The kiosk in Turkey and Europe

kosk

The other day a further excursion around Kuzguncuk inspired me to reflect on the diffusion of the kiosk.

More grandiose than our humble kiosk, the Turkish köşk (a word itself borrowed from Persian kūshk) may denote a pavilion, gazebo, summer-house, pleasure palace, villa, or indeed belvedere (Chinese guan 觀, as in my own fantasy address “Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity”).

Among several examples in the Topkapi Palace are the Tiled Kiosk and Baghdad Kiosk; many more köşks can be admired elsewhere in Istanbul; and such structures are dotted around the former Ottoman empire.

On the Asian side of Istanbul near Kuzguncuk are several fine köşks from the late Ottoman era, set in sylvan groves overlooking the Bosphorus. Two of them lead me to stories that encompass the Ottoman ancien régime, a household embodying the changing status of women under the Republic, and post-war Black Sea migrants in shanty settlements.

The Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion (wiki; more detail here) was gifted to the Prince by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1895. Abdülmecid (1868–1944), “the last Ottoman caliph”, was also a student of Western Art Music and a gifted painter—he depicted salon life at his köşk in the painting Beethoven in the harem (1915):

salon 1915

Abdülmecid (right, in pasha uniform) listens to his Circassian wife Şehsuvar Kadınefendi playing violin, Hatça Kadın (Ofelia) on piano, and his son Ömer Faruk on cello.
One of the other two women may be his third wife Mehisti.

Abdülmecid went into exile in 1924, living in France. His mansion is currently open to the public for the Biennale, hosting an imaginative art exhibition.

The Cemil Molla Mansion (see here, and here) lies just above the main coast road towards the bridge and the Beylerbeyi Palace. It was redesigned around 1895 by the Italian–Armenian architect Alberti at the behest of Cemil Molla (1864–1941), minister and cultured confidant of Sultan Abdülhamid. It was even connected to the Beylerbeyi palace by a tunnel.

Cemil Molla mansion

Lavishly furnished, the mansion was equipped with electricity, central heating, and a telephone—at a time when such luxuries were the exclusive preserve of the Yıldız Palace. The new köşk made an elegant retreat for the pastimes of Cemil Molla with his wife and children, and their English and French governesses. The children not only studied the Qur’an (Cemil Molla sometimes served as imam at the Üryanizade Mosque) but also learned solfeggio; dignitaries and philosophers assembled for elegant soirées, as the air filled with piano and oud, Baudelaire and gazals—just the type of gathering that musicians like Tamburi Cemil might have frequented.

Left: Cemil Molla köşk, interior; right, from The shining.

Upon the founding of the Republic in 1923, Cemil Molla went into retirement. After his death in 1941 the mansion was confiscated by the State Security Department. [1] It was soon thought to be haunted, * with his ghost wandering in the gardens—“disconsolately” being the obligatory adverb here. Later buyers have felt unable to occupy the mansion, with the Nakkaştepe cemetery nearby. The story cries out (spookily) for a movie screenplay, like a Turkish version of The shining—with an eery soundtrack of taksim on kanun, and Ravel’s La valse, echoing through gilded salons adorned with sepia family photos… This brief introduction to the mansion has some of the ingredients:

* * *

To augment the story, with the encyclopedic Kadir Filiz we accompanied his neighbour, the sprightly Fatma Hanim (“Lady Fatma”), [2] to revisit the slopes where she had made her home. Her account takes us on to the migrations of the post-war period.

Fatma H and Am for blog
Fatma Abla with Augusta.

Fatma Hanım, now in her mid-80s, is one of those delightful grannies whom one dreams of meeting—we only had to mention a single keyword and she came out with a whole stream of reminiscences.

She comes from the Black Sea town of Boyabat in the hills south of Sinop, just east of Kastamonu. After her husband Ilyas was sent to Istanbul on military service around 1959, he managed to stay on there; soon after he paid a visit back to Boyabat, they returned to Istanbul with their first baby—the first of four.

Their new home was a gecekondu shanty-settlement just behind the Cemil Molla mansion. The land was owned by a Greek boss, who ran a pig farm and slaughterhouse as well as a gazhane factory producing gas. (His son Emil became a great friend of the popular gay singer Zeki Müren.) Fatma recalls life on the estate, in the heart of nature, as paradise—though she was shocked by the informality of the Greeks, with the men wearing shorts… She pointed out the trees she had planted herself.

Ilyas was a gardener on the estate, while Fatma worked as housekeeper for a lady who lived in a relatively modest yalı house on the coast just along from the Cemil Molla Mansion. In a most intriguing digression from the köşk, Fatma’s employer was none other than Sare Hanım (Sare Mocan, Sara Okçu, 1914–2000). This leads us to a complex family history that I can’t even begin to get my head around…

From a distinguished Ottoman family, Sare had been abducted on horseback at the age of 15 by Sefket Mocan, grandson of Sefket Pasha, and was later married to him. Her (much) older sister Celile (1880–1956), a painter, was the mother of the left-wing poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63; see also under Sabiha Sertel), and over his long years in prison Sare often visited her beloved nephew there.

Left: Sare Hanım in the 1930s, “the first woman to wear a bikini and trousers”
under the Republic. Source.
Right: Nâzım Hikmet with fellow inmates, Bursa Prison. Source.

Sare went on to become a modern cosmopolitan belle; she even flirted with the idea of becoming a Hollywood movie star. After divorcing Sefket she moved back into her family’s Bosphorus yalı; she remarried, and divorced again. Cemil Molla’s family also had a yalı below their köşk, so they were near neighbours.

Sharing the house with Sare was her niece Münevver Andaç (1917–97). Münevver had fallen in love with Nâzım Hikmet in 1949 while he was nearing the end of a long imprisonment, giving birth to a son and marrying him after his release in 1951—but he soon had to go into exile in Moscow. Prevented from accompanying him, she moved in with Sare; under surveillance, Münevver left for Warsaw in 1961 with her two children before making her home in Paris. Sare’s niece Leyla had also married, but moved back to the house after separating from her husband.

Left: Sare in old age, surrounded by her mementos
Right: the green yalı on the Bosphorus.

So the female household where our eloquent guide Fatma Hanım worked for over thirty years sounds like a microcosm of women’s changing status under the Republic.

In 1992, after the notorious campaign of Istanbul mayor Bedrettin Dalan to destroy the gecekondu shantytowns, thanks to Ilyas’s honest reputation he was able to buy an apartment in the Kuzguncuk mahalle itself for a good price, where he and Fatma have lived ever since.

* * *

Turkey being Umlaut Heaven, ** when diacritically-challenged infidels adopted the word köşk they didn’t quite know what to do with the vowel (for my wacky fantasy on diacritics, click here). Somehow our borrowing in English isn’t quite how I’d expect the vowel to behave (says he, sipping coffee in his pyjamas while plucking the lute), although I don’t know how we could have done better—”kosk” wouldn’t have worked, anyway. ***

In 18th-century Britain, Ottoman architecture enjoyed a vogue thanks to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (see under Hidden heritage).

Fast Show
Another British homage to Ottoman culture.

Our modern kiosk is far less grand. It might serve as a bandstand, or more often a little stall selling newspapers, cigarettes, snacks, and so on. We don’t seem so good at them in Britain—the garden shed, immortalised by Jessy on The fast show (cf. Rowley Birkin QC), is quite a comedown.

But I do enjoy a good French kiosque or Italian (um) edicola, and I recall some fine examples around east Europe—where the vogue began with King Stanislaus I (1677–1766) of Poland; for me kiosks were part of the mystique of the Iron Curtain, the buzz of street life.

Thrd Man kiosk

With All Due Respect to Ottoman architecture, perhaps the most iconic kiosk is the one in the middle of an eerily desolate Viennese square in The third man, accompanied by Anton Karas’s zither.


[1] By 1942, with the grossly discriminatory Wealth Tax (evoked in the Turkish TV series The Club), the brunt of the burden was to fall on Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. For Istanbul during World War Two, see Midnight at the Pera Palace.

[2] In the more personal honorific style of Turkish relationships, Kadir and Augusta address her as Fatma Abla (“Elder Sister”) or Fatma Teyze (“Auntie”).

* The Cemil Molla Mansion is listed among the Top Five Haunted Buildings of Istanbul!

** Funny how “umlaut” doesn’t have an umlaut, eh. It seems that Turkish hardly needs a term to specify the ubiquitous dots, üzerine çift nokta koymak (“put a double dot on it”) being a tad over-generous. BTW, I’m very fond of the Hibernian umlaut, which I finally mastered on a tour of the States with a Scottish cellist, whose frequent refrain was “Shall we go and get some füd?”

*** This rather reminds me of my sample sentence of English borrowings from the Venetian language:

if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over an arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequinned pantaloons to a regatta…

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:

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…

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).

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.

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.

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.

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

Ethos: one of a kind

Ethos 1

After The Club, I’ve been hooked on Ethos, another fine Turkish TV series on Netflix (Berkun Oya, 2020), again popular both in Turkey and abroad. Among many reviews [1] is this perceptive critique by Haziran Düzkan on the feminist site 5Harfliler, from which I borrow below.

Here’s a trailer:

The Turkish title Bir başkadır (“One of a kind”) alludes to Ayten Alpman’s 1972 song Memleketim (“My homeland”). Set in Istanbul, the story exposes the faultlines within Turkish society. It’s centred around the mesmerising character of Meryem, played by Öykü Karayel. At once naïve and astute, Meryem is a part-time cleaner who lives on the outskirts of Istanbul with her ill-tempered brother Yasin and his traumatised wife Ruhiye. After experiencing fainting spells, Meryem consults the uptight psychiatrist Peri, whose culture is quite different: educated, affluent, and secular, she is prejudiced against openly religious people.

