images here courtesy of Augusta, now a diligent chronicler of the 94 route…

The 94 bus has already made several cameo appearances on this blog (e.g. here, and here).

Stein
“Typical! You wait for days and then two come along at once!”
Sir Aurel Stein’s travels on the Silk Road, 1914. Source.

As the fleet plies its trade between East and West, like a medieval caravan along the Silk Road weaving its way through the bustling markets of oases like the fabled Bush of Shepherds [That’s enough now—Ed.], I now notice the appearance of several green buses.

While red buses have long represented a stereotypical image of London, green only penetrated central London quite recently. At first it was intended to blend in with the leafy prospects of the suburbs (see splendidly nerdy sites such as Friends of classic London buses of the Fifties, and this; for the changing shades of “Lincoln green”, and even “Chiswick green”, see notes 2–4 here).

green bus
Note: this blog cannot take responsibility for the fidelity of colour rendition in these images.
Or for anything, ever. Source.

And now yellow too! Admittedly, such a radical innovation is spurred by the mundane rules of commerce, rather than the pure aesthetic inspirations of yesteryear. But surely this is just the kind of diversity that Brexit was supposed to eliminate… At least they’re bendy bananas. Of course, among the innumerable political deceptions of recent times, the red bus has also been used, infamously, to parade a fairytale promised land for the NHS. Going well, is it, then?

See also Thankyou Driver!.

Hidden heritage

Hidden Heritage cover

  • Fatima Manji, Hidden heritage: rediscovering Britain’s relationship with the Orient (2021).

This engaging book is part of an important discussion that is deeply unwelcome in conservative circles. It’s in the same vein as the recent challenges (from both historians and ordinary people) to the representation of the legacy of the British empire—BLM, the attacks on statues (Rhodes in Oxford, Colston in Bristol)—in tandem with similar protests in the USA and elsewhere. [1] Sadly, the PC-gone-mad brigade and opponents of “woke” (a term that may be defined as “an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) will either attack or ignore such work.

Fatima Manji, a worthy member of the brilliant team at Channel 4 News, attracted the fatuous ire of Kelvin MacKenzie in 2016 when she presented the bulletin featuring the terror attacks in Nice. You can read her reaction to the ruling here. She has recently filmed a fine report on honour killings in Pakistan.

In Hidden heritage, to complement her historical and political insights (besides her refined aesthetic sensibilities), Ms Manji turns out to have a real narrative gift. In the Introduction she notes the rhythm of visiting a stately home:

Walk through the hallways to see portraits of a lionised landed family with their porcelain skins and a compulsory display of European art, collected by a son on the Grand Tour. Admire the architecture, allow yourself to be amused by the story of a rogue uncle or a scorned lover, and end your trip with tea and a scone. If you are interested in interior design, there is inspiration enough in the coving and sconces, the gardens often prove delightful, and lovers of art will find enough to impress them. But beyond the twee trappings, Britain’s heritage sites are home to a hidden history.

It did not seem malicious or deliberate that it was hard to find more information about the occasional “swirl of Arabic, Persian, or Urdu letters, or the brown hue of a sitter’s skin in a portrait” that appeared amongst all the imperial opulence.

Some of the objects described in this book are only ever presented as the rewards of brave colonial conquest, and others are ignored altogether.

Britain’s apparent historical amnesia has lessons for our current debates about immigration and the nature of “Britishness”. Deliberately using the historical term “the Orient” for West and South Asia (notably the Ottoman empire and British India), she observes:

A whitewashed presentation of history directly affects how Britons today perceive the people, buildings, and languages of the Orient. All are regarded as alien threats and new arrivals to be defended against.

Manji colour 1

Chapter 1 opens in Chiswick House, probing the story behind the portrait of Muhammed bin Haddu al-Attar, ambassador of Morocco, who visited London in 1682 on a diplomatic and trade mission to the court of Charles II. His travels are described in fascinating detail. The ambassador was much admired. He dined with the scholar Elias Ashmole, observed the building of the new St Paul’s Cathedral, and attended performances of Shakespeare. He visited Cambridge, and at Oxford he met Edward Pococke, first chair of Arabic Studies there, as well as the linguist Edward Hyde. Manji follows the Ambassador back to Morocco, where he encountered political difficulties.

The era

is more nuanced than popular history would have us believe. The enthusiasm expressed by people in England, rich and poor alike, to see the Ambassador in person, even when diplomatic relations between the two polities may have been fraught, demonstrates that many showed the maturity of inquiring minds, and not the small island mentality that we may attribute to them retrospectively.

Just as absorbingly, Manji then traces the story back to Elizabethan England. The Queen sought alliances with the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Moroccans. Among her companions was the Central Asian slave girl Aura Sultana, perhaps the first Muslim woman documented in England. The Shirley brothers courted the Safavids; Robert’s wife was Circassian. The East India Company and Levant Company were founded. Elizabeth established links with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, and corresponded with his consort Sultana Safiye; the delivery (and repair) of a 16-foot-high clockwork organ for their son Mehmed (who became Sultan in 1595) turned out to be a serious challenge. Elizabeth also received at least three ambassadors from Morocco—the London visit of Abul Wahid bin Messoud in 1600 caused as much curiosity as that of Muhammad bin Haddu some eighty years later.

Manji 41

Such influences were evident in English food, dress, and expressive culture, with Oriental carpets and the beginnings of the craze for coffee (“the Mahometan berry”) in 1652, soon criticised. “The Turk” or “The Moor” became a common character in ballads and theatre.

Manji ends the chapter by considering the persistence of such tropes and fears in Britain today. But as she reminds us, an alternative history of the Tudor and Stuart period exists:

Too often our depictions of this era are inward-looking and forgetful of interactions with the world beyond Britain’s shores or Europe’s borders. They are not merely fascinating stories, but a tradition to draw on.

The book is well worth reading for this chapter alone; but the quality is maintained throughout. Chapter 2 takes us to Kew Gardens and the story of its “lost mosque”—the first built on British soil.

Kew
The Alhambra arch, the Chinese pagoda, and the Turkish mosque, 1763.
Source.

The Chinese pagoda originally had two companions, a Turkish mosque and an Alhambra arch. Much of the design for Kew Gardens, including the plan for an Alhambra building, was brought to fruition by Augusta, mother of George III. The mosque, completed in 1761, was designed by Sir William Chambers. Though not used for worship, it suggests respect for Islam.

It is as if the patron or the designer wished to send out a message about the place of these buildings in Britain, and, through them, the place of Britain in the world: that these ornate Oriental buildings are not alien to this landscape but, rather, that they belong.

While such a message soon met with both praise and detraction, Augusta certainly appears more open and cosmopolitan than our very own Minister for the 18th century. Visiting Kensington Palace, Manji tells the story of Muhammad and Mustafa, taken as prisoners after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, ending up in the retinue of George I (then Prince Elector of Hanover). Muhammad’s close relationship with the King was a source of resentment at court. But both died nearly four decades before the building of the mosque, and indeed they had converted to Christianity, so their influence on the Kew project is tenuous. So Manji finds a clearer proponent of the style in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was closely connected to the Dowager Princess Augusta. She had become immersed in Ottoman culture (including mosque architecture) while living in Constantinople from 1716, and went on to become the first to introduce inoculation against smallpox to Britain.

Oriental structures like the mosque at Kew seemed to denote not only expanding imperial ambitions but also an enquiring world-view. However, the mosque soon fell into disrepair, and by 1785 it had been dismantled.

Again, Manji pursues the story into the 20th century, with the Japanese Gate built in 1910 on the site of the mosque. And she reflects on the modern profusion of mosques in Britain—“no mere ornaments, being active spaces for collective worship, socialisation, and charitable activities”. She describes the struggle of the Lincoln Muslims to construct a mosque there since 2008 in the face of Islamophobic threats, and ongoing anti-Muslim violence.

There is something to be learned from that first mosque-like structure in Britain. It denies those flaunting flags while spewing hatred a monopoly on history and demonstrates that mosques are neither new nor alien in Britain.

More recently, the director of Kew Gardens has had to rebuff accusations of succumbing to wokeness.

Chapter 3 tells the story of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century, through artefacts now housed in Apsley House, Belmont House, and Powis Castle. A thorn in the side of the British, they vilified him while portraying the East India Company as benevolent.

Manji tells the story of the Wellesley brothers (the younger of whom became the Duke of Wellington) and “Clive of India”, whose daughter-in-law Henrietta did at least make a genuine effort to engage with the culture of the subcontinent.

The mass looting of Mysore after Tipu’s defeat resulted in many acquisitions for British stately homes and museums. Part of the haul from Tipu’s palace was the famous toy tiger which has lived at the V&A since 1897. Its scary mechanical sounds were only muted after World War Two.

In the early 1990s Channel 4 screened the Indian historical drama The sword of Tipu Sultan, in which the Sultan is the hero and the British the villains. This was during the enterprising period of commissioner Farukh Dhondy, when black and Asian tastes were being catered to. Later he reflected that such programming would now be seen as too radical for the channel, with diversity having become a “game of statistics”. Manji too takes a dim view of the images of “the Orient” now being presented by the media.

The treasures of Tipu’s rule found around our country remind us that the power Britain amassed as an empire was wrested from others who also have proud stories to tell. Like Tipu Sultan’s belongings, many children and grandchildren of Empire find themselves scattered around Britain. Perhaps it is time we deployed the tiger’s roar—to demand better depictions and more honest histories, and to shape our own narratives.

In Chapter 4, “Portraits of the forgotten”, she travels to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, summer retreat of Queen Victoria, now run by English Heritage. An entire corridor there is filled with portrait paintings of Indians of various classes. They show prison inmates from Agra, who had been chosen to stay for six months at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1886 to demonstrate the artisan crafts (weaving, carving, engraving, dyeing) that they had learned while in prison. They were housed in a specially-built “native compound” nearby, and escorted by Dr Tyler, superintendent of Agra prison. This was a propaganda exercise, illustrating an idealised picture of India as traditional and primitive in contrast to modern, industrialised Britain.

At the Albert Hall, Victoria’s entourage was greeted by a choir singing the national anthem in English followed by a verse in Sanskrit. Tennyson’s poem for the occasion seems worthy of E.J. Thribb: *

… be welded each and all
Into one imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul!
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne!
Britons, hold your own!

Manji comments on the fashion for grand exhibitions around Europe at the time. She notes the Jaipur Gateway from the Kensington exhibition, now on show at Hove Museum (“standing in a small front garden, facing a dentist’s surgery and a concrete block of 1960s-style flats”), and is impressed by the Durbar Hall and wooden screens on display at the Hastings Museum. She visits Glasgow to view the remains of a similar exhibition in 1888.

Victoria had a genuine taste for the Orient. She ordered the portraits of the craftspeople from the young Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda, and even commissioned him to travel around India to paint further portraits. She was so impressed by Abdul Karim, a former clerk at Agra prison, that he became her close confidant. He gave her lessons in the “Hindustani” language and the Urdu writing system. Again, courtiers viewed their relationship with suspicion.

Manji 146
We learn of Ram Singh, whose gifts were cultivated by the artist and curator John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard), an advocate of India’s traditional arts. Victoria commissioned Singh to design and construct an Indian room for Osborne House, “a noble chamber of rare beauty and elegance”.

The depth of Britain’s relationship with the Orient is on display, carved into the walls surrounding us, a reminder of how this history is woven into the very fabric of Britain itself.

Yet, that fabric has been embroidered with the misery of millions, then and now. Those who seek to indulge the twin myths of the British Empire—its virtue and its emergence out of an innate British superiority—are often the most resistant to understanding what empire is in material terms. […]

Of course, the idea that Britain’s transport infrastructure, grandest architecture, art, and wealth could only be built on the massacre and subjugation of millions of people around the world must be maintained by a constant stream of propaganda directed at Britons.

As historians concur, it is here that our heritage sites have a particular responsibility. When they

fail to adequately explain the political contexts in which estates or objects come into the possession of landed families, traders, or imperial officers, they simply serve as vessels to perpetuate the twin myths of the Empire.