Ethos 2

Peri herself sees the therapist Gülbin, to whom she complains about the growing conservatism in Turkish society. Gülbin, from a Kurdish family, has a fraught relationship with her headscarved sister, a supporter of the ruling AKP Party; and she is having a desultory affair with the feckless playboy Sinan—as is the soap-opera star Melisa, who has some wise words to offer Peri when they meet socially. Meryem is under the influence of the benign hodja of the local mosque—whose daughter Hayrünnisa is a gay electronica fan.

Gradually the paths of this disparate group of urban, working, lonely women intersect; their attempts to seek meaningful relationships with men only exacerbate their sense of alienation.

The first episode ends—somewhat obscurely for outsiders like me—with footage from a concert by Ferdi Özbeğen, evoking a nostalgia for “old Turkey”—as Haziran Düzkan explains, as the gay son of an Armenian mother and a migrant father born in Crete, Özbeğen too carried a social burden on his shoulders. Düzkan also notes that while the finale offers a certain redemption, the (female) characters’ triumphs are petty, suggesting that the real “triumph” is that of the (male) director, “for showing us how much we missed talking about the society rather than getting sick and tired of talking about those in power”.

The filming is distinctive, with evocative scenes of the Istanbul landscape, and static portraits of the characters facing the camera framed against a sumptuous colour palette.

And there can be no better incentive to learn Turkish than to relish the nuance of Meryem’s speech in the exquisite dialogues with her therapist and with her suitor Hilmi.

Ethos 3


[1] E.g.
https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/05/turkey-s-latest-netflix-series-ethos-interrogates-the-country-s-social-divides

https://www.duvarenglish.com/ethos-has-put-us-all-in-the-therapists-office-and-asked-us-to-speak-article-55126

https://www.trtworld.com/life/netflix-s-ethos-takes-turkey-by-storm-41790

https://dmtalkies.com/ethos-tv-series-analysis/

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/do-not-burn-coffee-beans.

Rom, Dom, Lom

kids

Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *

Rom map

Elmas Arus is deeply involved in the campaign for Roma equality, with her campaign Zero Discrimination. Perhaps unavoidably, some of the filming looks exotic, contrasting with the articulate comments of locals and scholars on poverty, social issues, and discrimination. It deserves to be revamped with a more comprehensible version of the subtitles.

Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.

kemence

The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).

From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:

If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.

Urban demolition, as in the Sulukele quarter of Istanbul, is ironically followed by Erdoğan expressing support for the Roma in 2010. The film goes on to sketch weddings; the transition from nomadic to settled lives; the hıdırellez festival and the annual pilgrimage to Hacıbektaş. All the themes deserve more lengthy treatment.

In her excellent book Bury me standing, Isabel Fonseca only touches on Turkey in her chapter on the Bulgarian Roma, but it makes a fine introduction to the wider context around east central Europe.

This is the latest in my series on culture in Turkey.


* See e.g. here. Relevant wiki articles include

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Turkey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdal_of_Turkey

South American getaway

Butch

At Cambridge in the early 1970s, as a counterpart to my studies of Chinese culture (here, and here) and WAM, movies also made an important part of my education. At some remove from the arthouse European films that were all the rage was the outlaw movie

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) (wiki; see also e.g. here).

Despite mixed reviews, the film soon became a huge hit. Besides Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles, Katherine Ross appears as Etta Place, following her part in The graduate. She went on to star in the sequel Wanted: the Sundance woman (1976). And Hill used the Newman–Redford partnership again with The sting (1973), with a Scott Joplin soundtrack.

The soundtrack for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (playlist) is by Burt Bacharach, whom I revere eternally for I say a little prayer. Robert Redford was not impressed by Raindrops keep falling on my head, sung by B.J. Thomas (“What the hell is that song doing in this film?”)—despite its wonderful major 7th leap:

A scene that undermines the pomposity of soundtracks in traditional Westerns is South American getaway, with the Ron Hicklin singers in fine form:

The disembodied audio is here, so as to focus on the musical artistry of the alternating zany and nostalgic passages, and that major 7th leap again (0.28, 3.18). They might have come up with more imaginative instrumental bridges, but hey. And this is clearly not the time for ethnographic study of musicking in Bolivia

Another scene that remains with me is “Can I move?”:

which somehow for me evoked Kyūzō in Seven samurai (rather than anything in the remake The magnificent seven), and now even reminds me of the importance of context in folk musicking

La voix humaine

BH LVH

Back home from Istanbul, my ears still buzzing with Bektashi–Alevi ritual and the call to prayer, I went along to the Barbican to be astounded yet again at the innovative genius of Barbara Hannigan with the LSO (programme notes here).

They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.

After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.

This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:

Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.

Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.

Duval Voix

Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):

Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.

This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:


* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:

Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”

The Club

Club actors

Like Turkish audiences, I’ve been riveted by the recent ten-instalment TV series The Club (Netflix, 2021), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan. The drama exposes the multicultural Turkish elephant in the room, probing the boundaries of free speech today (cf. The Armenian genocide).

Netflix offers a choice of seven languages, with subtitles, in any combination you please; I wasn’t too disturbed by the somewhat stilted voices in the dubbed English version, but I envy local viewers their ability to catch the nuance of the conversational switches between Turkish, Ladino, and Greek in the original soundtrack.

Club mother daughter

Revolving around Istanbul’s Jewish community (with Ladino often heard), the plot is framed by the wealth tax of 1942—heavily penalising non-Muslims—and the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955, also ignited by ethnic tensions in Cyprus. In 1955, Matilda, a Jewish ex-convict, finds work in one of Istanbul’s leading nightclubs. As she tries to rebuild her relationship with her daughter Raşel, Matilda struggles to keep her away from Muslim playboy İsmet. With the outrageously camp singing star Selim, she also stands against her boss Orhan and nightclub manager Çelebi.

With such issues unfamiliar to many viewers, the series has been warmly received by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike (reviews e.g. here and here). It’s also a visual period-piece, with charismatic actors—and some great songs carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic moment.

Club Selim

This YouTube playlist includes, in Ladino, the exquisite Yo era ninya (cf. this popular version):

and Adio kerida, sung by Yasmin Levy:

Here Salih Bademci (as the dreamy Selim) performs Masal (Fairy tale), by iconic Turkish singer Sezen Aksu—though the song is later, it’s another astute choice, given her link to progressive causes:

The directors’ pluralistic agenda is further underlined in their recruiting of pianist-composer-arranger Fazil Say; charged with blasphemy in 2012, he went on to compose a series of pieces reflecting on the suppression of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. And the final débacle of The Club is accompanied by alternating Greek and Turkish versions of Zülfü Livaneli‘s 1979–80 song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for coexistence:

 * * *

1955 pogrom

Photo: Ara Güler (I think).

In Istanbul today the dwindling Jewish community remains under threat. As this Al Jazeera review observes,

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has occasionally referred to what he calls the “fascist mentality” of the single-party era before 1950 in criticism of the opposition Republican People’s Party, which ruled at the time, and how it treated minorities. “They were ethnically cleansed because they had a different ethnic cultural identity”, Erdogan said in 2009. “The time has arrived for us to question ourselves about why this happened and what we have learned from all of this”.

If that sounds rather enlightened, the review goes on:

But neither Erdogan nor other Turkish leaders have taken any concrete steps to address the Wealth Tax, the 1955 pogrom, or other attacks on minorities. The Democrat Party, which won the first free and fair elections in the country in 1950, campaigned on a pledge to pay reparations for the Wealth Tax, but never kept the promise.

In fiction the sensitive topic has been broached before in works such as Mrs Salkim’s diamonds (1990 novel; 1999 film), but The Club is now giving it a far wider audience. Not only is the unfolding of the drama compelling in itself (with regular Doof Doof moments), but it’s educating viewers within Turkey—and, I hope, further afield.

A recent scholarly panel offers a critique of the series:

See also Ethos: one of a kind.

Bambi reconsidered

Bambi

I boldly suggested that my film on the Li family Daoists might make more stimulating Christmas viewing than watching Bambi for the umpteenth time—but now it transpires that the original story of the latter has been gravely diluted and sugar-coated, as shown in

The original novel Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde was written in 1923 by Felix Salten, an author and critic in Vienna. Far from being a cute children’s story, the new translation shows that Bambi was actually a parable about the inhumane treatment and precarious life of Jews and other minorities as fascism loomed. In 1935 the book was banned by the Nazis, who burned it as Jewish propaganda.

Meanwhile the original English translation, published in 1928, “toned down Salten’s anthropomorphism and changed its focus so that it was more likely to be understood as a simple conservation story about animals living in a forest”.

In 1933 Salten sold the film rights to MGM producer Sidney Franklin for a paltry $1,000; Franklin then sold them on to Walt Disney, who read the 1928 translation, and loved animal stories. Hence the saccharine 1942 animated movie about a young deer who finds love and friendship in a forest. While there is much to admire about Disney, from his movies to his koanesque aperçu (n. here, and under Daoist non-action), Salten himself never earned a penny from the movie.

Bambi cover

A new translation by Jack Zipes reasserts the book’s original message warning of the persecution and dangers faced by Jews in Europe. It soon becomes apparent that the forest animals are living out their lives in fear and that puts the reader constantly “on edge”. As Zipes comments, “All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill”. Without being didactic, Salten could encourage the reader to feel more empathy towards oppressed groups—and Bambi could openly question the cruelty of their oppressors. “Many other writers, like George Orwell, chose animals too because you’re freer to tackle problems that might make your readers bristle. And you don’t want them to bristle, you want them to say, at the end: this is a tragedy.”

When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Salten managed to flee to Switzerland. Stripped of his Austrian citizenship by the Nazis, he spent his final years “lonely and in despair” in Zurich and died in 1945—like Bambi, with no safe place to call home.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

Jumping belatedly on a bandwagon long driven by Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, I’m moved by the plangent voice of Karen Dalton (1937–93)—a worthy addition to my essential Playlist of songs!

For some reason I can warm to Country, but I seem to have a blind (deaf) spot about Anglo-American folk. Apart from being a tad allergic to guitar songs, it’s quite unfair of me to reduce it to a wholesome image of apple pie and right-on social activism. But Karen Dalton crashes right through all that.

She may not have approved of Dylan likening her voice to that of Billie Holiday, but it’s inevitable. Billie only rarely sang the blues—though she saved her greatest ever blues for her 1957 TV appearance.

Dalton, Dylan, Neill

Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, and Fred Neil, early 60s.

There’s more artifice, and variety, in Billie’s voice, and in her opulent backings. Karen emerged from the Greenwich village folk scene, but there’s a rare depth of anguish in her sound, accompanying herself on twelve-string guitar or banjo. “Not interested in playing the music industry’s games in an era when musicians had little other choice”, she managed to self-destruct without going through the usual stages of celebrity and tabloid exposure. So despite her admirers, her music remained a niche taste until quite recently (see e.g. here).

Here’s a playlist for her 1969 album It’s so hard to tell who’s going to love you the best:

Though she only sang covers, she transformed them. It hurts me too had long been a popular blues standard—here’s Elmore James (1957):

and Junior Wells (1965):

But Karen’s version has a plaintive, personal quality:

While I prefer the very basic production values of It’s so hard to tell…, here’s her 1971 album In my own time, opening with Something on your mind—another Yesterday song:

Here’s Katie cruel:

This playlist has more:

Here’s a short documentary from 2009:

And a trailer for a recent documentary:

How little I know of all the cross-fertilisations of blues, Country, soul, pop, and onwards… Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the 60s were remarkable—Coltrane, Miles; soul; Beatles, Stones… Meanwhile in the rarefied echelons of WAM, the Mahler craze was growing, and the early music movement was getting going.

Karen Dalton 2

Art Pepper

Pepper meets cover

In my post on Frank Morgan I mentioned how he managed to keep active on sax while in San Quentin by playing along with fellow inmates.

That post set forth from LA detective Harry Bosch’s good taste in jazz, and again Michael Connelly’s novels have some pertinent comments on Art Pepper (1925–82), who was one of Morgan’s jazz colleagues in jail.

Pepper 1966

Pepper was no angel either. Like Chet Baker, he was a white West-coast junkie. Here’s the classic 1957 album Art Pepper meets the rhythm section:

Connelly evokes the album in A darkness more than night (2000):

He went into the house and got two more beers out of the refrigerator. This time McCaleb was standing in the living room when he came back from the kitchen. He handed Bosch his empty bottle and Bosch wondered for a moment if he had finished it or poured the beer over the side of the deck. He took the empty into the kitchen and when he came back McCaleb was standing at the stereo studying a CD case.
“This what’s playing?” he asked. Art Pepper meets the rhythm section?”
Bosch stepped over.
“Yeah. Art Pepper and Miles’s side men. Red Garland on piano, Pau Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums. Recorded here in LA, January 19, 1957. One day. The cork in the neck of Pepper’s sax was supposedly cracked but it didn’t matter. He had one shot with those guys. He made the most of it. One day, one shot, one classic. That’s the way to do it.”
“These guys were in Miles Davis’s band?”
“At the time.”
McCaleb nodded. Bosch leaned close to look at the CD cover in McCaleb’s hands.
“Yeah, Art Pepper,” he said. “When I was growing up I never knew who my father was. My mother, she used to have a lot of this guy’s records. She hung out at some of the jazz clubs where he’d play. Handsome devil, Art was. For a hype. Just look at that picture. Too cool to fool. I made up this whole story about how he was my old man and he wasn’t around ’cause he was always on the road and making records. Almost got to the point I believed it. Later on—I mean years later—I read a book about him. It said he was junk sick when they took that picture. He puked as soon as it was over and went back to bed.”
McCaleb studied the photograph on the CD. A handsome man leaning against a tree, his sax cradled in his right arm.
“Well, he could play,” McCaleb said.
“Yeah, he could,” Bosch agreed. “Genius with a needle in his arm.”
Bosch stepped over and turned the volume up slightly. The song was Straight life, Pepper’s signature composition.
“Do you believe that?” McCaleb asked.
“What, that he was a genius? Yeah, he was with the sax.”
“No, I mean do you think that every genius—musician, artist, even a detective—has a fatal flaw like that? The needle in the arm.”
“I think everybody’s got a fatal flaw, whether they’re a genius or not.”

The song Patricia features in The black box (2012):

Bosch had begun making his way through the Art Pepper recordings his daughter had given him for his birthday. He was on volume 3 and listening to a stunning version of Patricia recorded three decades earlier at a club in Croydon, England. It was during Pepper’s comeback period after the years of drug addiction and incarceration. On this night in 1981 he had everything working. On this one song, Bosch believed he was proving that no-one would ever play better. Harry wasn’t exactly sure what the word ethereal meant, but it was the word that came to mind. The song was perfect, the saxophone was perfect, the interplay and communication between Pepper and his three band mates was as perfect and orchestrated as the movement of four fingers on a hand. There were a lot of words used to describe jazz music. Bosch had read them over the years in the magazines and in the liner notes of records. He didn’t always understand them. He just knew what he liked, and this was it. Powerful and relentless, and sometimes sad.
He found it hard to concentrate on the computer screen as the song played, the band going on almost twenty minutes with it. He had Patricia on other records and CDs. It was one of Pepper’s signatures. But he had never heard it played with such sinewy passion. He looked at his daughter, who was lying on the couch reading a book. Another school assignment. This one was called The fault in our stars.
“This is about his daughter,” he said
Maddie looked over the book at him.
“What do you mean?”
“This song. Patricia. He wrote it for his daughter. He was away from her for long periods in her life, but he loved her and he missed her. You can hear that in it, right?”
She thought a moment and then nodded.
“I think. It almost sounds like the saxophone is crying.”

Like Frank Morgan, Art Pepper rebuilt his career after being freed from prison in 1965. Here’s a 1978 recording of Patricia:

Don McGlynn’s documentary Art Pepper: notes from a jazz survivor, filmed in 1982, his last year, also features his third wife Laurie (with Patricia discussed from 24.00):

In the LRB Terry Castle riffs brilliantly on Pepper’s 1979 autobiography Straight life.

Aside from “the music itself” (sic), while accounts of jazzers’ lives are vivid (e.g. Miles, Mingus, Chet…), it’s possible to tire of them: self-destruction is one thing, but the misogyny is hard to take. As with WAM composers, we may learn from their stories and the society in which they lived, but admiring the music doesn’t have to entail endorsing its creators. Men behaving badly yet again… (cf. Deviating from behavioural norms).

Jonny spielt auf

Jonny promo

Getty Images: Ullstein Bild.

In my post on Erich Korngold, I mentioned Richard Taruskin’s 1994 essay “The golden age of kitsch”, where he reviews CDs of Korngold’s Das wunder der Heliane and Ernst Krenek’s 1937 “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf [Jonny goes to town, or Jonny strikes up]. So here I’ll introduce the latter.

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, Chapter 6 “City of nets: Berlin in the 20s”) provides background.

For a little while in the late 20s, Krenek acquired certifiable, almost Gershwin-like celebrity. […] Like so many young Austrians and Germans, he yearned to break out of the hothouse of Romantic and Expressionist art, to join the milling throngs in the new democratic street.

Taruskin’s typically polemical essay is worth citing at some length.

The Nazi concept of artistic degeneracy was incoherent and opportunistic, and so is Decca/London’s marketing strategy. It took very little to run afoul of the Nazis then, and it costs very little to deplore them now. Their opposition, especially when it was passively incurred, conferred no distinction, unless their approval is thought to confer distinction on the likes of Beethoven or Wagner. There are no lessons to be learned from studying the Nazi index of banned musical works, which, like the Nazi canon, contained masterpieces, ephemerae, kitsch, and trash, covering a wide stylistic and ideological range. […]

So just this once let’s forget the Nazis. They had nothing to do with Krenek’s opera or Korngold’s opera. They didn’t even ban them. They didn’t have to ban them, for both works had fallen out of the repertory by 1933. […]

What makes these first [CD] releases fascinating is not what they have to say about the Nazis but what they have to say about the artistic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which had a thriving operatic economy—the last truly thriving, that is, consumption-driven, economy in the history of opera. Composers wrote for a market. Their work was in demand. They strove not for eventual immortality but for immediate success. Producers could recoup their investment in new works and sometimes exceed it, so they sought out new works. Premieres were more noteworthy than revivals, and commanded the interest of the press.

Was this a degenerative ecology? Did it lead to exploitative “populist” formulas, or to weak imitation? No, it was synergistic; it led to experimentation and to emulation, with the aim of surpassing previous standards of novelty and distinction.

He goes on to note the great success of operas like Berg’s Wozzeck (for Lulu, see here). But even more popular was Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. Still, Taruskin describes what strikes me as a common trait of WAM until the late 19th century:

Sudden eclipse was part of the bargain. An opera had its place in the sun if it managed to earn one, and then it moved out of the way.