Reflecting on Victoria’s distress at her courtiers’ treatment of Abdul Karim, she ends the chapter on a topical note:

It is significant that even Victoria’s mild and purely personal interventions in her court on questions of race would be still be regarded in contemporary Britain as inappropriately “radical” by sections of the commentariat keen to stake out a position as more conservative than parts of the monarchy itself.

As to Abdul Karim,

could he ascend to a position of seniority and influence today? To an extent, his racial identity would be less of a problem. A political, economic, and cultural system that outwardly eschews its reliance on racial hierarchies depends to some extent on well-placed people of colour to provide legitimacy, validation, and a model of how non-threatening minorities ought to behave.

But the proliferation of a vast industry since 2001 aiming to demonise Muslims

means that a contemporary Abdul Karim would be at risk of finding himself on a no-fly list long before his arrival to the UK and, even with well-placed patronage, would be identified as a source of potential “radicalisation” and surveilled. However, if he were willing to serve as a loyal handmaiden to stale, preordained ideas of Britishness that are largely ahistorical, he would be enthusiastically embraced and rise quickly through the ranks, serving as corporeal proof of the supremacy and openness of a society that is in fact deeply insecure about its history and its prevailing ideology.

Chapter 5 begins at the court of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster, which hosted its first event in 1867 for the visit of another Ottoman Sultan. Manji gives a vivid account of the pageantry surrounding the Sultan’s tour of England, and explains the diplomatic agendas of the day.

Manji 176

By 1903 the chamber, now named Durbar Court, hosted the rulers of the Indian princely states under the new British King Edward VII, in whose coronation India played a prominent role. On a trip to Liverpool the Indian soldiers were keen to pay homage to the solicitor Abdullah William Quilliam, founder of the city’s Muslim Association. The Maharajah of Jaipur paid a visit to Lord Curzon’s ancestral home of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, now run by the National Trust and housing a wealth of Asian objets d’art.

Manji ends this chapter by lamenting Britain’s current loss of interest in learning the languages of the Orient. SOAS, founded in 1917, is now offering specialist teaching in fewer languages. That English is the world’s lingua franca is an paltry excuse.

If more of us were multilingual, it would become increasingly ridiculous to demonise those speaking in another tongue.

While the former interest in language learning was substantially related to “national interest”, the current apathy seems to imply that Britain is struggling to come to terms with its waning global importance. On the right,

the bunting-and-borders brand of nationalism leads to the particularly short-sighted assumption that jingoism […] will restore Britain’s pride and prominence.

And she finds that the left too has failed to provide a compelling rebuff.

We should resist attempts to turn Britain into an insular ideological state that demands loyalty to one particular set of beliefs. We can and should be a multilingual society that recognises its own cultural inheritance as complex.

In Chapter 6 Manji visits Brighton, where the “astonishing, surreal, and fantastical” Royal Pavilion (1823) is the most visible sign of Britain’s historical admiration for the Orient. She focuses on the Great War, when the palace was converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

More than a million Indians fought for the British in the war, suffering grievously. As hospitals in south England began to overflow, Sir Walter Lawrence, commissioner for the wounded Indian troops, adapted the Brighton Pavilion to accommodate them. This brief introduction has some film footage:

The local population were excited to receive these “warriors from the East”. Many of the nursing staff were of Indian origin. As donations came in, a philosophy society even gave a lecture on “The welding of Western and Eastern thought”.

Manji gains clues to the patients’ own experiences from the letters they attempted to send to their friends and family, often censored but later preserved in the British Library. Despite the weather, many were most appreciative. There was music in the form of Indian records (I wonder what!), and, um, organ recitals. For those “sufficiently convalescent” there was a matinee on the pier to hear music from a Sufi order (again, more please!) and an adaptation of a poem from the Mahabharata.

Still, many were deeply traumatised. And they (as well as Indian student volunteers) were frustrated by restrictions on movement outside the hospital. With the authorities concerned to avoid scandal, local women, though keen to serve as nurses, were not allowed to do so.

Manji colour 2Manji again returns to an earlier story, that of Deen Mohammed (1759–1851), who led a most creative life. Born in Patna, he worked for the East India Company army. At the age of 26, helped by a patron, he moved to colonial Ireland, where, moving in “somewhat elite circles”, he married a Protestant woman. Twenty years later he moved with his family to London. He was the first Indian to publish a book in English; and he opened an Oriental coffee-house—which in 1810 became the first curry house in Britain, which even provided a delivery service! ** The restaurant was short-lived, so he now made his home in Brighton, where he set up a Turkish bath-house with his wife, popularising “shampoo”—actually a medicinal Indian vapour massage bath. The establishment became “the epitome of fashion in Brighton for nearly two decades”.

Manji 204
Manji colour 3

Back with the Indian patients in the Great War, they were also disturbed that on recovery they were repeatedly being sent back to the trenches. A personal request to George V to end the practice made by Mir Dast, who had received the Victoria Cross for bravery, seems to have gone unheeded. And they often felt like prisoners. After a compromise had been reached on allowing female nurses, in June 1915 they were again removed, amidst protest.

Manji 205

Manji investigates mortuary procedures—cremation for Hindus and Sikhs, burial for Muslims. By early 1916 Indian soldiers were largely deployed away from Europe, and the casualties were no longer sent to Britain, so the Brighton hospitals were closed.

But the politics over how they should be recognised—or indeed acknowledging that recognition was due at all—continued in Britain, and does to this day.

She visits memorials, maintained sporadically until a recent revival in remembrance, with the Muslim burial ground at Woking particularly well restored since 2013—“a place Britain can be proud of”.

The Indian gate at the Brighton Pavilion was not added until 1921, and only since 2010 has it had an attic room dedicated to the memory of the patients.

Despite the best efforts of historical institutions and campaigners, across Britain the memory of these men still feels forgotten. […] The story of the Indian men who fought for Britain and those who came to the country wounded are somehow still not seen as an integral part of Britain’s national memory of war.

This feeds into the “myths of Britain standing alone or of the war only being fought by Europeans”. But a “poppy hijab” designed by a young Muslim student almost became a test of patriotism;

sadly the clothing choices of Muslim women once again became tokens in a political and cultural battle. The conversation turned to extremism and integration, rather than true remembrance.

After this poignant closing chapter, in the Epilogue Fatima Manji reflects on the moral panics that have been manufactured through history. She cautions against regarding the embracing of Oriental culture in the past as merely an elite pursuit. And she reflects on the raging debate (over statues, museums, and so on) since she began researching the book:

The myth of British Empire as a civilising mission is a fairytale enthusiastically endorsed by many British adults who otherwise perceive themselves as unrelenting sceptics. This peculiar delusion is the result of a system of schooling, cultural production, and political discourse which reinforces the fantasy at the expense of a collective national reckoning…

At the moment, our heritage sites are not performing the task of reframing the national story and placing “Britain’s relationship with the cultures and peoples of the Orient in its proper context”. She cites promising initiatives from the National Trust.

Of course, it is important to ensure those people who would not ordinarily visit heritage sites do so—that is part of the purpose of this book too. But visitors or potential visitors to heritage sites who have their own Oriental heritage should not be seen as grateful guests who need to be taught the ways and myths of “native” Britons. By choice and by bondage, we made these islands too.

Historians have been working on such stories for some time within their academic niches, and the book has an extensive section of references grouped by chapter; well illustrated with both colour and black-and-white images, the thoughtful, accessible survey of Hidden heritage, argued with both grace and passion, is most valuable.

See also Heritage: a roundup, including posts on China and early music; and my collected posts on west and Central Asia.


* Even-handed in my poetry criticism, I have suggested a similar connection in the ouevre of the Tang poet Bai Juyi.

** This was even before Berlioz composed his March to the Scaffold, immortalised with Indian-menu lyrics by London orchestral musicians in the 1960s when it seemed like a novel concept. Little did we know…


[1] Further to Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel’s article on the British suppression of history, the recent links below (compiled with her help) suggest what a major issue this has already become—and this is a mere selection.
The National Trust:
https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/23/britains-idyllic-country-houses-reveal-a-darker-history
https://lbsatucl.wordpress.com/2021/02/17/culture-wars-in-country-houses-what-the-national-trust-controversy-tells-us-about-british-history-today/
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/13/national-trust-warns-of-threat-from-ideological-campaign-waged-against-it
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/13/national-anti-woke-campaign-slavery-churchill-culture-war
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/16/cream-teas-at-dawn-inside-the-war-for-the-national-trust
English Heritage:
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/contested-history/
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/research/slavery/
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/oct/16/racist-attack-on-english-heritage-exhibition-celebrating-black-lives
Museums and galleries:
https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/contested-objects-collection
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/21/british-museum-head-in-sand-return-artefacts-colonial
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/08/national-gallery-publishes-research-into-slave-trade-links
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/28/tate-exhibition-to-explore-gallerys-links-to-caribbean-slave-trade
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/11/24/tate-britain-director-defends-museum-against-accusations-of-cancelling-hogarth
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/29/should-museums-return-their-colonial-artefacts
Legacies of British Slavery:
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
The Church of England:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/09/remove-or-alter-your-slavery-monuments-churches-are-told
and the Rijksmuseum:
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/07/09/the-big-review-slavery-at-the-rijksmuseum
More on anti-woke:
https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/charities-woke-agenda-nadine-dorries-1232415
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/20/attack-on-woke-charities-has-backfired-campaigners-say
David Olusoga on statues, BLM, and so on:
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/jun/07/david-olusoga-race-reality-historian-black-britishness
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/arts/television/david-olusoga-black-history.html
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/26/culture-warriors-sallied-forth-only-to-be-defeated-by-their-own-ineptitude
(and I haven’t attempted to cover Confederate statues in the USA).
Other:
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/21/uk-inquiry-blames-pervasive-racism-for-unequal-commemoration-of-black-and-asian-troops
https://historyjournal.org.uk/2020/07/21/historians-call-for-a-review-of-home-office-citizenship-and-settlement-test/
Perhaps we can give the last word to Stewart Lee (again, cf. his riposte to Amanda Platell’s complaint about Bake Off):
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/21/national-trust-members-get-ready-to-choke-on-your-carrot-cake

Raga at the Proms

Amjad Prom

My extensive series on north Indian raga includes reflections on several live London concerts (Bhavan, British Museum, Kings Place). And as an honorary member of “the other classical musics”, raga has long featured at the Proms. * While such a genre is best experienced in intimate venues, it still works in the vast Albert Hall, with the close attention of the Prommers perhaps resembling a core of mehfil aficionados.

At last Sunday morning’s Prom I heard Amjad Ali Khan (b.1945), with his sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, on the fretless plucked lute sarod, accompanied on drums by Sanju Sahai (tabla) and Pirashanana Thevarajah (mridangam). I might have preferred the group to sit more closely together, creating a more intense atmosphere, rather than attempting to spread themselves widely across the ample stage. 

You can listen to the concert here for the next year.

* * *

Amjad and Hafiz
Source.

From the long hereditary Bangash gharana lineage of Gwalior, Amjad Ali Khan is son of Hafiz Ali Khan (1888–1972) (see here, and wiki)—who can be heard here in excerpts from rāg Bhairavi:

and Darbari Kanada:

Amjad Ali Khan (website; extensive YouTube channel) first performed in the USA as early as 1963, and at the Proms in 1994. Here’s a long exposition of Yaman from 1977:

Kafi Zila, 1978:

and Marwa, from 1994:

Note also documentaries by James Beveridge (1971):

and Gulzar (1990):

* * *

I’ve never paid much attention to the taxonomy of ragas by the time of day—which is anyway rarely adhered to in concerts, since they mainly take place in the evenings—and there’s a further potential refinement in the seasonal associations of particular ragas (see e.g. here). But the morning Prom did indeed feature morning ragas—which were largely chromatic and quite challenging.