He attributes the waning of this nurturing operatic ecology to the talkies:

The movies did not only preempt the operatic audience. At a profound level, the movies became the operas of the mid- to late 20th century, leaving the actual opera houses with a closed-off museum repertoire and a specialised audience of aficionados, rather than a a general entertainment public hungry for sensation. With the advent of the sound film, opera found its preeminence as a union of the arts compromised and its standing as the grandest of all spectacles usurped. […]

Cinematic transport to distant times and climes was instantaneous. Evocative atmosphere, exotic or realistic, could be more potently conjured up on film than on the best-equipped operatic stage, and the narrative techniques of the movies were unprecedentedly flexible and compelling. […]

But wait, isn’t there another difference, a bigger one? Opera, however, popular, remains an art, while movies, or at least Hollywood movies, are a mass-produced and mass-reproduced medium and amount only to kitsch. Or so we are told. I am not so sure.

The operatic world from which Korngold and Krenek emerged, like the wider world of art in the period following the Great War, was a bitterly divided world. The division was not simply between stylistic radicalism and conservatism, or between a liberating iconoclasm and a hidebound tradition, though that is how a stubbornly Whiggish historiography continues to represent it. Nor was it primarily a division between a senile romanticism and a new classicism, as so many artists of the time liked to say. It was, rather, a difference in the way that art was viewed in relation to the world.

Citing the early Soviet critic Boris Asafyev:

An authentic modern music would have to be “nearer to the street than to the salon, nearer to the life of public actuality than to that of philosophical seclusion”,

Taruskin goes on to contrast the operas of Korngold and Krenek:

Though they are being marketed now under a crude common rubric, they embodied antithetical values.

Jonny poster

Unlike Korngold, “the master of musical sacroporn” (an epithet that Taruskin also applies to Turangalîla!), Krenek embodied the new genre of Zeitoper, “now-opera”:

“Now-opera” was not simply a matter of contemporary action, of references to current events and American pop-genres (shimmies, tangos, blues, Negro-spiritualen) and pop-timbres (sax, banjo), though these were the grounds for Jonny’s immediate audience appeal and its subsequent (misleading) reputation as a “jazz opera”. Its main novelty was irony: the clash between the ephemeral content and the “classical” form. And this implied another, more fundamental clash: in place of the music of timeless inner feeling, its unabating fluidity of tempo dissolving chronometric reality, there was now to be a music that proceeded just as unabatingly through through busy ostinatos at what Krenek at one point labelled “schnelles Grammophon-tempo”, emphasising uniformity of physical and physiological motion and banshing psychology. It was a music of corporeal elation and spiritual nihilism, a tonic for the tired and the disillusioned, for people who felt betrayed by the lie of transcendence. It was, in short, the music not of America but of “Americanism”. And so the now-opera was not really sachlich after all but still märchenhaft, embodying not a new reality but a new fairy tale, a new allegory and, yes, a new kitsch.

In Jonny spielt auf, the first now-opera, the allegory is overt and sledge-hammer-subtle. The protagonist is not the title character—a negro band-leader vaguely modeled, it seems, on Sam Wooding, whose Chocolate Kiddies Revue swept Germany in 1925–26—but Max, a Central European composer of traditional transcendental bent.

As the glacier-like Max pursues banjo-playing operatic diva Anita (an evocation of Anna Mahler, to whom Krenek was briefly married), Jonny attempts to steal the enchanted Amati violin of Daniello, a slick, matinee-idol classical virtuoso.

A tiny leitmotif, just a descent through the interval of a fourth to a downbeat, pervades everything. (Anyone who has heard Ravel’s “jazz”-tinged L’enfant et les sortilèges of 1925 will recall this very distinctive idea as the “Maman!” motif. Did Krenek?).

Finally Max, his glacier persona melting, sets off with Anita for America, whither Krenek followed in 1938.

Here’s a playlist of excerpts:

Actually, the opera is far from the accessible populism of The threepenny opera (1928), and jazz plays a very minor role—not least because when Krenek “conceived his libretto, he had never met a Negro or an American”. What he set out to provide was “a hope-inspiring Pied Piper, or a latter-day Papageno, as alluringly Other as possible”.

The everyday, the ephemeral, and the phenomenal […] could function convincingly within the world of opera only as an exotic import. By its very presence, it was exceptional, numinous, and threatening. So now-opera was stil, opera. It could only be a special case, a subgenre; and it could not escape the fate of the genre as a whole.

Taruskin finds the opera dubious politically too:

The freedom celebrated at the end of Jonny spielt auf is only the freedom to seek new masters, to submit to a new hypnosis.

He notes the tendency to forgive both the operas of both Korngold and Krenek their cynicism.

The indulgence, it seems pretty clear, is purchased courtesy of the Nazis. Take away their seal of disapproval, and we are left not with easily dismissed “degeneracy” but with decadence, which is more real, more disquieting, and much harder to get a grip on.

This was the downside of the thriving consumer culture that, in our day, with opera a walking corpse, seems at first so enviable. But this was a culture of frisson and titillation posing as a culture of liberation and uplift.

Going rather far in imputing a moral purpose for “serious music” (“The danger of Taruskin”?!), he suggests:

However it may tickle our sense of irony to contemplate it, and even if we choose to excuse its practitioners on grounds of naïveté or sincere bad taste, it entailed a lack of moral purpose that rendered the “serious” arts defenceless against totalitarian rhetoric, and passively complicit in its triumph.

Given Krenek’s hazy acquaintance with the world he was evoking, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Real Thing (more leads under Clarke Peters’ radio series on black music in Europe): here’s the Sam Wooding band with Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin (leading us nicely to Shanghai jazz):

and the Chocolate Kiddies in 1933:

Note also the post about Jonny spielt auf on the stimulating site Black Central Europe.


* Ross also cites Slonimsky’s fine summary of Max Brand’s Machinist Hopkins (1929) (evoking Stella Gibbons’ spoof synopsis of a Britten opera):

A cuckolding libertine pushes the husband of his mistress to his death in the cogs of a monstrous machine and strangles her when he finds out she has become a promiscuous prostitute, whereupon the foreman, Machinist Hopkins, dismisses him from his job, ostensibly for inefficiency.

Frank Morgan

Morgan

A youthful Frank Morgan. Source.

In the compelling crime thrillers of Michael Connelly, I’ve already admired LA detective Harry Bosch’s good taste in jazz with my post on Tomasz Stańko.

The music of sax-player Frank Morgan (1933–­2007) features in several of Connelly’s novels. I’m reminded to pursue his work as I re-read The burning room (2014).

Morgan was yet another devotee of Charlie Parker—following whose death in 1955, and the release of his own first album (below), he too self-destructed, spending much of the next thirty years in prison; in San Quentin he managed to keep playing in the company of fellow-inmates like Art Pepper. [1] But Morgan thrived again after he was freed in 1985.

Sound of redemption

Connelly sings Morgan’s praises in a corner of his website, introducing the documentary The sound of redemption (N.C. Heikin, 2015), “from drug addict, conman, and convict to beloved elder statesman of jazz”. Here’s a trailer:

As Connelly recalls,

At the time I was putting together a character for a book I was writing. The character was a detective who was a loner and liked to listen to and draw inspiration from jazz. The character—I would name him Harry Bosch—had a particular affinity for the saxophone. Its mournful sound, like a human crying out in the night, was what he was drawn to. The detective saw the worst of humanity every day on the job. He found solace every night in the sound of the saxophone. […]

It was a perfect set up because Harry Bosch did more than simply listen to the music. He identified with the musicians. I wanted him to listen to musicians who had overcome the odds to make their music because Harry had overcome great odds himself.

Here’s Morgan’s 1955 album:

Bosch’s anthem, its minimalism reminiscent of Blue in green and Naima, is Lullaby, with pianist George Cables:

Georgia on my mind (see under Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80):

Connelly’s The overlook (2007) opens thus:

The call came in at midnight. Harry Bosch was awake and sitting in his living room in the dark. He liked to think that he was doing this because it allowed him to hear the saxophone better. By masking one the senses he accentuated another.
But deep down he knew the truth. He was waiting.
The call was from Larry Gandle, his supervisor in Homicide Special. It was Bosch’s first call-out in the new job. And it was what he had been waiting for.
“Harry, you up?”
“I’m up.”
“Who’s that you got playing?”
Frank Morgan, live at the Jazz Standard in New York.That’s George Cables you’re hearing now on piano.”
“Sounds like All Blues.”
“You nailed it.”
“Good stuff. I hate to take you away from it.”
Bosch used the remote to turn the music off.
“What’s the call, Lieutenant?”

Here Morgan accompanies readings from the book:

From The Burning room:

On the way back to the PAB he stopped by the Blue Whale to see who was playing and who was coming later in the month, and he was pleasantly surprised to see Grace Kelly on the stage with a four-piece band. Grace was a young saxophonist with a powerful sound. She also sang. Bosch had some of her music on his phone and at times thought she was channelling the late, great Frank Morgan, one of his favourite sax men. But he had never seen her perform live, so he paid the cover, ordered another beer, and sat at the back of the room, his briefcase on the floor between his feet.

He enjoyed the set, particularly the interplay between Grace and her rhythm section. But she closed with a solo and it stabbed deeply into Bosch’s heart. The song was “Somewhere over the rainbow”, and she produced a sound from the horn that no human voice could ever touch. It was plaintive and sad but it came with an undeniable wave of underlying hope. It made Bosch think that there was still a chance for him, that he could still find what he was looking for, no matter how short his time was.

Indeed, here’s the prodigious Kelly, then 15, with Morgan in his final months:

More tracks on this playlist:

 


[1] The list of jazzers who did time in prison is long: see e.g. here, here. For San Quentin, see here; cf. the Lexington Narcotics Farm, and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!. Cf. the fieldwork of the Lomaxes and Bruce Jackson in southern prisons.

Korngold at the Proms

 

Korngold and Walter 1928

A rejected casting for the mirror scene in Duck soup. Allegedly.

Among the highlights of this year’s Proms was John Wilson‘s stimulating programme with the reborn Sinfonia of London (shown on BBC4, on i-Player).

After Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture (a favourite of the incomparable Carlos Kleiber), Francesca Chiejina sang the exquisite Seven early songs (1905–08) of Alban Berg. As a polar opposite of the overture, Wilson continued with Ravel’s disturbing La valse (1920), depicting “a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future”, in the words of Alex Ross.

* * * 

The second half of the Prom featured the Symphony in F sharp (1952) * of Erich Korngold (1897–1957) (note the excellent Michael Haas, on his “Forbidden music” site ; see also websites, here and here; and wiki).

Korngold cartoon

As a prodigy in Vienna, Korngold was praised by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Puccini. Making his name with the opera Die tote Stadt, he was a prominent figure in the lively theatrical scene of the 1920s, going on to collaborate with Max Reinhardt. Having commuted between Vienna and Hollywood since 1934, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938 Korngold realised that it would be impossible for him and his family to continue living in Austria. In the USA his film scores soon came to define the Hollywood sound. As Michael Haas comments,

he found himself mugged by both realities—commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time.

Korngold films

It’s unfortunate that Korngold himself subscribed to the notion that “serious music” could only reside in the symphonic tradition—to which he returned after retiring disillusioned from film in 1947, but still writing in a romantic style that had plummeted from fashion after the war. Even Messiaen‘s Turangalîla (1949), challenging yet sensual, was met with negative reviews; Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître was premiered in 1955. 

So pieces such as Korngold’s Violin concerto (1947) were received patronisingly. Whatever the zeitgeist was, this wasn’t it; much as we all love late romanticism, surely this was too late?! (cf. the ever-later early music).

But Korngold’s reputation has grown in recent years. As Alex Ross comments,

“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value.

Ross gives thoughtful background in Chapter 8 (“Music for all”) of The rest is noise, under “Hollywood music” and “Exile music”. Richard Taruskin is always worth reading too: in The danger of music (§33, “The golden age of kitsch”) he thickens the plot by contrasting Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane with Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf, both from 1927.

Perhaps the weird twin burdens among WAM aficionados of expecting both background knowledge and linear progress can be eased by imagining Korngold’s late works as composed before the war, as if he were a Rachmaninoff or a Zemlinsky. At least, it would be sad not to allow oneself to relish the symphony’s gorgeous slow movement (and in Haas’s post, do listen to Korngold playing the Adagio on the piano—as with Mahler’s piano rolls, one gets a sense of composition, improvisation).

Indeed, since Mahler was already fêted in New York by 1908 (see e.g. here and here), while it may be fruitless to speculate how his style might have evolved had he lived to the era of the 1930s’ talkies (one can hardly imagine that any more could be said after the 9th and 10th symphonies and Der Abschied), it’s intriguing to wonder whether he too would have been seduced by the lure of Hollywood…

As Haas observes, conflicts over modernity and populism were already hotly debated in 1920s’ Berlin and Vienna (cf. What is serious music?!);

The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema, or is it l’art pour l’art—a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely “disposable”? 

So all this makes Korngold’s work grist to John Wilson’s mill. Here’s his 2019 recording of the symphony with the Sinfonia of London:

For audience tastes since the 1970s (again based on Taruskin), see also The right kind of spirituality?.


*  Though it’s often described as “Symphony in F sharp major”, Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll notes that he was particular in casting the work in F sharp, without specifying either major or minor (cf. the story of the prison exam!). Nor should it be confused with F hashtag minor. Anyway, six sharps would be well above the legal limit on Sundays in Pennsylvania. 

China: memory, music, society

GLF

The Great Leap. Source: China Daily!

This year’s CHIME conference (details here), with the broad theme of “Chinese music and memory”, is to be held remotely from Prague in two instalments on 1st–3rd and 8th–10th September.

Among the contributors—from both within and outside China—some will address notation (generally an over-subscribed topic) and early history (a rather safe theme, although currently being subjected to the ideology of the PRC). Also featured are folk-song, the qin zither (another niche scene rarely considered in the light of the social traumas of Maoism), the music of the Cultural Revolution, and the inescapable Intangible Cultural Heritage. More promising are Zhu Chuyi’s “ ‘Mother, I am sorry I was born a girl’: sonic, somatic, and traumatic memories in Tujia bridal laments”, and Liu Chang’s “Dakou cassettes, scar literature, and the memory of a traumatic past” (the latter proposal no longer appearing).

Here I’d like to broaden the topic in ways that may appear to be outside the remit of the conference, gathering together several of my blog posts. But we might start with a reminder of aperçus by two weighty pundits:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

Soundscape is never autonomous: it’s a window on society (see posts under Society and soundscape). Yet by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled necessary commemoration of painful episodes (see e.g. Sachsenhausen), within China acknowledgement and public scrutiny of the crimes of Maoism are notably absent. For references to some fine work, see Cultural Revolutions, including Jing Jun’s The temple of memories and Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts; among much discussion (at least outside China), two works on remembering and forgetting the traumatic past are reviewed here. For the dissimulation and duplicity inculcated in the USSR, see e.g. The whisperers.

grave

Hilltop burial, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

A major theme in people’s lives is suffering—as highlighted by Guo Yuhua in her fine ethnography of a poor Shaanbei hill village Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferers], where she managed to elicit the peasants’ own painful memories of the whole Maoist era.

Particularly harrowing cases are the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap Backward, and the concurrent famines. The horrors of the Jiabiangou labour camp in Gansu have been exposed in long documentaries, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and Ai Xiaoming’s Jiabiangou elegy.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village with its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears.

Within the context of Dead souls the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing for anyone still struggling (despite my best efforts) to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, its labour camps might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. This is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

Like the German and Russian “soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Unfolding along with the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap was the great famine; under the famine tag, I’ve grouped the main posts here, noting Wu Wenguang’s remarkable Memory Project, as well as Ukraine and Kazakhstan (see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Ritual studies too are often perceived as a society-free zone, retreating into early history without reference to modern tribulations. As I showed in my post Ritual studies mildly censored, anxiety over documenting the Maoist past continues. As we submitted a translation of Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family to a Chinese publisher, one sentence proved tricky:

… religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Precisely by modifying it they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly confirmed that it was!

Gaoluo 1989

New Year’s rituals, Gaoluo 1989.

Thus south of Beijing in the ritual association of Gaoluo village by the 1990s, it was easy to air publicly the vocal liturgy and instrumental melodies that young recruits like Cai An had learned on the eve of the Great Leap, and during the brief revival between the famine and the Four Cleanups; but traumatic memories of the campaigns themselves remained unvoiced.

Cui JianEven for the period since the 1980s’ reforms there is plenty of folk memory for the Party-State to repress (see e.g. Tiananmen: bullets and opium). Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic retort to Cui Jian was inadvertently drôle: “What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?” The nuances of the indie scene are explored by Jeroen de Kloet. And in my series on Coronavirus in China, a song by a blind bard made a medium to express support for whistleblower Li Wenliang (cf. the satirical songs of Zhang Gasong).

Left: Tibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959.
Right: Rahilä Dawut.

Tibet makes another flagrant case of coercive amnesia; in this roundup of posts, note e.g. Forbidden memory, Conflicting memories, Eat the Buddha, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet. Song often helps articulate the sense of loss and grievance. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods:

And documenting the past and present of Xinjiang is ever more severely out of bounds (from the Uyghur tag, see e.g. Uyghur culture in crisis, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding “chaos”, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, the USA, all around the world. Elsewhere too we find belated recognition of the sufferings of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the legacy of colonialism and genocide.

All this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond sanitised representations of “Chinese music”, or indeed of Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. However distressing, the stories of suffering—though ever more out of bounds within the PRC—need to be told.

Anyway, FWIW, these are the kinds of thorny issues that come to my mind as I consult the CHIME conference website—do consider taking part!

The handmaid’s tale

I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to watching The Handmaid’s tale. All four seasons are currently available on Channel 4—the final episodes of Season 4 airing, by an ominous turn of fate, just as Afghan women were in dread at the Taliban takeover.

HT cover

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was published in 1985. It concerns the Republic of Gilead, a religious, misogynistic military dictatorship not far in the (then) future that comes to power in a coup overthrowing the US government. The book was widely read; Atwood reflected on her intentions in 2012, before the parallel with Trumpism became inevitable:

In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, “Jolly good yarn”. In the US, however […] it was more likely to be: “How long have we got?” […]

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. 

So Atwood was motivated by the enduring strain of Puritanism in American culture; the three great secular dictatorships of the 20th century; modern theocratic regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan; and the atmosphere of oppression was further inspired by her visits behind the Iron Curtain (see this interview).The story adroitly combines the iniquities of all these systems.

I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.

Even at the “benign” end of Christianity, the insidious submission of women is expressed with typical flair by Patricia Lockwood, reflecting on her relationship with the seminarians who came to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

Atwood describes The handmaid’s tale not as a critique of religion, but as a critique of the use of religion as a “front for tyranny”. The book also has echoes of novels such as Ira Levin, The Stepford wives (1972) and Philip Roth, The plot against America (2004). Another crucial theme is the fertility crisis amidst ecological degradation. As Seth Myers observes, even since the departure of Trump, “the core organising principle of the GOP right now is its fundamental hostility to democracy”.

The TV series
Neither the 1990 film nor the 2000 opera by Poul Ruders went as viral as Bruce Miller’s recent TV series for Hulu. While the far right was always active in the USA, and Atwood’s novel was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right there, the threat still didn’t seem too tangible; the book appeared as a somewhat remote cautionary tale, a mere fantasy.

The first TV season was ordered in 2016, when few believed that Trump could win the presidency. His victory gave it a more immediate, disturbing relevance. If the idea of a draconian far-right state still seemed distant, the series does focus the mind on the attempted coup on 6th January this year, and on gun-toting militas—a serious challenge to liberal complacency, even since the restoration of sanity.