First the two sons played rāg Lalit in duet, like a kind of junior jugalbandi. Lalit has a highly chromatic scale, omitting the fifth degree Pa and featuring both natural and sharp versions of the fourth ma (for more, including a flute version by Hariprasad Chaurasia, click here).

Then the veneration in which Amjad Ali Khan is held was clear from the standing ovation he received as soon as he stepped on stage. First he played Miyan ki Todi (from 29.20; cf. this 2004 rendition), also chromatic and complex; here are its basic ascending and descending scales as given in The raga guide:

Todi

On first hearing, both these ragas may seem quite mystifying.

He went on briefly to compare the timbre of stopping the strings with nails or fingertips (from 56.14), and after another whimsical chromatic solo (rāg Purvi?) he demonstrated the link between tarana vocalisation and playing (1.10.07). Finally his sons joined him to play rāg Anand Bhairav (1.17.31, cf. this version) in an exchange that often resembled a training session for learning the basic building blocks of the raga. After all the earlier chromaticisms, its scale is almost entirely diatonic, only coloured by a flat re second degree.

While I would always trade the fast flamboyant final sections for lengthier introductory alap exploring the structure of the raga, this was a most charming, inspiring concert to remind us of raga’s vast ocean of discipline and creativity!


* Imrat Khan performed late-evening Proms in 1971 and 1978; at the peak of my own dabblings in raga, epic all-night concerts were held in 1981 (with musicians including Vilayat Khan on sitar, Sultan Khan on sarangi) and 1983 (dhrupad from Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ritwik Sanyal; Ram Narayan on sarangi, Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri); and the first main-evening Prom of north Indian classical music was held in 1989.

My use of roman and italic here is another example of the hierarchy of admission to “our” elite musical club—tabla (like sitar) having become part of the English language, sarod and mridangam not so much, yet…

Also on sarod, I’ve featured Ali Akbar Khan under Shri and Yaman.

The body politic

Sanna

As you may imagine, I know even less about Finnish politics than some of the other topics that I write about. But after Prime Minister Sanna Marin‘s praiseworthy handling of Covid and the Ukraine crisis, the recent furore over her dancing at a private house party reminded me of Susan McClary’s critique of the denial of the body, the puritanical relegation of sensuous enjoyment, on which Western Art Music has long prided itself.

AOCRather than rejoicing in Sanna Marin’s humanity, some people have queried her “lapse of judgment”. Apparently what disturbs them is that she is seriously cool. Oh well, good to know that even in Scandinavia there are some puritanical fuckwits. It also reminds me strongly of the faux outrage over the video of the wise AOC dancing, to which she gave such a brilliant riposte.

But Sanna Marin also has a lot of support, and YAY!!!, Scandi women have retorted, posting their own videos of them dancing and drinking in solidarity.

With a very few other honourable exceptions, the spectacle of politicians dancing generally ends in tears. Just imagine how fortunate we would be to have such a PM in Britain, rather than the lying, self-serving, xenophobic bunch of crooks that currently holds us to ransom (see also my fantasy Jacob Tree-Frog Ribena scandal). Sure, being “entitled to relax” has been the default mode of our own “Prime Minister”, only in a bumbling, inept, and corrupt fashion (“roving briefs”, perhaps).

Surely it’s a blessed relief to know that politicians can still be Real Human Beings. FFS, Get a Life, Ye Olde Puritans.

Early Turkish verismo

Some depictions of rural life in Turkish cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

Law of the border poster

In my post on the Zaza Kurds I mentioned Yilmaz Güney. One of his first movies in a substantial ouevre was

which he wrote, also taking the leading role of Hidir. It’s set around a village near Urfa in the Kurdish region on the border of Turkey and Syria, “where lack of education, joblessness and general hopelessness have left the population little choice but to become outlaws in order to survive”.

The forces that push Hidir and his fellow villagers to smuggle and a telling of the plight of the poor and alienated group of people struggling to survive the only way they ever knew, from father to son.

Law of the border

It’s a constant contention between risk and reward —for the smugglers, the herders and the landowners—and the conjoined result is a provincial portrait of constricted desperation on all sides.

Amidst a violent patriarchal society, the film hints at the importance of education, as the teacher Ayşe (the film’s only female character) attempts to persuade Hidir to allow his son Yusuf to attend school.

Yet in the end reality crashes in while duty, survival, and emotions take over nobility, and people revert to what they know, be it teacher, commander, smuggler, or profiteer.

The only copy that survived the 1980 Turkish coup was rescued and restored in 2011 by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. It’s been described as “a Turkish Western”. Here it is:

* * *

  • Susuz yaz (Dry summer) (Metin Erksan, 1964; reviewed e.g. here) had already enjoyed huge international success, although it was banned in Turkey for fear of broadcasting negative images of society.

Dry summer poster

Showing power struggles over access to water in a poor village, as peasants resist the brutish agha Osman’s determination to deprive them of the “blood of the earth”. Jealous of his brother Hasan’s relationship with his young bride Bahar, Osman contrives to have him sent to prison for a crime that he himself committed, leaving him free to molest Bahar. In scenes of rare sexual voyeurism, the story exposes the subordination of women (for Erksan’s feminism, see here). It was filmed in Urla district of Izmir on the Aegean coast—and at a time when Turkish film used the standard language, most of the actors speak in Aegean accents. * The soundtrack effectively uses both traditional bağlama and remarkably avant-garde styles.

Watch here.

Dry summer

For a review of these two films, click here

* * *

Over a decade earlier, in 1952 Metin Erksan had made the biopic

about the renowned blind Alevi bard Aşik Veysel (see here; cf. Kurdish bards, and blind bards of Ukraine and China; see also here).

Asik film poster

Shot in Aşik Veysel’s native village in Sivas, again the film was censored for depicting the harshness of rural life.

Asik Veysel still

Sorry, no subtitles, and with some breaks in sound:

With the Turkish film scene already dominated by urbane commercialism, such films controversially depicted rural deprivation and conflict. Cf. Omar Amiralay’s 1974 documentary Everyday life in a Syrian village.


Hulya* Dry Summer was the debut role of Hülya Koçyiğit (b.1947)—click here for her experience of making the film. I note with typical superfluity that she was brought up in Kuzguncuk—as she recalls in this interview for the Turkish Agricultural and Forestry Magazine, that indispensable cultural organ (cf. The Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide).

Medieval jazz

jazz bass

This image, from the fun Twitter account weird medieval guys, appears to depict an early musical experiment that—once they worked out how to attach the strings—was eventually to mature into the jazz bass solo.

Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers, bass player on immortal albums like Blue train and Kind of blue.

That reminds me of the classic marriage guidance story, and Woody Allen’s catalogue of mythological beasts. See also under A jazz medley, including Mingus; and Another unlikely invention. Cf. Medieval helpline, and for a fine put-down of our own experiments in playing medieval estampies, A music critic.

The street players

Gushu yiren promo

Another addition to our list of Chinese film classics of the early reform era:

Between The horse thief (1986) and The blue kite (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang‘s movie Gushu yiren 鼓书艺人 (“The drum singers” or “The street players”) was released in 1987. It’s adapted from the last novel of Lao She—written in New York in 1948–49 before he made the fateful decision to return to serve the Chinese revolution (for Mr Ma and son, click here).

Gushu yiren still

The movie is set during the War of Resistance against Japan in the urban metropolis of Chongqing, where the Beijing drum-singer Fang Baoqing has sought refuge from the invaders with his family and opens a thriving tea-house with Tang Shaoye, another refugee story-teller. When Baoqing’s dream of setting up a school to ameliorate the lowly status of performers is shattered by a Japanese bombing raid, he sets up a little tea-house in the suburbs. There, as he makes friends with the progressive writer Mengliang, Baoqing and his daughter Xiulian soon do well from performing Anti-Japanese stories.

Gushu yiren still 1

But devastated by the loss of his “older brother”, Baoqing wants to give up his project. Mengliang encourages him to send Xiulian to school, but with her lowly background she is driven out by her well-to-do schoolmates. Xiulian, abused, abducted, and then abandoned by a ruffian entrusted to look after her, returns pregnant. As victory over the Japanese is declared, the film ends with the distressed family setting sail to an uncertain future (as did Lao She).

Here’s the film—sorry, no subtitles:

By comparison with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s other work (in particular The blue kite [1993], a most outstanding film) and that of other members of the “fifth generation” (cf. composers), I find The street players somewhat conventional and melodramatic. Under my post on Chinese film classics, far more creative and realistic is To live (Zhang Yimou, 1994), which sets forth from the travails of a shadow-puppet troupe in Beijing during the civil war; and for a (more magical than realist) movie on a rural bard, see Life on a string. For narrative-singing in Beijing and Tianjin, click here and here.

The Pontic lyra

Pontos 1950sMatzouka, Trebzon, 1950s (source).

After the Cretan lyra (and its cousin on Karpathos!), as well as various types of kemence bowed lute (some of which feature in my post on Indian and world fiddles), the music of the Pontic lyra is also most beguiling.

Pontus mapSource.

Along with the Greek populations along the Aegean coast, centred on the port of Smyrna, the Greeks of the Black Sea also had thriving traditions, which suffered just as grievously from the devastating conflicts that led to the population expulsions of 1923. [1]

Trebizond 2
From Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger.

Instruments make a partial entry-point into regional cultures. For the wider musical setting, as ever, the Pontic lyra accompanies the singing and dancing of social musicking (parakathi or muhabeti), [1] with additive metres prominent. So far I’ve had more luck finding audio recordings than video footage in folk context (although the tributes below from the Union of Pontic Youth of Attica have some fine images, both still and moving). From east to west, the sub-regions of the Pontos also show distinct musical cultures.

Domna Samiou has many sound examples from the region. And this compilation of Pontic music (courtesy of Özhan Öztürk) claims to predate the population expulsions (more information welcome):

This recording of the music of emigrants from the Bafra district of Samsun was made soon after the expulsions:

And this playlist of traditional songs and dances of Bafra was issued in 2001 by Radio Trapezounta Boston, whose YouTube channel has a wealth of material:

Most of the musicians featured below were relocated to Greece and the diaspora, or were born there.

The Union of Pontic Youth of Attica has uploaded tributes to some of the great masters of yesteryear—including Giorgos Petrides (1917–1984) and Chrysanthos Theodoridis (1905–2001):

Giorgos Kougioumtzidis (1935–2007) and Christoforos Christoforidis (1905–2001):

Yiannis Tsortanidis (1900–1983) and Sevastidis Pantelis (1922–89):

Stathis Beniamidis (1920–95) and Apostolos Athanasiadis (1907–76):

Nikos Papavramidis (1907–95) and Christos Bairaktaris (1905–81):

Domna Samiou’s page on Papavramidis leads to the album Chants des Akrites. He features on a couple of tracks on Epic songs of warriors and heroes, including

and

He is also heard here:

Ilias Kementzides (1926-2006) was born in Kazakhstan after his parents were expelled from Samsun; in 1940 he moved to Greece, and in 1974 to the USA. Here’s a short film, with clips of him playing for the Pontic Society in Queens, New York:

Ilias Yfantidis (b.1976) was born in Athens. There are further links on Samiou’s page for him, including

Tsakalidis Kostikas (1933–82) was born in Drama, northeast Greece (see e.g. Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.75–82), where his parents had been relocated from Trebizond. Among tracks from this playlist is:

Activity doubtless continues in the Black Sea homeland (where the lyra became known—to Turks—as kemence), even if it has been much attenuated. The image from the 1950s at the head of this post is attractive, but would need further documentation before we could assess its relevance: does it show performers of the Pontic Greek style?