Bible

How to Bible.

The success of the series came at a time of ever-greater focus on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement—amidst misogyny and the anti-feminist backlash, [1] intrusive surveillance, police brutality, and attacks on the media, with states continuing to tighten bans on abortion. The handmaid uniform now “dresses protests across the world”.

Handmaid protest

While most commentators praise the TV series as a suggestive allegory (e.g. here), Cathy Young, even as a feminist, resisted the general mood, perhaps taking the message rather too literally (or assuming that viewers were doing so):

At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely”, “prescient”, and “alarmingly close to home”, despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.

As Young notes, Republicans even flaunt their promotion of jobs for women. Rather, their main targets are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

Race
Opponents of the regime are condemned to forced labour in the Colonies, parts of America contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. In the book we gather that African Americans (the “Children of Ham”) and Asians have been relocated to “National Homelands” in the Midwest to be housed in ghost towns without access to food or water, and Native Americans have been exterminated.

Given the dominant theme of slavery, the shortcomings of the book in covering race have been much discussed (e.g. here). Ana Cottle characterises it as “white feminism”.

The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.

And Catherine Morse observes:

Gilead isn’t a society built on the oppression of women—it’s one built on white supremacy.

Or rather, might one say, the oppression of women is one of the major corollaries of white supremacy.

This review finds that the first series is

more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognise that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.

As Cathy Young comments, the series’ pretensions to current relevance give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women. More dubiously, she claims:

The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonises any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.

The book’s whiteness is hardly rectified in the TV series by including some black characters; in a society based on white supremacy it may even seem incongruous, blurring the issue.

Episodes
The first season is based on the book; the next three series are sequels, developed in consultation with Atwood. The drama remains harrowing and thought-provoking throughout (synopses of the episodes here), with Elisabeth Moss a riveting presence.

The events unfold over several years, with Season 3 apparently taking place in the present. The characters of Commanders, Wives, Handmaids, Guardians, and Eyes are prominent; the role of the Marthas grows in later seasons too.

As in the book, stonings, hangings, maimings, forced criticism and confession sessions contrast with flashbacks to the “normal” life of “the time before”; in the days leading up to the coup, we see all the insidious details that prepare for dictatorship, as women are deprived of all rights. There are constant echoes of all the appalling abuses perpetuated by dictatorships around the world, and the warped loyalties based on the struggle to survive.

HT trio

Aunt Lydia, June, and Serena Joy.

The story is set in Boston; it becomes apparent (realistically?!) that Gilead’s control remains tenuous, as the republic has to cope with various armed uprisings across the territory, notably in Chicago (effectively shown in Season 4). Meanwhile the humane conditions of refugees in exile, anxious for those still trapped in Gilead, play a growing role.

In Season 1, I found the 6th episode particularly telling—the scenes with the Mexican ambassador, and Serena Joy’s backstory (also in 2/6) as advocate of “domestic feminism” (women are not even allowed to read the Bible, let alone Serena’s book A woman’s place) until she meekly accepts her new role. Gilead propaganda is reminiscent of Goebbels and Xinjiang; and when June eventually manages to tell the ambassador the truth, it is to no avail—a foretaste of murky diplomatic waters. Scrabble also plays an unlikely role.

From Season 2 the story begins to go beyond the book. We get to see the Colonies, evoking the Russian and Chinese gulags. In 2/8 Serena’s mask begins to slip, until she is cruelly beaten back into submission—a missed opportunity here to play out with Stand by your man?

With the Gilead soundscape largely devoid of music, the playout and other tracks (for season 4, see here) are well chosen, making a commentary from a sane, remote world—like Oh bondage up yours for the explosive end of 2/6, I only want to be with you in 2/8; Nappy roots’ Good day (a welcome discovery) for 3/1; Che sara sara in 3/8; the Vivaldi Gloria (glorious) for 3/10; I say a little prayer at the opening of 4/1; and for the gory dénouement of the whole series, You don’t own me.

The Season 2 finale is amazing, with Serena increasingly ambivalent, and the attack on Aunt Lydia (whose backstory emerges in 3/8).

In Season 3, as Serena becomes ever less loveable, the resistance comes into focus. 3/6 shows further horrors on a visit to Washington DC, but the season ends on a note of hope.

By Season 4 June has become a fully-fledged resistance leader. After falling once more into the hands of a vengeful Aunt Lydia, she finally reaches the safety of Canada. Even here the drama never lets up; survivors are still in anguish as they confront their trauma, and Fred and Serena, now to be brought before the International Criminal Court, desperately try to minimise their punishment. The resolution in the finale is not quite one that politicians envisage.

* * *

In 2019 Margaret Atwood published a compelling sequel, The testaments (reviewed e.g. by Anne Enright and Julie Myerson). Just when we thought we knew enough about Gilead, it provides a wealth of new material. Set around fifteen years after the events in the book, and not directly reflected in the TV series, it’s narrated by two young women brought up in the contrasting environments of Gilead and Canada, who turn out to be connected; Aunt Lydia, hitherto an archetypal Nazi female camp guard, also gives a most surprising account of her story.

Testaments

Both books end with appendices consisting of notes from the Symposium on Gileadian Studies in 2195 and 2197 respectively. Both are quasi-scholarly discussions of the authenticity of the material presented: the first, the tapes on which The Handmaid’s tale is based, the second, the three written testimonies. So academic conferences have survived, then, like cockroaches.

The whole story reminds me of Neil McGregor’s question about Nazi Germany: “What would we have done?”

The TV drama remains gripping throughout. While the whole plot hinges on the fertility crisis, sometimes I wonder if the series may portray not only the oppressors but the oppressed as sanctifying motherhood, albeit for contrasting reasons. The tiny acts of resistance are meant to inspire; instead, the only consolation is that the viewer is not in this hell. Even so, among us right now are plenty of refugees from similar regimes for whom such traumas will be distressingly familiar. The story serves both to mourn the victims of past dictatorships and to warn against future or latent ones. Neither liberal democracy nor women’s rights can be taken for granted.


[1] On wiki, see e.g.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Domesticity
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_Going_Their_Own_Way
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_conservatism_in_the_United_States

The ethereal theremin

Theremin 1927

Theremin demonstrating his instrument, 1927.

By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.

Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:

Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.

Theremin and Clara

With Clara Rockmore.

Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.

With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.

In 1962 Clara took her husband for a holiday visit to her homeland, and on their visit to Moscow they managed to arrange a clandestine meeting with Theremin at his flat in Moscow. But outside Russia no-one knew if he was still alive until 1967, when Harold Schonberg published an article in the NYT about visiting him at the Conservatoire. This exposure brought his work to the attention of the Director, who declared that “electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution“; his instruments were thrown out, and he was dismissed.

When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.

* * *

For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…

For the American episode, Michaels musters an all-star cast, including Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, Joseph Schillinger, the Marx brothers, Glenn Miller, Nicolas Slonimsky, and George Gershwin. He captures the magic of Clara’s presence:

You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.

You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.

With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.

* * *

Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.

Clara

Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:

Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:

And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:

A current star of the theremin is Carolina Eyck. Her YouTube channel includes Moon river:

For Bach, see also under The Feuchtwang Variations (Grégoire Blancwebsite and YouTube channel), and Strings and voices (Gladys Hulot (aka hYrtis), website and YouTube channel; here she also plays Only you). Suitably, both players double on the musical saw—here Blanc plays them together:

Messiaen was much taken by the ondes martenot, but some of his works adapt well to the theremin too:

And the cello movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps works wonderfully with the winning combo of theremin and accordion:

Now I’m imagining the theremin in dhrupad or Tibetan opera

Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin!!!

Tintin lamas

Despite our best intentions, Hergé’s Tintin books and TV animations remain compelling, both in the West and in the cultures in which he dabbled from afar (see also wiki). The sonorous declamation “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!!!” in the 1950s’ cartoons is still highly nostalgic for early generations of naïve youth like me—who would have been unaware how we were being indoctrinated by “racial stereotypes, animal cruelty, colonialism, violence, and even fascist leanings, including ethnocentric, caricatured portrayals of non-Europeans”.

Hergé developed the series as illustrator at Le vingtième siècle, “a staunchly Roman Catholic, conservative Belgian newspaper based in Brussels, describing itself as a “Catholic Newspaper for Doctrine and Information” and disseminating a far-right, fascist viewpoint.

His first story Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929–30) was followed by Tintin in the Congo, written “in a paternalistic style that depicted the Congolese as childlike idiots”. His fictional creation of Syldavia long predates Molvania. After the war Hergé somewhat distanced himself from such racist, paternalistic messages. The first English translations appeared in 1951, and the TV cartoons became popular.

By 2007, the UK Commission for Racial Equality called for Tintin in the Congo to be pulled from shelves, stating: “It beggars belief that in this day and age that any shop would think it acceptable to sell and display [it]” (cf. this Channel 4 report). Still, in Belgium the Centre for Equal Opportunities warned against “over-reaction and hyper political correctness”; and Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, stated that “Tintin was the comic strip that was the most respectful of world cultures”—admittedly a low bar. A thriving discipline of Tintinology emerged, as well as parodies.

* * *

Tintin: So you see, my dear Chang, that’s how many Europeans see China!
Chang: Oh! How funny the people of your country are!

Shanghai Tintin

The Blue Lotus (1934–35; see also wiki), set in Shanghai, was inspired by Hergé’s friendship with the Chinese artist Zhang Chongren, then a student in Brussels.

with Zhang

In the story Zhang appears in the form of Chang Chong-chen, who relieves Tintin of his preconceptions.

Tintin China images

In China, pocket editions of the Tintin books were pirated from the 1980s, giving him the pleasingly economical name of Dingding 丁丁. A recent Sixth Tone article explores the reputation of The Blue Lotus there. As Alex Colville comments there, “without Zhang’s humanising influence, it is easy to imagine The Blue Lotus simply becoming a tale of Tintin foiling a group of pigtailed Chinese opium dealers.” The story scored points for its anti-Japanese stance; and moving away from imperialist stereotypes, Tintin defends the Chinese not only from Japanese aggressors but bullying Western businessmen.

Zhang Chongren returned to China in 1936. Rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, he met up again with Hergé in 1981 in France, where he ended his days.

Here’s a 1992 animation of The Blue Lotus:

* * *

Tintin Tibet coverThe character of Chang also features in Tintin in Tibet (1958–59, sic) (wiki; note also Séagh Kehoe here). By this time Hergé was doing more research; the story was based on his readings of works such as Fosco Maraini’s Secret Tibet, Heinrich Harrer’s Seven years in Tibet, Tsewang Pemba’s Tibet my homeland, discredited author Lobsang Rampa’s The third eye, and the books of Alexandra David-Néel.

For Hergé, Tibet might seem a Can of Worms, yet another potential candidate for the Duke of Edinburgh Gaffe of the Year award—but instead in 2006 the Dalai Lama bestowed the Light of Truth award on the book. A Chinese edition under the sneaky title Tintin in Chinese Tibet had already been retracted in 2001 after protests by the publishers and the Hergé Foundation. YAY!

Tintin lama

Sidestepping politics, there are no baddies here; it’s been seen as a story of friendship, a spiritual quest. Here’s the 1992 animation:

For all their flaws, these works may have enticed many young minds like mine to China and Tibet. Apart from innocent childish pursuits, the whole series must have inspired more anthropologists than crypto-fascists.

Undreamed shores

Undreamed shores cover

I much admired

  • Frances Larson, Undreamed shores: the hidden heroines of British anthropology (2021).

It’s just as engaging as Charles King’s book on the Boas circle in the USA, bringing to life the struggles of the unsung early generations of enterprising women intrepidly setting forth from Oxford in the early 20th century.

Writing from her own self-confessed armchair there, Larson opens by noting that by our time anthropology has no longer been limited to the study of distant shores:

One of my contemporaries decided to study local church bell-ringers; another explored the world of online video-gaming communities from the comfort of the college computer room; and I travelled into the past.

That given, she shows a remarkable empathy for the five female explorers who are the subject of her book.

Oxford was far ahead of Cambridge or the LSE in training female anthropologists. Yet before World War One, women at the university

were almost entirely invisible, frequently disdained, and usually inconsequential to the men they studied alongside. […]

Fieldwork offered these women a temporary relief from the strictures of English society, or at least it offered a new context—a new place, a new culture—in which to negotiate their own identity. […]

Larson 134

They went from the periphery into the unknown, and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again. Instead, on their return, they fought for recognition in a university system ruled by men, and their professional aspirations strained their personal relationships.

Larson highlights the gender imbalance in funding; by contrast with the hoops through which the women seeking support had to jump, their male counterparts

were simply given a cheque and sent off on their travels in eager anticipation of the treasures they would undoubtedly find. They enjoyed a far freer rein and did not have to concern themselves with any references, résumés, or research plans.

And unlike the women, the men could confidently look forward to a permanent university position as reward for their explorations in the field. For all that, Larson gives due credit to the male patrons who encouraged their students—just as the movement for female suffrage was taking hold.

Katherine Routledge and the Kikuyu
Larson begins with Katherine Routledge (1866–1935) and her 1906 journey to British East Africa. It was already a bold step for her to escape the “dreary domesticity” of an affluent provincial life in Darlington by applying to read History at Oxford university in her mid-twenties.

Educating women was considered radical, subversive, even dangerous, by the many in middle-class England who thought that it risked undermining women’s true calling as wives and mothers. An education, it was argued, would render them either unwilling or unfit for their domestic duties. It might damage their feminine constitutions, which were too frail and too too irrational for the rigours of academic study. […]

To get around these prejudices, the first women’s colleges at Oxford were presented as harmless finishing schools.

After university Routledge spent a few unhappy years teaching at Darlington Training College before moving to London, where she became involved with the South African Colonisation Society. In 1905, after a trip to South Africa, she met William Scoresby, a “colonial drifter”, in London. In British East Africa, at the frontier outpost of Nyeri (a six-day trek from Nairobi), he had already begun to document the Kikuyu people—who “matched the anthropologist’s ideal of a ‘primitive culture’ perfectly”. After marrying in 1906 they resolved to make their home there. Though they were untrained, it was still unusual for anthropologists to spend a year in the field.

But by the time they returned to London in 1908, their relationship was suffering. Their book on the Kikuyu was published in 1910, with their individual contributions carefully noted. As she observed, “there is work which, if it is to be done properly, must be done by a woman”. And in a similar vein to her counterparts in the USA, she “revelled in the opportunity to disrupt British middle-class assumptions” about gender relationships.

This led to an invitation for Katherine to enrol for Oxford’s recently-established diploma in anthropology, headed by Robert Marett. She was among four women and nine men who took the course in 1911. Women were less likely than men to be concerned about their future earning potential, and anthropology was an “intrinsically egalitarian subject”.

Maria Czaplicka
Among the new students was Maria Czaplicka (1884–1921). From a poor background, with Warsaw dominated by Russian culture, in order to gain a Polish education she had attended the Flying University, an illegal underground organisation. By 1910, in her late twenties, she won a scholarship from the Mianowski Fund to come to England.

She first attended seminars at the LSE, where Bronislaw Malinowski was her fellow student. With no family outside Poland, Czaplicka soon took to Oxford life, despite the considerable effort that went into making women invisible there: after the more relaxed social life of London, she found the “sex apartheid” strange. Vera Brittain, who arrived at Somerville in 1914, wrote that Oxford was “deeply attached to its standards of scholarship and totally indifferent to ugliness and dowdiness” (and do read her Testament of youth).

As well as taking tutorials with Marett, the new intake attended lectures by Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and Arthur Thompson, professor of human anatomy.

Barbara Freire-Marreco and New Mexico
In 1911, for the first time, a woman gave a series of lectures for the anthropology students. Barbara Freire-Marreco (1879–1967) came from an affluent background in Woking; after studying Classics, she had taken the anthropology diploma in 1908. As she observed, there was a dangerous division of labour between “literary anthropologists” and amateur observers abroad: half the people had no first-hand experience and the other half had no training.

In 1910 Freire-Marreco had already spent eight months doing fieldwork in New Mexico, joining a camp run by the American School of Archaeology near the Rio Grande. At first she struggled

to find a suitably “savage” people to study: some were not savage enough, others were too savage, and none were particularly willing to talk.

As she learned the Tewa language, she made a base at the pueblo of Santa Clara. But

they were not about to open their hearts to an Englishwoman simply because she asked politely.

These settlements had long suffered from colonial intrusion, beset by the usurpation of their land, disease, the influx of settlers, the railroad, and assimilationist policies (see under Native American cultures).

Even as Native American culture was under assault, some settlers were engaging in a nostalgic search for the “old New Mexico”. The brief of team leader Edgar Hewett illustrated the irony:

His genuine academic interest and his desire to share information about pueblo culture also threatened to debase it. Pueblo people knew, from long and painful experience, that the only way to protect their beliefs was to keep them secret.

In leafy Woking, Freire-Marreco’s family had employed a cook, a parlourmaid, and a housemaid; in Santa Clara she now learned the pleasures of fending for herself. Still, she

did not expect her work to be so slow, or so circuitous, and she quickly experienced the fear that every anthropologists feels in the field: that she would have nothing to show for her time abroad. All the lofty theories that she had read at Oxford, about collective psychology and comparative religion and the history of political institutions, seemed reduced to nothing in this world of housework and preserving fruit. But she knew that doing things with people, and sharing their everyday lives, although slow as a research technique, was more reliable than simply asking people to describe themselves.

Larson 48

Noting the role of the paid “informant”, Larson describes the ambivalent help that Freire-Marreco received from Santiago Narenjo, a prominent local activist. He kept hidden from her the rituals that had gone underground under long-term Christian missionising; but then her casual mention of a green parrot to one of the villagers opened up a seam of enquiry. Parrot feathers were essential to the religious dances of Santa Clara, but in short supply. Freire-Marreco now sent a flurry of letters to her contacts in the USA and England requesting parrot feathers.

Describing English life to her hosts, she found herself the object of anthropological enquiry:

She knew that the limited understanding her new friends had of fox hunting, from her inadequate explanations and their unfamiliar reference points, was hardly more reliable than her understanding of their complex cultural traditions.

Much as she enjoyed the whole experience, it gave her a suitable diffidence.

Maria Czaplicka in Siberia
Larson now turns to Maria Czaplicka’s extraordinary Siberian expedition in 1914–15. Having written unsuccessfully to the Smithsonian for a job there, she was engaged by Marett on a project to work on the ethnography of Siberia, with financial help from Emily Penrose at Somerville. First, Czaplicka could interpret the plentiful Russian research on the topic; having published a preparatory survey of this literature, she was ready to gain first-hand experience.

After the usual lengthy search for further funding, she now chose to live among the nomadic reindeer herders of north-central Siberia, working with the American Henry Hall, who had also studied at the LSE; on the first leg of the journey they were also accompanied by ornithologist Maud Haviland and illustrator Dora Curtis. Via Moscow, they took a five-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway (completed in 1904) to Krasnoyarsk, and then embarked on a three-week voyage by steamboat north on the Yenisei river.