I’d like to find audio-video material (perhaps it requires a more informed search), but in the majority Turkish culture, Pontic Greek traditions there were doubtless under a cloud until the belated thawing of Greek–Turkish relations. Even then, in 2002 the Trabzon folklorist Ömer Asan was charged with “propagating separatism” for his book Pontos Kültürü (cf. the Armenian trials soon after). More recently, the work of anthropologist Nikos Mahailidis (Soundscapes of Trabzon: music, memory, and power in Turkey, 2016) will offer clues:

In Turkey, the enterprising Kalan Müzik has issued two archive CDs of Pontic refugees Pontus Şarkilari, featuring Yannis Haralambidis and Athina Korsavidou (here as playlists):

Lastly, an evocative clip of the Pontic bagpipe angeion (touloumi) at a parakathi gathering at the Association for Pontic Greeks in Cologne, 2012:

For a range of musicking from around Anatolia and beyond, see my roundup of posts on West/Central Asia—including Turkish köcek dancing from the Black Sea, and the Turkish TV series The Club.


[1] See e.g. here, here, and here. Note also the endangered language of Romeyka:

[2] For a recent thesis, see Ioannis Tsekouras, “Nostalgia, emotionality, and ethno-regionalism in Pontic parakathi singing” (2017), citing much further reading. Earlier, Matthaios Tsahouridis— himself an experimental virtuoso on the Pontic lyra (YouTube topic)—wrote his thesis The Pontic lyra in contemporary Greece (2007).

The sceptical feminist

Sceptical cover

In between the second and third waves of feminism came a remarkable book:

Regrettably, it’s out of print, but you can—and must—read it here. I first read the book soon after it was first published, and it remains an inspiring analysis, addressing the topic with dispassionate philosophical clarity.

In the Introduction she explains:

This book is a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, it takes issue with the many people who think that there is no justification for the existence of the feminist movement: the ones who think that women’s demand for equality with men was misguided in the first place, or that they have now got it, or that women are better off than men. On the other hand, it is equally against a good deal of feminist dogma and practice. For all the strength of the fundamental feminist case, feminists often weaken it by missing the strongest arguments in its support, or allowing themselves to get entangled in non-essential issues, or insisting on making integral to the feminist cause ideas which are either irrelevant, probably false, or actually against the interests of feminists and often everybody else as well. If the arguments which are to be presented here succeed in their intention, feminism will emerge from the enquiry as necessarily radical, but with firmer foundations, less vulnerability to attack, and at the same time more general acceptability than it has at present.

Her basic definition of the issue is broad:

Women suffer from systematic social injustice because of their sex.

Although people do usually think of feminists as being committed to particular ideologies and activities, rather than a very general belief that society is unjust to women, what is also undoubtedly true is that feminism is regarded by nearly everyone as the movement which represents the interests of women.

She notes the “apparently ineradicable human tendency to take sides”:

While it would be ideal if everyone could just assess each controversial problem on its own merits as it arose, what actually happens is that people usually start by deciding whose side they are on, and from then onwards tend to see everything that is said or done in the light of that alliance. The effects of this on the struggle for sexual justice have been very serious. The conflation of the idea of feminism as a particular ideology with that of feminism as a concern with women’s problems means that people who do not like what they see of the ideology (perhaps because they are keen on family life, or can’t imagine a world without hierarchies, or just don’t like unfeminine women) may also tend to brush aside, explain away, sneer at, or simply ignore all suggestions that women are seriously badly treated. Resistance to the feminist movement easily turns into a resistance to seeing that women have any problems at all.

Since there is no doubt that feminism is commonly thought of as having a monopoly on the representation of women’s interests, therefore, and since all feminists, however firm their ideological commitments, must want as many people as possible to be willing to listen to their arguments about the position of women rather than reacting with hostility whenever the subject of feminism comes up, it is in the interests of everyone who cares about justice to have as many people as possible thinking of themselves as feminists. That is the main reason why the wider definition is needed.

There is also another reason. If feminists themselves think of feminism as the movement which defends women’s interests and also as being ideologically committed in a particular direction, the effect will be to fossilise current feminist views. Any feminist who has the idea that giving up her current views is equivalent to giving up feminism may be very unwilling to look at her views critically and abandon them if they are implausible. But however committed any feminist may be to her ideology, she must allow that there is a difference between maintaining the ideology and accepting more generally that women are unjustly treated, and since human fallibility means that she may turn out to be wrong about the first, it seems better that feminism should be thought of as the wider of the two.

Thus she defines feminism as a movement for the elimination of sex-based injustice—which also allows men to count as feminists.

Admittedly, men claiming to be feminists have to be viewed with a certain amount of caution, since many have already discovered (sometimes without realising it) that pretensions to feminism are new and valuable weapons in the cause of male supremacy. […]

Some men are quite as capable of useful logical thinking and scientific investigation as women.

So it’s neither a movement of women nor a movement for women.

It obviously cannot be one which supports the interests of women under all circumstances, because there must be many situations where, even now, women treat men unjustly, and a movement concerned with justice cannot automatically take the side of any woman against any man. However, more subtly, feminism should not even regard itself as a movement to support women who suffer from injustice. This is because many injustices suffered by individual women have nothing to do with their sex, and could equally well be suffered by men. If, for instance, there are men and women in slavery, it is not the business of feminists to start freeing the women. Feminism is not concerned with a group of people it wants to benefit, but with a type of injustice it wants to eliminate. The distinction is important, even though on the whole the elimination of that injustice will benefit more women than men. Once again, this consequence of the new definition does no harm: on the contrary, it is far more reasonable to ask people to support a movement against injustice than a movement for women.

She makes a case for the philosophical approach, beyond debates about practical matters:

Feminism often suffers from staying too close to women, and not looking enough at the general principles which have to be worked out and then applied to women’s problems.

So the broader topics of the early chapters (“The fruits of unreason”, “The proper place of nature”, “Enquiries for liberators”, “Sexual justice”, all cogently argued) set the scene for her discussion of practical issues of specific concern in society. Here I’ll give a few instances of the latter.

Progress has since been made in some circles on some of the issues discussed in Chapter 5, “The feminist and the feminine”.

The fear that an emancipated woman must necessarily be an unfeminine one has always been the basis of one of the opposition’s main objections to feminism.

Femininity and masculinity are obviously not the same as maleness and femaleness. […] We must therefore be concerned with attributes which are in some way supposed to accompany these fundamentally sexual ones, and the question is of what kind of accompaniment is at issue.

As she notes, these attributes are the subject of much anxiety. The “desirable” quality of “femininity” “is obviously thought a very fragile thing, since so much trouble is gone to on its behalf”. Feminists are not concerned about any inherent characteristics differentiating the sexes; rather, they ponder the fact that

men and women are under different social pressures, encouraged to do different kinds of work, behave differently, and develop different characteristics.

She ably refutes Ruskin’s “sugary gloss of ‘equal but different’ “, and analyses direct and indirect social pressures. But the problem of eradicating the evils of culturally imposed femininity needs to be approached with some circumspection; she is wary of direct attacks on all forms of “femininity”. Among her arguments is people’s general appreciation of cultural differences;

While feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which actually degrade women, the indiscriminate pursuit of an androgynous culture must involve the elimination of innocuous cultural differences as well, and with them the sources of a great deal of pleasure to many people.

In Chapter 6, “Woman’s work”, she first addresses the issue of “whether the work is of a kind which ought to be highly valued, or whether it is possible for it to be highly valued”. Then she considers the age-old dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) activity, and their different statuses:

If women’s work is private it is necessarily without status, and any promise to give it higher status must be vacuous.

She cites Betty Friedan’s story of a successful female journalist interviewing a housewife in 1949, who “has done nothing of what she planned to do in her youth, she has wasted her education, and she feels a general failure”.

“Then the author of the paean, who somehow never is a housewife, … roars with laughter. The trouble with you, she scolds, is you don’t realise you are expert in a dozen careers, simultaneously. ‘You might write: Business manager, cook, nurse, chauffeur, dressmaker, interior decorator, accountant, caterer, teacher, private secretary… you are one of the most successful women I know.’ “

As Betty Friedan rightly implies, this sort of thing is the purest rubbish, so entirely beside the point that it is hard to know where to begin criticising it. Its technique consists in totally ignoring the real complaint, pretending it is something else, and arguing that that something else is quite unjustified.

JRR does indeed go on to criticise the “patronising rubbish” of the “paean” with both care and passion. Yet such flapdoodle still went on when The sceptical feminist was written; and while progress has been made, it can still be heard today.

It is no part of feminism to insist that a woman should work at other things even though her children suffer as a consequence, but it is part of feminism to insist that there is something radically wrong with a system which forces so many women to choose between caring properly for their children and using their abilities fully. […]

It is not in the least obvious how this is to be done, but that is a reason for devoting the full energy and imagination of everyone who has any of either to trying to find a way. […]

To hold up home and family as the highest vocation of all is to try to cheat women into doing less than they might, and wasting their abilities.

She always puts the counter-argument—and then refutes it. She continues by considering goodness and altruism;

Women above all people are the ones who must resist the idea that the greatest good a woman can do is get on quietly with her limited work, because it is so transparently the result of men’s subjugation of women. […]

As long as the people who excel in the most important work are without status, it means that society undervalues their work, and as long as that happens society has the wrong values. […]

… What this suggests is that when women are indeed allowed to excel, even if they do it in slightly different areas from men’s, there is at least the possibility that things which are associated with women may become as highly regarded as the ones associated with men.

Since it may well be true that women will tend of their own volition to do different things (though of course we do not yet know), it is essential that we should try to make that equal respect come about.

Parts of Chapter 7, “The unadorned feminist”, may again appear somewhat dated, but while courting controversy she makes some most stimulating points.

There is no doubt at all that many feminists regard the rejection of “woman garbage” as a substantial issue, a thing which feminism ought to be committed to, rather than just a gesture. […]

Many feminists regard women who persist in clinging to their traditional trappings as traitors to the cause, while on the other hand to many non-feminists this austerity in the movement is one of its most unattractive aspects.

She explores the issues, starting with the obvious causes for feminist concern. First,

the amount of time, effort, and money which women are by convention expected to devote to their appearance, when no comparable demands are made of men. […]

If women are to succeed in the important things of life, it must be possible for them to be more negligent about dress, if they want to, without sacrificing social presentability in the process.

Further, the standards to be reached are impossibly high; mass culture allows for insufficient room for diversity; and the demands of the fashion industry are constricting. Of course, progress in such issues has been ongoing, and new generations of feminists have continued to probe them.

People have, after all, to choose their clothes whatever they are, and a feminist whose main motivation was to put as little time and money into them as possible should presumably go around in the first and cheapest thing she could find in a jumble sale, even if it happened to be a shapeless turquoise Crimplene dress with a pink cardigan. No feminist would be seen dead in any such thing. […] Style is important.

(Now I’m no fashion guru, but I rather think the outfit she parodies there would today be considered rather chic; still, it’s a good point.)

This is even clearer in the case of the great majority of feminists who do go to some little trouble to be clean and neat and pleasant. They too tend to go for the unfeminine feminist uniform, but this has obviously nothing to do with effort. With just as little effort, if they wanted to, they could wear all the time a single comfortable, pretty, simple, easily-washed, drip-dry dress, so avoiding all the problems of fashion, variety, time, money, and effort without giving up being pretty and feminine at the same time. […]

She ponders the issue further:

It is supposed to be bad to want people as objects of pleasure, but it cannot possibly be bad to want them because they give pleasure; there is no other possible basis for love than what is in some way pleasing to the lover.

She disputes the romantic tradition that love should be a purely altruistic passion, and the testing game of “Would you still love me if I were (poor, ugly, crippled…)?”

We love people for qualities they have which are pleasing to us. […]

It is not intrinsically degrading for women to want men; it has been degrading only because in the past men have not had to bother much about how pleasing they were to women, while women have had to go all out to please men even to survive. In a position of equal dependence and independence between men and women it would not be in the least degrading for either to want, and try to please, the other.

Discussing sensual pleasure, she explores the notion of women as sex objects.

If the aim of the deliberately unadorned feminist is to make sure that men who have the wrong attitude to women have no interest in her, she is likely to succeed.

The best-judging man alive, confronted with two women identical in all matters of the soul but not equal in beauty, could hardly help choosing the beautiful one. Whatever anyone’s set of priorities, the pleasing in all respects must be preferable to the pleasing in only some, and this means that any feminist who makes herself unattractive must deter not only the men who would have valued her only for her less important aspects, but many of the others too.

She argues against the notion that “if you do not care at all about people’s beauty you are morally superior to someone who does”. Those holding such a view

must also think it is bad to care about beauty at all, since beauty is the same sort of thing whether it is in paintings, sunsets, or people, and someone who does not care about beauty in people is someone who simply does not care about beauty.

(I suspect this needs elaborating. People often have blind spots about particular areas of aesthetics: not all of those who admire sunsets appreciate painting, a film buff may not have a taste for interior design, and so on. I’m sure she can clarify my doubt here!)

Now of course beauty is often a low priority, and it is morally good to care relatively little about it when people are hungry, or unjustly treated, or unhappy in other ways. [….] It is not actually wicked to be aesthetically insensitive, but neither is it a virtue, any more than being tone deaf, or not feeling the cold, or having no interest in philosophy or football.

As to sex,

If sensual pleasing is a good thing, why not wear pretty clothes? Why not, in suitable circumstances, dress in ways that are deliberately sexy? […] To refuse to do that may show that you are not interested in men who are interested in sex, but that is a personal preference, and nothing to do with feminist ideals.

Although it may be morally good to give up sensual pleasure to achieve some other end, there is nothing to be said for giving it up unless there is some other end to achieve.

Discussing packaging and degradation, she takes issue with “natural beauty”.

The question of how much effort is worth putting into beauty has nothing to do with feminism. It tends to look like a feminist matter, of course, because it is generally accepted that women make themselves beautiful for men while men go to no such trouble for women, but the idea that this has anything to do with women’s not caring about beauty in men is a most extraordinary myth. They have not, of course, generally been able to demand it. […]

It is the asymmetry of power that is the feminist question.

Anyone who wants a puritanical movement should call it that, and not cause trouble for feminism by trying to suggest that the two are the same.

The chapter moves on to issues relating to sex work—and incidentally suggests a novel way of regarding pianists:

It is quite clear that we do not in general think that there is anything intrinsically wrong with being interested only in certain aspects of people, pleasing people by means of particular skills, entering competitions against other people of similar skill, or earning an income by the use of particular abilities. For instance, suppose a singer heard a splendid pianist at a concert; he might fantasise about giving concerts with her, with no thought about her which went beyond her musical ability. [She explains “they are implied to be of opposite sex only because of the analogy to be drawn with sexual relationships, and for no other reason.”] He might try to meet her, in the hope that she would be willing to enter into a limited musical relationship, and she might agree. She might also happily play the piano to please people who were not in the least interested in other aspects of her. She might enter competitions. And certainly she would try to earn her living by playing the piano for the entertainment of people who enjoyed listening to music. […]

Why should it be acceptable to be paid for charming people’s ears with beautiful sounds, but not for delighting men’s fancies with strip shows and prostitution?

It is said that these things degrade women, and at present they certainly do. However, there is quite enough degradation in the surrounding circumstances to account for women’s being degraded, without having to resort to the idea that there is something bad about unsanctioned or commercially motivated sex. Women are degraded by these things because of the public contempt they suffer, because of the fact that they have to take these activities up whether they want to or not when there is no other way to make a living, and worst of all because once they have sunk to this level they must suffer endless degradations which result from their weak position. […] However, other things, like teaching and manual work, have been made degrading by social attitudes, and in cases like that we have tried to remove the degradation rather than persuade people not to do the work. […]

Sex is said to be cheapened by money. Why should it be, however? Nursing care is a thing which is often given for love, but we don’t think nurses cheapen themselves or the profession when they earn their living by it; we think it is an excellent thing that these people should be able to use their skills all the time, and care for more than just their families and friends.

She struggles to adduce reasons why sex is inherently so different.

The real feminist problem is the unfairness of the present bargaining situation, and the fact that women are in a position to be exploited, and degraded in that way. That certainly has to be attacked with full feminist force.

At the heart of the problem is that “many men do not treat women properly”. And she considers the issue of women’s culture;

the fact that interests and cultures grew under conditions of confinement does not make them less the real culture of that group.

Doubtless women making themselves “deliberately unattractive” was an issue at the time. But she also broaches the important question, “why does everyone presume that the beautification of women is all for men?”, and indeed, later generations have worked this one out. I imagine some younger feminists would wish to further unpack her arguments here about the nature of beauty and attractiveness, and their basis in the male gaze.

Chapter 8, “Society and the fertile woman”, discusses the issues of whether contraception and abortion should be allowed, and whether they should be free. The lengthy section on abortion is all the more relevant today with the shameful reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Chapter 9, “Society and the mother”, explores arrangements for childcare, and whether the state or parents should pay for it.

Chapter 10, “The unpersuaded”, returns to the problem that, despite the strength of the feminist case, the movement was still broadly unpopular. Pondering remedies for this situation, she discusses three issues in turn: that there is no reasonable feminist case at all; that it is exaggerated; and that the image of the movement is unattractive. She responds cogently to a series of objections.

The greatest possible care must be taken not to make the uphill grind even worse than it need be, through the careless presentation of a feminist image and feminist policies which drive the movement’s natural supports back into the traditional camp. If a more careful formulation of radical feminist policies will lead not only to a better plan for the future, but also to a kind of radical feminism which is attractive and understandable to the people who are at present its opponents, then no feminists—least of all the ones who feel that reason has no place in political achievement—can afford to be careless in argument. The very impossibility of reaching most of the unpersuaded by the force of reason becomes the final demonstration of the indispensability of care in argument amongst feminists themselves.

* * *

The 1994 edition has two further Appendices clarifying and augmenting her arguments. And in her new Introduction she reflects on reactions to the book, and acknowledges that the book displays “period features”; but while many once-controversial campaigns had been won (and other issues were becoming prominent, such as LGBT rights and pornography), most of the questions she confronts remained apposite. In the public forum, she notes, a change of rhetoric need not always imply a change of substance.

Today, as feminists deplore “the return of sexism” (Natasha Walter, Living dolls), many arguments revolve around mundane issues for women such as merely staying alive, let alone retaining control over their own bodies or achieving equal pay.

But after all these years, with so many feminist authors building on the work of previous generations (in Britain, an outstanding instance is Laura Barton’s Everyday Sexism campaign; and cf. the succinct, accessible manifestos of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche), these issues remain highly apposite—not least the reluctance of some women (and indeed men) to identify as feminists.

Sadly, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ philosophical pursuits haven’t resulted in further publications on feminism—but her three lectures from 2017 on “Sex in a shifting landscape” start here. I’d also love to see her sinking her philosophical teeth into PC gone mad, and Brexit.

See also Gender: a roundup, including Words and women, Sexual politics, The handmaid’s tale, and for a suitable playlist, You don’t own me. For an introduction to gender and music, see under Flamenco 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance.

.

China has always been part of…

Further to the Pelosi Imbroglio [1970s’ Manchester prog-rock band—Ed.], the brazen fatuity of the Chinese Foreign Ministry evincing the “38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei” to prove that “Taiwan has always been part of China” (“The long lost* child will eventually return home”) has been gleefully ridiculed on Twitter (I’m so gobsmacked that I’m not even going to bother inserting a hyphen in “long lost”). Twitter promptly became full of such logic as

  • Beijing has always been part of America:

  • and indeed, China has always been part of Kentucky:

  • The meme also gave rise to “Paris has always been part of Tibet”:

There’s no end to this: it could run and run.

I have to say, there are some fine historians in China—but the apparatchiks at the Foreign Ministry are clearly not the sharpest tools in the box. On the other hand, they can spew their idiocies with impunity to a captive audience—autocracies didn’t get where they are today by being rational (cf. Stewart Lee’s taxi driver). Did you know that the word gullible is not in the Chinese dictionary?

For another logic bypass, see Tucker Carlson on racism.

The NYO Prom, 2022: Ravel and Gershwin

NYO Prom 2022

The annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra to the Proms is always a great event. This year, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, their programme included Ravel and Gershwin—listen here (also to be shown on BBC TV on 19th August).

Fokine 1910
Michel Fokine in Daphnis and Chloé, c1910. Source: wiki.

The week after Ravel’s piano concerto, Daphnis and Chloé was ravishing as ever, brilliantly played—even if I wanted rather more fantasy, bringing out its balletic, gestural, impromptu, sensual qualities, as my rose-tinted hearing-aid recalls Boulez conducting it in the 1970s…

In the first half, after Danny Elfman’s Wunderkammer, Simone Dinnerstein played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, always a pleasure. As an encore they played a Gershwin arrangement by Trish Clowes, conducted by NYO percussionist Sophie Stevenson (her jaunty hat not recalling the headwear of the Albert Hall audiences of yesteryear).

hats Albert Hall 1908Source.

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.155–63) has some salient perspectives on Gershwin. The premiere of Rhapsody in blue, “with one foot in the kitchen, one in the salon”, was part of the mission “to give jazz a quasi-classical respectability” (cf. What is serious music?!, and Joining the elite musical club).

The wiki article on the piece has intriguing detail. Gershwin first wrote it in 1924 for a concert at the Aeolian Hall in New York entitled “An experiment in modern music”, whose purpose was “to be purely educational”. Conceiving it as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”, he played the solo piano part himself, with the score for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band arranged by Ferde Grofé. Gershwin partially improvised, and only committed the piano part to paper after the performance (cf. Messiaen).

Lawrence Gilman’s review of the premiere is included in Nicolas Slonimsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective:

I weep over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

Like the audience, other critics were more enthusiastic, one commenting that the piece had “made an honest woman out of jazz” (oh, so jazz is female is it, like ships? Pah!). On an incongruous note, the concert ended with Elgar’s Pomp and circumstance March No.1.

Further to the piano rolls of Mahler and Debussy, here’s a gorgeous (if very fast) recording of Gershwin’s own piano roll from 1925 fused with the Columbia Jazz Band directed by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976:

Amidst all the jazzy glitz, crowning the piece (from 8.22 on the recording above) is one of the All-Time Great Tunes, * worthy of Rachmaninoff—in sumptuous E major, to boot!

By the time Grofé made the orchestral arrangement in 1942, jazz hardly needed the veneer of respectability, although it did go on to acquire a quasi-classical status.

Gershwin poster

Rhapsody in blue soon became the soundscape of New York (for well-off white people, I guess that means). Some musicians still had reservations about it, like Constant Lambert: “neither good jazz nor good Liszt”. Leonard Bernstein’s comments have been seen as criticism, but read more like an insight into the intrinsic nature of jazz, countering reification:

Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section, or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.

It’s mainly become a frozen vehicle for WAM pianists rather than jazzers, but here’s a refreshing 1995 recording with Marcus Roberts:

Among composers who were reluctant to inflict their learning on such a genius as Gershwin were Nadia Boulanger, Ravel, Schoenberg—and Alban Berg, who remarked wisely:

“Mr Gershwin, music is music.”

* * *

Oh well—in the end the NYO Prom was still, um, an orchestral concert. Maybe I was still in world-music mode after immersing myself in the Pontic lyra and Rajasthani bards, so I had to get used again to the whole complex regimentation of the orchestral machine, and found myself struck by the vast investment of aspirational parents (instruments, lessons, giving lifts to local venues…).

For some of the NYO’s previous Proms, click here, here, and here. Listen here for Barbara Hannigan singing Gershwin. See also many posts under A jazz medley, and Society and soundscape.


* With my usual qualifications—remembering (of course) to include in our remit Hildegard von Bingen, fado, the preludes of north Chinese ritual wind ensembles, kilam laments of Kurdish bards, and so on.

In search of the sacred in modern India

Nine lives

Moving on from the early travels of William Dalrymple, I’ve been re-reading his splendid seventh book,

  • Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India (2009)
    (reviewed e.g. by Colin Thubron, and here).

By now Dalrymple had long been based in India. In the Introduction (click here for a variant) he traces the book’s origins back to the summer of 1993, when on a trek in the Himalayas he met an ash-smeared, naked itinerant sadhu of about his own age—who turned out to be a dropout from the world of commerce.

Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s.

So extraordinary was the pace of development that

It was easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. […]

Within twenty minutes of leaving the headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts, suits, denim, and baseball hats to dusty cotton dhotis and turbans. This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the spaces suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. […]

While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

So

I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the holy mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator; his [sic] adventures were the subject, the people he [sic] met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. With Nine lives I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.

Indeed, this has been a growing tendency in anthropology and ethnomusicology; see e.g. Helen Rees’s introduction to Lives in Chinese music (2009). This trend is reflected in my own work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists.

Besides all the scholarly research on living Indian religious traditions in change, a popular book like this is most valuable. Many of these topics have been covered by other authors, and Dalrymple provides a succinct reading list by chapter. This might have taken the form of a rather more detailed annotated section (as Barbara Demick does in Eat the Buddha, for instance); he might even have included some audio-visual documentation, as I attempt selectively below.

So Nine lives focuses on ascetics and ritual specialists (the latter chiming with my own work on China). And as in China, women play a major role. Dalrymple’s work is no simple paean to the Wisdom of the Mystic East; despite all the evocative descriptions, he is concerned to reflect the ravages of modern change.

A great many of the lives of the searchers and renouncers I talked to were marked by suffering, exile, and frequently, great pain; a large number turned out to be escaping personal, familial, or political tragedies. […]

Nor (I note) does religion always provide an escape; often it compounds exploitation. Dalrymple again:

I have made a conscious effort to try [and] avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters, and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about “Mystic India” that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.

Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight

the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic, and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

As he notes,

The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and there are many traditions which I have completely left out: there are, for example, no Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, or Jews in this book, though all have long histories in the soil of South Asia.

Nine lives map

The chapters follow a trusty formulaic sequence: some evocative scene-setting (often worthy of Stella Gibbons’ *** purple passages in Cold comfort farm); a vignette on his first meeting with the guru in question; some early history; “I will tell you my story”; and worries about the future.

* * *

The first chapter is The nun’s tale, in which Dalrymple meets the young Jain devotee Mataji on the pilgrimage to Sravanabegabola in Karnataka. Jainism, little known outside India (where it now has “only” four million followers), is rather more ancient than Buddhism, and more extreme in its asceticism.

Mataji had chosen the discipline gladly in her mid-teens. Despite the principle of non-attachment, she was still devastated by the loss of her constant companion, who completed the sallekhana fast to the death after contracting TB; and she herself has already embarked on the same path.

The dancer of Kannur introduces a theyyam troupe of ritual dancers and drummers in Kerala, with a typical opening Stella-esque*** paragraph:

In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.

Dalrymple’s subject is Hari Das, a dance medium possessed by Lord Vishnu. For nine months of the year he works as a manual labourer building wells, and at weekends as a jail warder—other members of the troupe work as waiters, bus conductors, and so on. The theyyam season lasts from December to February; it now provides a much better living than labouring, and than it did in previous generations. While work in the prison is dangerous, performing theyyam is physically exhausting—dancers have a very low life expectancy—and mentally demanding.

Dalrymple notes that while Kerala appears idyllic, it has always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical societies in India. The theyyam, performed by Dalit outcastes, and free from Brahmin control, is “a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life”.

After another typical transition (“We sat drinking chai on the veranda as the sun set, and he began to tell his story”), Hari Das describes how his father taught him the complex arts of thottam story-songs, mudra hand gestures, nadana steps, facial expressions, make-up, and headgear. He notes a certain recent increase in prestige for theyyam.

Here’s a YouTube playlist with 61 short clips:

Note also the research of Rolf Killius, also featured in my post on Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia.

The daughters of Yellamma tells the distressing story of the devadasi (for a version of this chapter in The New Yorker, click here). Dalrymple travels to Saundatti in north Karnataka to meet Rani, sketching the long history of the devadasi. Dedicated as children (by their family) to the goddess Yellama, they originally came from cultured families, serving as courtesans, dancers, and temple attendants; only in later centuries were they explicitly sexualized. From the 19th century, well-meaning Hindu reformers broke their links with the temples; in Karnataka further prohibitions were decreed in 1982, but only further demeaned and criminalised the practice, driving the devadasis underground; “several thousand girls, usually aged between six and nine years old, continue to be dedicated to the goddess annually.” As a government sign warns:

DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.

Today the women are low-caste Dalits directly involved in sex work. Their life expectancy is even lower than that of the theyyam dancers. Rani’s two daughters had died of AIDS, and she too is HIV-positive. Yet they still pride themselves on having a more exalted status than ordinary sex workers, being blessed by the goddess.

For Guardian coverage, see here and here. Here’s the BBC documentary Sex, death, and the gods (Beeban Kidron, 2010):

And two more films within a controversial representational field:

In The singer of epics Dalrymple returns north to Rajasthan with Mohan Bhopa, a hereditary bard and shaman. He had first encountered the genre twenty years earlier on a visit to Laxmi Chundawat in Jaipur, who had documented the epic in the 1970s; she even arranged for Mohan to perform for him. Introducing the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian epics, Dalrymple marvels at the “Rajasthani Homers” who still perform in another epic tradition.

He had already written about Mohan for The New Yorker in 2006, inviting him to perform at several urban festivals; but now he travels with him and his wife to their home environment.

The bhopa are performers of epics, of which the most popular is The Epic of Pabuji. It is not merely entertainment, but a religious ritual. As with “precious scrolls” in China, the epic is rarely performed complete today, which would five nights from dusk to dawn. Punctuated by bhajan hymns and Hindi film songs, it is performed before a phad, a long religious painting on cloth (see e.g. here, here, and here), which also serves as a portable temple. Victor Mair’s 1989 book Painting and performance introduced such traditions around China and south Asia, including the Tibetan lami mani with their thangka.

bhopa 1989

Parbū Bhopo of Mārwāṛ Junction and his wife Rukmā Devī performing the epic of Pābūjī for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbū is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the paṛ while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
Caption and photo: John D. Smith.

Again like the precious scrolls, the phad is treated with reverence; the bhopa themselves earn respect through their knowledge despite their low caste. Dalrymple learns that the motives of the rural audience “were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service”; the bhopa also protects children from djinns. Again, these are among the functions of rural Chinese bards.

The bhopa are illiterate—which stimulates their prodigious memory. They accompany their songs on dholak drum and ravanhatta (not a zither but a bowed lute)—a reminder of the rich instrumentarium of Indian folk cultures, another striking instance of which I showed in Gujurat.

The epic is performed by husband and wife in duet; Mohan was fortunate that his wife Batasi had become a fine singer too. But when Mohan died—all too soon after the visit to the rural home—their son (who had been unable to continue the vocation since his own wife turned out to be tone deaf) began performing the epic with his mother.

John D. Smith, working with the eminent Rajasthani folklorist Komal Kothari (for whose own work see e.g. here), wrote his PhD on the bhopa in the 1970s—you can find an updated edition of The epic of Pābūjī here, along with instructive images and audio/video examples.

When Smith returned to Rajasthan some twenty years later he found the art much impoverished by the drift to the cities and the popularity of cable TV and DVDs. FWIW, Dalrymple is not quite so gloomy about the future of the tradition.

The bhopa have been the subject of a succession of documentaries. Here’s Pabuji ki phad (Shammi Nanda, 2005):

See also e.g. here. The lost music of Rajasthan (BBC, 2011), a tour of various traditions., includes a brief scene with a bhopa from 25.45. Note also Daniel Neuman, Shubha Chaudhuri, with Komal Kothari, Bards, ballads and boundaries: an ethnographic atlas of music traditions in west Rajasthan (2007).

The red fairy takes us into Pakistan, to the Sufi shrines of rural Sindh, a centre of Hindu–Muslim syncretism. There Dalrymple visits Lal Peri, devotee of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif. He witnesses the ecstatic dhammal devotional dance, with its massed kettle drums.

Lal Peri was the sort of deeply eccentric ascetic that both the Eastern Christians and Sufis have traditionally celebrated as Holy Fools. She was an illiterate, simple, and trusting woman, who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere. It was also clear that she had lived an unusually traumatic life, which had left her emotionally raw. She was in fact a triple refugee: first as a Muslim driven out of India into East Pakistan after Hindu–Muslim riots in the late 1960s; then as a Bihari driven out of East Pakistan at the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in the shrines of Sindh while struggling to live the life of a Sufi in the male-dominated and increasingly Talibanized society of Pakistan. […]

The longer I explored Sehwan Sharif, the more it became clear that, more even than most other Sufi shrines, this was a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds. The shrine provided its often damaged and vulnerable devotees shelter and a refuge from the divisions and horrors of the world outside.

The Qalander dervishes

have chosen a life of wandering and calculated impropriety, seeking God on the road and in Sufi shrines through a regime of self-punishment and celibacy, while trying to generate a sense of religious ecstasy with the aid of music and dance and hallucinogens.

Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.

As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans were on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Reformation Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recuirted the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Several shrines had already been attacked. Dalrymple goes to meet the director of a new madrasa, who while cordial is severe in his views (“Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers. With education we hope they will change their ways.”). He regards it as his duty to destroy all the mazars and dargahs.

Lal Peri takes Dalrymple to meet her pir at his desert retreat, who believes in the resilience of the Sufi tradition against the jihad of the mullahs. But in 2017 a suicide bombing inside the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar killed 90 and wounded over 300.

This clip gives a flavour of the festival:

In The monk’s tale Dalrymple visits Dharamsala to consult an elderly Tibetan monk from Kham who had reluctantly taken up arms in resistance to the Chinese invasion. He recalls his early monastic training, and the arrival of the Chinese forces in 1950. As repression escalated, Kham was the heartland of the Tibetan struggle. He joined the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” resistance force (for links, see the work of Jamyang Norbu).

Though we acquired some old guns, we were outnumbered and knew nothing of fighting. All we knew was how to pray, not how to kill. As soon as we came across Chinese troops they put us to flight. It was a total fiasco.

After making his way to Lhasa to warn people of the imminent catastrophe, he describes the tension there that led to the escape to India of the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as escort and then as decoy while the Chinese went in pursuit.

After fleeing Tibet, from 1962 he spent many years in a secret CIA-trained Tibetan unit in the Indian army—but he finds himself fighting in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Always vexed at having abandoned the monastic precepts, not until 1986 could he retire to Dharamsala. In atonement for the violence he had committed as a soldier, he began to make printed prayer-flags, and in 1995 he renewed his monastic vows. In his old people’s home there, thirty of the 150 occupants had been engaged in a similar struggle against the Chinese.

Again, the exodus from Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and the resistance to Chinese occupation, are much-studied topics (see my roundup of posts on Tibet), with many biographical accounts. As a suitable illustration on film, do click here to watch the footage of the Dalai Lama’s “graduation” rituals in 1958–59!

In The maker of idols we return to the south, to Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu. Dalrymple meets Srikanda, a ritual artisan who comes from a long line of hereditary casters of bronze images for temple worship, dating back to the Chola empire.

There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors, but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the same manner as laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.

Dalrymple reflects:

It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: by the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open [cf. “opening to the light” in China]; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.

He attends a temple festival when the god statue is paraded on a chariot. He waxes lyrical about the sensual bronze statues of the Chola dynasty, and admires the complex discipline of Srikanda with his team in his workshop, where ritual also plays a role. He meets a singer of thevaram devotional songs before the gods. Typically, after the lineage’s 700 years of transmission, Srikanda’s son wants to become a computer engineer.

For ritual artisans in China, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing, Ritual paintings of Li Peisen, and the makers of masks for Nuo ritual drama.

The Lady Twilight takes us to a cremation ground in Bengal—dwelling place of Tantric sadhus, devotees of the goddess Tara, who celebrate the power of skulls and fresh blood.

Again, Dalrymple’s guide Manisha hints at a painful past: she was beaten by her husband, rejected by her mother-in-law, and had lost her home and her three daughters. For her Tara was a saviour, not a fearsome ogre. Although the ruling Communist Party in Bengal sometimes sent out Anti-Superstition Committees to persuade people to embrace more mainstream forms of Hinduism, for the inhabitants of the cremation ground is a place of illumination, despite its ghoulish reputation. And Dalrymple finds an

oddly villagey and almost cosy feel. There is a palpable sense of community. Among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom.

Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—

an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantra cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houllebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism”.

But as with the Sufis, behind modern Tantrism lies “the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos”.

Manisha confides,

I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them […].

But now my attention is more directed on Ma Tara herself, and increasingly I believe that the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love.

Meanwhile Manisha’s partner Tapan Sadhu, himself deeply committed to the life of renunciation, punctuates their conversation with updates from the radio on the latest Test score:

“England are 270 for four!”, he shouted excitedly.

Still in Bengal, The song of the blind minstrel introduces the bauls, itinerant minstrels who practice their own form of renunciation.

Dalrymple attends a major festival at Kenduli where several thousand bauls gather each year. He talks with the blindman Kanai, who finds the lifestyle one of great freedom. His companion Debdas explains:

“He taught me everything, how to reject the outer garb of religion and to dive deep into the ocean of the heart.”

The ecstatic singing of the bauls is another popular topic, appearing early on the world music scene (see e.g. the introduction in The Rough Guide to world music, under “Bangladesh”). Here’s a short film:

Deben Bhattacharya was very much on the case of the bauls. His CD Bauls of Bengal: mystic songs from India was issued in 2001—here it is as a playlist:

Charles Capwell’s 1973 LP Indian street music: the Bauls of Bengal (again, playlist):

A track from the more reflective CD Shahjahan Miah: chants mystiques bâuls du Bangladesh (Inedit, 1992):

And Radha Bhava, from the female singer Parvathy Baul (as playlist):

* * *

The fluency with which Dalrymple’s characters appear to tell their life stories is presumably an authorial device, a concession to the demands of the genre. No-one has ever given me such a fluent account—many peasants just shrug and say “I ain’t never done nothing much… um, I’ve just tilled the fields and gone out to do ritual, like”, and my many biographical sketches have been pieced together over several years, as my mentors open up and I gradually think of more promising angles. And Dalrymple’s subjects seem to have a remarkable ability to explain things in a fashion that neatly resembles our own conceptualisations.

In some chapters he notes how his visits punctuate invitations at his behest to appear at urban festivals; yet despite his worthy cause of highlighting their own lives, more scholarly (and perhaps less readable) accounts flag the gulf between the status of fieldworkers and that of their subjects, and the complications that such relations involve. In this short clip Dalrymple introduces some of the ritual performers on stage:

Such urban performances are a compromise in a worthy cause, part of the continuum of festivals. I too have found it most instructive to take the Li family Daoists on tour in Europe (see e.g. here; cf. the Hua family shawm band at the 2002 Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road).

Anyway, Dalrymple does well to remind us of the riches of folk cultures by following the performers back to their local environments. Full of vividly-told stories, Nine lives makes an admirable book, extending the audience for Indian religious traditions way beyond the arcane realms of ethnography.

Cf. my extensive series on the very different spiritual milieu of north Indian raga, and under the Indian tag in the sidebar.

The Queen Mother of the West in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,

America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.

But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.

Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:

Pelosi

The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.

Mazu
Mazu. Source.

Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).

President Tsai also awarded Pelosi the civilian Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon (Qingyun xunzhang 卿雲勳章)—another ritual title (cf. deities such as Houtu, enfeoffed as Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi 承天效法后土皇帝). Perhaps Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi’s Italian-American background further enhances the ritual connection, recalling the Madonna pilgrimage (another niangniang female deity) of Italian Harlem.

And as to Pelosi and Catholicism, click here for a discussion of an extraordinary image from the Chinese embassy in France, depicting the Virgin Mary (Pelosi) as a baby-stealing witch. 

For Pelosi’s “long history of opposing Beijing”, including her 1991 visit to Tiananmen to commemorate the victims of the 1989 demonstrations, click here.

Pelosi Tiananmen

Meanwhile, as rabid nationalist Hu Xijin of the Chinese Global Times denounced Pelosi’s visit, Chinese netizens have fabricated an unlikely fantasy love affair between them:

Pelosi Hu

Just as unlikely, “back in the USA”, for once, Fox News and Mitch McConnell—normally Pelosi’s harshest critics—are full of praise for her initiative.

* * *

Around the time of Obama’s visit to China in 2009, “Obamao” T-shirts (“serve the people”) were sold in Beijing before being banned:

ObamaoSource.

While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.

The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).


I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!

Another Proms Rite

RiteNot the new European champions defending a corner (another Spot the Ball competition),
but Nijinsky’s “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.

Hot on the heels of the amazing women’s football on Sunday, it was great to return again to the Proms, to hear the engaging Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a fine programme (listen here) culminating in Stravinsky’s ever-astounding The Rite of Spring.

BrabbinsPhoto: BBC.

The overture, Harrison Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000, far from The pirates of Penzance, was challenging but mercifully brief. Then young Tom Borrow played the exquisite Ravel piano concerto—the perfect piece for a summer night at the Proms. I was even able to forgive him for not being Hélène Grimaud. After a rather measured first movement (with more rubato than Ravel might have wished), thankfully he didn’t take the Adagio assai quite as slowly as in this 2019 performance (assai is generally interpreted as “very”, but some composers used it as “rather”; I don’t know how Ravel meant it, but an excessively ponderous interpretation doesn’t seem to work for a piece of such classical elegance). As an encore he treated us to Debussy’s Feux d’Artifice.

Borrow

Before the interval the orchestra played the stimulating Jonchaies (“reed-beds”, 1977) of Iannis Xenakis (see also this obituary). Pierre Boulez described Xenakis as having a “fantastic brain—absolutely no ear”, but Jonchaies is full of fantastical sonorities.  I’m really pleased to have heard it. Here’s a recording:

The choice was apt: its primordial soundscape is somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which followed after the interval. Though long part of the mainstream orchestral repertoire, The Rite never loses its power to amaze (see The shock of the new, and the NYO’s 2017 Prom). Just imagine hearing it for the first time, or indeed playing it as a teenager…

Lionesses, YAY and hmm

🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂

Euro headlines

The women’s Euro football tournament has been most inspiring, and the media coverage impressive too!

Amidst all the celebration, as the dénouement approached, two worthy talking points were gleefully slapped down by the PC-gone-mad brigade (cf. Stewart Lee).

RenardAs Anita Asante observed, three of this year’s four semi-final teams were dazzlingly white—the fourth, France, has a substantial and brilliant component of black and brown players, including the captain Wendie Renard.

The English women’s game hasn’t always been quite so white (Hope Powell, Alex Scott, Anita Asante, Nikita Parris, and so on; cf. Bend it like Beckham), but there is clearly a structural problem (see also here, and here). The world of commerce seems keen to celebrate some notional diversity, as in this advertisement. The English men’s squad is quite diverse, but when the team lost in the final of the recent Euros the black players became scapegoats, receiving racist abuse (see also my vignette in the Comments section below).

After the women’s semi-final, Woman’s hour hosted a rather innocuous discussion. Now, we all delight in England’s success (and that of Germany, for that matter, and the whole tournament); the contributions from Anita Asante, Robyn Cowen, and Jacqui Oatley were largely celebratory, but presenter Emma Barnett, reading out a query from a listener, also touched—very lightly—on the apparent sexism of the term “lionesses”.

Predictably, the tabloids lost no time in flying off the handle (Daily mail: “Fans slam calls to change England women’s football team’s ‘sexist’ Lionesses nickname“—the verbal “slam”, like “quiz”, as in “Cops Quiz Immigrants in Drugs Probe”, is a sure pointer to imminent fatuity). While the Loony Right rejoices in losing its rag, the issue seems to require the dispassionate analytical skills of a Janet Radcliffe Richards.

Critics like Piers Morgan and “Culture Secretary” Nadine Dorries (WTAF)—veritable Wittgensteins for our age—come to the defence of “lionesses”, so we can Rest Our Case. Dorries lived in Africa for a year, SO THERE! And Morgan called it “the single most pathetic virtue-signalling campaign ever. […] Just stick a cork in it, you wretched gender-deranged woke wastrels”. All we need for a Full House of Loonies is Jeremy Clarkson and Jacob Tree-Frog.

The Express sounds almost reasonable:

Championing a women’s football team whose nickname embodies female power and pack or team mentality through the image of a pride of lionesses is empowering to women and girls, not demeaning in a sexist way.

But while Anita Asante has no issue with the term lionesses, I find the discussion around zoological verisimilitude (“the FEMALE beasts do the hunting while the males sleep”—Take That!) somewhat of a red herring. Of course, English has a range of terms for male and female animals; of the latter, FWIW, most are separate words, with only lion, tiger, and leopard having female versions ending in “-ess”. To thicken the plot, the English men’s football team aren’t called “lions”—that’s a name for men’s rugby union teams.

I’m more concerned about the linguistic use of “–ess” to denote a variant of the assumed male norm. Besides the animal kingdom, words like actress, waitress, and sorceress have indeed been falling out of fashion, whereas princess (like the whole monarchical system) seems resilient. It’s no simple matter, but it doesn’t seem too revolutionary to query the use of a feminine ending when referring to women.

The Express insidiously undermined the feminist cause:

For many, the idea of changing the name from one of female empowerment to hide behind a more “masculine” term is in itself sexist. […] It is also contributing to the fatigue felt by many with those who identify as feminists [so there!] and nit-pick on such ideas which attempt to re-write femininity into a negative connotation.

Media discussion of sexist coverage, such as this from Grazia, seems to have been rare.

Anyway, all attempts (“these days“) at debating racism and sexism provide yet another rallying cry for the PC-gone-mad, anti-woke brigade, gleefully able to speak their own language again and scoff their bendy bananas, singing Rule Britannia! and waving their Union Jacks as they deplore judges who come down on the side of human rights—like the immigrant’s pet cat furore.

The tournament was delightful; but would it really be so unladylike to question the status quo (cf. Feminist humour)? None of this detracts from the celebration. For BBC TV, Alex Scott and Ian Wright were exhilarated at the same time as they faced the issues.

For more on women’s football (and women’s tennis, another inspiring story), see under A sporting medley: ritual and gender, including Belated recognition and Hope for our future.

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 always 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:

By September, playing safe before the Party Congress, the film was removed from streaming sites, and online discussion censored.

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. Cf. the “native-place fiction” of Jia Pingwa and others.


* 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).

See Alex Ross’s tribute in The New Yorker, and the NYT obituary.

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!):

Pontic 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, 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 SonglinesThe 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

 

Jazz in post-war Japan

Toshiko
Toshiko Akiyoshi, 1978. Source: wiki.

With jazz and Japan both the subject of many posts on this blog, it’s taken me a long time to clock jazz in Japan (“Like, hello?”)—alerted by a Guardian article (see also wiki).

Like WAM, the recordings and tours of the great jazzers have long had a devoted following in Japan. But as American culture became in demand in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat in World War Two, many fine musicians moved from mimicry to creating their own sound. For us, knowing where they come from (or even “are coming from”…), it may be tempting to seek a Japanese aesthetic in the music, such as the concept of ma “space” (see under Takemitsu) in Noh drama, or the inevitable Zen vibe. Irrespective of all that, my little playlist below has some impressive sounds—and there’s more to explore via the J Jazz reissues.

Toshiko Akiyoshi (b.1929) is the grande-dame of Japanese jazz pianists, still going strong in her 90s. “Discovered” in 1952 by Oscar Peterson, from 1973, now based in the States, she went on to form a big band with her husband Lew Tabackin. Click here for many playlists. Here’s Kyo-shu (Nostalgia), from The Toshiko trio, 1956:

Children in the temple ground, from the album Long yellow road (1974):

Kogun, from Road time (1976):

On sax, Koichi Matsukaze: At the room 427 (live, 1975—including an imaginative version of Lover man):

and Earth mother (1978):

Also on sax, Sadao Watanabe (b.1933), Orange express (1981):

Masabumi Kikuchi (1939–2015, piano), East wind (1974):

On trumpet, Terumasa Hino (b.1942)—Love nature (1971):

and Journey into my mind (1973):

Kohsuke Mine (sax), Mine (1970):

Tohru Aizawa
Tohru Aizawa with his band. Source: Guardian.

The Tohru Aizawa Quartet with their album Tachibana (1975):

Masahiko Satoh (b.1941, piano), Metempsychosis (1971)—with the astounding Stomu Yamash’ta:

and Edo Gigaku (2011):

See also Hiromi—among my roundup of posts on Japanese culture. My jazz medley includes not only the Golden Age (Billie, Miles, Trane, and so on) and more recent figures, but also some great jazz from Poland (whose own vibrant post-war scene reminds me of Japan) and Ethiopia, as well as notes on Istanbul and Shanghai.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

Messiaen’s monumental masterpiece Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

Stephen Jones: a blog

Vingt regards CD cover

Continuing my series onOlivier Messiaen (starting here, with most links), and following last Christmas’s offering of La nativité du Seigneur, I’m finally immersing myself in the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus—composed in 1944 after Messiaen’s release from POW camp and during the liberation of Paris.

I find Joanna MacGregor’s notes a useful companion, supplementing the evocative images that Messiaen provides in the score with her own insights as a performer—pointing out flashes of boogie-woogie, Tibetan trumpets, calypso, the fluttering of angels’ wings… And regarding the birdsong that constantly decorates Messiaen’s spiritual vision, as MacGregor observes, in their proximity to God, birds can be gentle, sleepy, cheeky, melodic, hilarious, quarrelsome, triumphant. Too bad Messiaen never got to Spread the Word on Twitter Twitter

He composed the cycle for Yvonne Loriod—her complete recording, with score, is here. Among other pianists, Jean-Rodolphe Kars has a particular affinity with

View original post 280 more words

Road to rebetika

Rebetes 1933

Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus, 1933. Source: wiki.

Having been beguiled by the popular songs of old Istanbul, I thought I’d explore rebetika in Greece—which is again a focus for nostalgia.

The dispersal of the genre around the Aegean seaboard was further prompted by the displacement of the Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor (notably Smyrna) to Athens, Thessaloniki, and the USA. *

I’ve been re-reading the evocative introduction

  • Gail Holst, The road to rembetika: music from a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish (1975, many reprints).

When Holst first came to Athens in 1966, she was struck by the demeanour of the men dancing, often alone, to juke-box recordings in tavernas:

Not exuberant, not being done for the joy of movement, not even sensual […] the dancer would rise, as if compelled to make his statement. Eyes half-closed, in trance-like absorption, cigarette hanging from his lips, arms outstretched as if to keep his balance, he would begin to slowly circle. As the dance progressed, the movements would become more complex; there would be sudden feats of agility, swoops to the ground, leaps and twists, but the dancer always seemed to be feeling his way, searching for something, unsteady on his feet. The dance took place in public, people were watching it, and yet it appeared to a be a private, introspective experience for the dancer. […] It was as if the dance served as a sort of catharsis for the dancer.

Holst was inspired by reading Elias Petropoulos’s book Rembetika tragoudia (cf. Songs of the Greek underworld; note the documentary An underground world (see also Landscapes of music in Istanbul, and Kaliarda).

While Istanbul was a teeming metropolis, the population of Athens only began to swell with the influx of migrants after the expulsion of Greeks from the Anatolian seaboard from 1922. This added the Smyrna style to the mix, but it would soon be diluted.

The rebetika scene thrived in the port of Piraeus. Its subaltern image was dominated by manges “spivs”, fuelled by hash and cocaine—part of a common theme in the urban underworlds of flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and tango. There was a nexus between the songs of the hashish dens and the prisons, the connection “being very effectively kept alive by the fact of the habitués of the former frequently becoming inmates of the latter”, as Rod Conway Morris observes.

As always, we find rapid social and musical change. Holst gives vignettes of 1920s’ Piraeus, with characters like Crazy Nick, Marino the Moustache, and Papazaglou the Cucumber. Women singers were common in Istanbul, and they became popular in Athens too, such as Marika Politissa, Rita Abadzi, Rosa Eskenazi, and Marika Papagika (listen under Songs of Asia Minor!). An influential male group was the “Pyraeus Four” (Syros, Márkos, Artemis, Batis, Stratos).

While rebetika was both censored by the Metaxas dictatorship and deplored by the Communists, a more general change was under way as it was eclipsed by new genres of popular commercial music. The change in style was expressed in going “to the bouzoukis”—which Holst found kitsch even in the 1960s. But as the nostalgia industry (cf. Kuzguncuk) became popular, old-style rebetika suited the anti-authoritarian mood of the 70s, and even if it was hard to hear live, recordings began to be reissued. As Holst observed,

What seemed to me like a faddish revival of early rembetika in the late 1970s has become an established phenomenon of the 80s.

She compares its trajectory to that of the blues, “similarly modified to suit the tastes of a broader audience and later revived in an artificially puristic style”; both “have been allowed to degenerate and die, and have subsequently been dug up by the youth of the next generation and lovingly enshrined”.

Music
As rebetika evolved in Greece, the system of dromos “roads” or paths, related to the Middle Eastern maqam, went into decline, as did the premium on improvisation. The exquisite free-tempo preludes taxim/taksim (cf. Indian alap) of the oriental style were abbreviated or omitted in recordings. Among many wonderful amanedhes (listen under Songs of Asia Minor; see also Gail Holst-Warhaft, “Amanes: The legacy of the Oriental Mother”), here’s Roza Eskenazi:

As to dance, the popular 9/8 zeibekiko (a solo male dance, like the one that so impressed Holst) was another import from Asia Minor.

Holst is keen on the singing of Sotiria Bellou (1921–97)—see e.g. her chapter (as Gail Holst-Warhaft) in Music and gender, “The female dervish and other shady ladies of the rebetika”. Here’s a 1959 recording of Bellou singing San pethano sto karavi (“If I die on the boat”), with an all-too brief opening taxim:

Ah, if I die, what will they say? Some fellow died,
A fellow who loved life and enjoyed himself. Aman! Aman!

Ah, if I die on the boat, throw me into the sea,
So that the black fish and the salt water can eat me. Aman! Aman!

Cloudy Sunday was composed in 1943 by Vassilis Tsitsanis during the occupation, and recorded in 1948:

Here’s the reissue Rebetika 1918 to 1954 (playlist):

Call Me Old-Fashioned (yet again), but I’m still drawn to the more introspective songs, such as Gazeli neva sabah (“The hour of death”, #5), with Rita Abadzi:

and Tıs ksenityas o ponos (“The pain of being abroad”, #8), sung by Antonis Dalgas, is reminiscent of the oriental, free-tempo style of early amanedhes:

By way of contrast, here’s Bouzouki favourites: smyrneika and rebetika (86 tracks):

I still can’t overcome the image of the bouzouki in the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch.

Supplementing my little list of reissues in Songs of Asia Minor, there’s a wealth of CDs, such as

  • Rembetica: historic urban folk songs from Greece (Rounder, 1992)
  • Lost homelands: the Smyrniac song in Greece, 1928–1935 (Heritage, 1995)
  • Mourmoúrika: songs of the Greek underworld 1930-1955 (Rounder, 1999)
  • Women of rembetica (Rounder, 2000)
  • Rembetika songs of the Greek underground 1925–1947 (Trikont, 2001)
  • Mortika: rare vintage recordings from a Greek underworld (Arko, 2005).

Note also the early 78s on the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum site.

There are many documentaries, such as this seven-part series:

And the feature film Rembetiko (Kostas Ferris, 1983) is a classic:

Of course, while rebetika waxed and waned, there’s far more to Greek traditional music—ciick here!


* A 1981 essay by Rod Conway Morris is useful, with leads to performers and recordings. Note the site greeksongstories.com. The wiki entry is extensive too; see also The Rough Guide to world music. The wider context is described in chapters 5 and 6 of Peter Manuel, Popular musics of the non-Western world (1988), and by Paul Vernon (e.g. here); see also The Rough Guide to world music (under both Greece and Turkey), and Songlines.

A great annual ritual: Wimbledon

The great annual ritual of Wimbledon resumes: drama, Correct Behaviour, pundits, and the classic Vitas Gerulaitis story

Stephen Jones: a blog

Centre Court

The annual Wimbledon ritual is well under way again.

Never mind the tennis, the Beebs’s own line-up is impressive enough—Brits like Trusty Tim, always playing with a straight bat [?—Ed.], and the demure Sam Smith, obligatory Funny Foreigners led by generally lovable but sometimes off-message Mac, wise Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova, with the ever-hot Pat Cash. It’s entertaining to see how the stalwart female commentators maintain patience with the hapless male pundits negotiating the sexist minefield in the wake of the Inverdale–Bartoli fiasco.

Quaintly more antiquated than the other Majors, it’s a benign celebration for the middle classes (including me—I went to school nearby, and sold ice-creams there). Like any ritual, indeed any performance, Wimbledon confirms Correct Behaviour (not least to keep those errant Foreigners in line); and it will mean different things to different people. But it’s a visual treat, despite the retro ritual costumes; and…

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Kurdish culture: Zaza and Hawrami

Pir Saliyar 1

To follow Some Kurdish bards, and complementing Dervishes of Kurdistan, the Zaza constitute a substantial minority among the diverse regional groups of the Kurdish people.

Such material as I have seen [1] refers to groups in east Anatolia (within the borders of modern Turkey), home to a substantial population of Zazas who trace their origins to what is now north Iran. While most are Sunni Muslims, many are Alevi. Their modern history, like that of the Kurds generally, has been turbulent, with several bloody rebellions against the Turkish Republic, notably in Dersim (1937–38).

Zaza Alevi

The Zazaki language is considered in danger of extinction. This short film includes footage of an Alevi cem ritual (from 7.18):

Hawrami ritual: the Pir Şaliyar festival
To the southeast, way beyond Anatolia, the Hawraman (Avroman) region is also distinctive.

The large village of Hawraman Takht, in the foothills of the Zagros mountains near the western border of Iran (whose economy is boosted by smuggling), has attracted considerable attention for its grand annual festival commemorating the wedding of the ancient hermit saint-healer Pir Şaliyar, with the singing and dancing of dervishes accompanied by daf frame-drums. [2] Here’s a short film: [3]

It’s such a scenic village that I can’t help wondering how representative the festival is of ritual practice in the region, how it has changed in recent years under the influence of tourism (itself a valid subject of research, though I suspect this is the kind of event that many an anthropologist might avoid), and the routine practices of the dervishes once the visitors are gone.

Pir Saliyar 2

In the same region, I’m keen to learn more about siyaw chemane singing.


[1] See e.g. Mehmed S. Kaya, The Zaza Kurds of Turkey (2011); Paul White, here; abstracts from a conference on the Zaza in Anatolia—with many papers devoted to Alevism, and one on the actor and film director Yılmaz Güney (1937–84), among several Zaza Kurds with a high public profile; and even wiki (here and here). I note en passant that Zaza means “stammerer”.

[2] While I have yet to see more in-depth studies, brief media articles include
https://surfiran.com/pir-shalyar-kurdistan-iran/

https://caspianpost.com/en/post/culture/pir-shalyar-a-remarkable-festival-in-the-glorious-village-of-howraman-takht

https://www.tasteiran.net/stories/10068/pir-shalyar-ceremony

[3] This introduction is longer but far from ethnographic:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XB7T_FYuwqU&t=1842s

Some other brief clips:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9geEorXli6g

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3F6ZSjGx18

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otmilDUdxug