Larson 67

Travelling by sledge between chum family tents in this desolate landscape, they faced daunting hardships. The indigenous Evenks found Czaplicka most perplexing:

She carried so much paper around with her and yet she seemed to know so little about the workings of the world: she could not even get the marrow out of a reindeer bone to eat. Why did she ask so many questions and why did she travel in such dreadful weather, when all sensible people stayed safe inside their chum?

Again, she found herself the object of the locals’ anthropological enquiries.

In letters that reached them after several months, they learned of the imminent outbreak of war. Czaplicka was particularly anxious for her family in Poland. As she described in her book My Siberian year (1916), along the way she also met political exiles from Russia and Poland, including both professionals and “gamblers, drunkards, thieves, and degenerates”. She joked about her own “voluntary exile”. But

Siberia had a strange levelling effect on its population: gentlemen, savants, and criminals all became “peasants”.

By June 1915 they were back in the “relative metropolis” of Krasnoyarsk, collecting artefacts in the surrounding region. In July they set off for England by way of Moscow.

Katherine Routledge on Easter Island
Meanwhile Katherine Routledge and William Scoresby had embarked on a voyage to Easter Island in 1913; arriving more than a year later, they stayed until 1915. Routledge’s time there was far from the liberation that Czaplicka had experienced. The claustrophobic year-long voyage put their marriage under further strain; and they soon found that Easter Island (annexed by Chile in 1888) was no tropical paradise.

Greeted by Percy Edmunds, the English manager of the only farm Mataveri, they soon learned of the island’s troubled past: shipwrecks, persecution, uprisings, and disease.

The history of the island’s extraordinary giant stone statues had already been the subject of speculation. Routledge and Scoresby undertook a survey of the architectural heritage—while following in the tradition of plundering it. Routledge worked closely with Juan Tepano, a foreman at Mataveri, exploring oral accounts of the island’s culture.

Larson 100

But the population was still troubled, and discontent was brewing. As the female prophet Angata instigated raids on the farm, violence threatened to escalate. The explorers pinned their hopes on the arrival of the Chilean navy; but when they eventually reached the island, rather than punishing the locals they mollified them.

The crisis somehow averted, Katherine continued her survey over the following months—still wishing that the natives would be “better behaved” (cf. this comment on a young “living Buddha” in Qinghai). Leaving the island in August 1915, she reached Liverpool in February 1916.

Back in Oxford, Larson describes the city during the war. Somerville had now become a military hospital. With most able-bodied men having joined the military, women were running the city in unprecedented numbers, in shops, schools, banks, businesses, factories, agriculture, and relief work.

After her return from Siberia, Maria Czaplicka was given a full-time position as lecturer at the University Museum. She found time to provide for the War Trade Intelligence Department, and with Poland occupied by the Russians, she lectured in support of Polish nationalism. She took gladly to farm work.

Winifred Blackman and Egypt
Another woman who took the Oxford diploma was Winifred Blackman (1872–1950). Without formal education, and already in her forties, she studied while volunteering at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Her older brother was an Egyptologist, and she too gravitated towards the region.

Only in 1920, aged 48, did she take the opportunity to visit the country, but thereafter she spent at least six months living there every year for the next twenty years. Her interests soon evolved from archaeology to ethnography. As her Arabic improved, her informant Hideyb Abd el-Shafy began introducing her to the local customs of Upper Egypt, though in 1923 he was murdered by “young roughs” in a mysterious incident.

Larson 147

Egypt was volatile, with anti-British feeling running high, and blood-feuds common. But Winifred found herself in demand as a healer, and she felt more valued there than in England. Again, funding was a constant concern.

It was a far cry from sewing cushions for the church bazaar or attending lectures at the museum.

With All Due Respect, even now I find it hard to imagine an uneducated 48-year-old, female or male, embarking on a career as ethnographer of a remote society.

Larson now returns to Barbara Freire-Marreco, with her marriage at Woking in 1920—part of her gradual withdrawal from academic life. In 1912, declining an offer to do fieldwork on the Navajo, already a popular topic, she had preferred to deepen her studies of the Tewa, staying for four months with the Hano people on the plateau of the High Mesa in Arizona. Their culture varied in interesting ways from that of the people of Santa Clara whom she had studied in 1910. Again she found it hard to gain their trust, and again her relationship with her informant Leslie Agoyo prompted resentment. She paid a brief return visit to Santa Clara.

With the pull of her English family ties, she now declined an offer of a post at the American School of Archaeology for the third time. Her war work then put such thoughts aside. Another job offer from the USA came in 1919, but her marriage in 1920 spelled an end to her academic career.

The sad end of Maria Czaplicka
Maria Czaplicka had followed up her research on Siberia with a book on the Turks of Central Asia (1918). But after the war, funding was no longer available for her to keep her post at Oxford; she wrote unsuccessfully to Franz Boas at Columbia in search of work there. As she sought funding to make a return trip to Siberia, she made a three-month lecture tour of the States in 1919–20. Then, after a visit home to troubled Warsaw, she took up a post as lecturer at Bristol University. Though sad to leave Oxford, she seemed “cheerful and gay”. But in 1921, learning that her fieldwork application had been rejected, she committed suicide, still only 36 years old.

The following year her fellow-student Malinowski published his seminal (sicArgonauts of the Western Pacific.

There are poignant parallels in the lives of Czaplicka and Malinowski. Both Polish, they arrived in England in the same year to study anthropology at the LSE, and both went on to spend the war working in the field. While Czaplicka was strapping herself into a sledge in the Arctic in late 1914, Malinowski was pitching his tent on a tropical island in the Pacific. After the war, as her research gradually faded from memory, Malinowski not only became synonymous with Pacific anthropology, he put Pacific anthropology at the very heart of the discipline.

As Larson observes, Malinowski was not alone in his study of the Pacific; Gerald Wheeler, Diamond Jenness, Gunnar Landtmann, and Arthur Hocart had all done substantial work there. By this time a trend was emerging in anthropology for accounts of a single location; and ethnography was gaining ground over the mere collection of artefacts for museums.

Beatrice Blackwood and New Guinea
Beatrice Blackwood (1889–1975) had studied English at Somerville before the war, and became a student of Maria Czaplicka, whose Siberian field notes she helped organise. After the war she continued to work in Oxford, and in 1924 she spent a period doing fieldwork in the States.

In 1929, aged 40, en route for the Solomon Islands, she stopped off in Sydney to meet the lively young anthropologists who were then in town, including Margaret Mead (whom she found arrogant and patronising), Reo Fortune, and Raymond Firth—all watched over by the senior Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown.

Reaching Rabaul in New Guinea, Blackwood consulted the government anthropologist Ernest Chinnery, who guided her search for a suitably safe field-site.

First she visited the American anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker in Lesu, a village of neighbouring New Ireland. She then moved on to Chinnery’s choice of Buka in the Solomon Islands.

Blackwood felt huge pressure to succeed in Melanesia, and often doubted herself. “Did he ever darn his stockings?” she once asked in good-humoured exasperation while pondering Malinowski’s masterpiece. Needles and thread did not make it into academic monographs, and neither did feelings of depression and inadequacy, or government officials and missionaries, or the myriad ways in which anthropologists, and the people they studied, depended on the colonial infrastructure. There was no truly untouched community where an anthropologist could safely work, nor was there a completely coherent, self-contained story to be told that revealed the timeless essence of a society.

Of course, such insights would later become an essential aspect of anthropology—among much discussion, see e.g. Barz and Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field. And since the publication of Malinowski’s diary, his own methods have been much scrutinised.

Like Routledge on Easter Island, Blackwood soon saw through the idyllic appearance of the coral islet of Petats. The Methodist mission there seemed to have effectively destroyed local traditions. After two months there, resenting Chinnery’s choice, she moved on to the village of Kurtachi on Bouganville Island. There the Catholic mission teacher seemed “harmless”, and the locals were more forthcoming.

Chinnery was acting on deep-seated fears about women working alone in New Guinea, which were largely unfounded. The indigenous population was seen as innately inferior, and the menfolk were assumed to present a sexual threat to expatriate women. But Blackwood gave short shrift to such paranoia.

She began the long journey home in October 1930. Expressing another common sentiment of the fieldworker, she wrote to Arthur Thompson in Oxford,

You will ask my lots of questions I can’t answer and I shall wish I could go back again and find out.

After publishing her book Both sides of Buka passage in 1935, Blackwood returned to New Guinea the following year. Again overruling Chinnery’s counsel, she made a base among the Anga people in the mountainous jungle of the interior. They had indeed attacked several colonists in recent years, and inter-tribal warfare was common. The site she eventually settled on was something of a compromise. On reaching the village of Manki she was disappointed by the government and missionary presence: it seemed less “primitive” than she had hoped—yet another reminder that “it’s always too late”. Blackwood’s work

would always be limited by an insurmountable and eternally frustrating problem: forbidden from living in the uncontrolled areas, beyond the reach of the government administration, she was forced to work with people whose culture had been affected by contact with colonial settlers.

Of course, such acculturation was later to be a given, even a stimulus for research.

Larson 249

Blackwood found it hard to gain access to the deeper levels of their cultural life. In October she wrote

Nothing especially interesting has happened during the three months that I have been here.

A kitten called Sally, a gift at the aerodrome on her way to Manki, made a useful go-between.

In December she moved to Andarora, which more closely resembled the “Stone Age culture” she was seeking. But her presence caused tensions.

Anga aggression was the only aspect of their culture that outsiders experienced. They became known as violent, without anyone properly understanding the way violence was valued in their communities or how it shaped individuals’ identities.

They never fought while she was there, perhaps out of fear of government reprisals.

Blackwood left New Guinea in August 1937, returning to New Britain to collect artefacts for Balfour in Oxford. Though her enquiring spirit was undimmed, her constant struggles to gain permission to stay in forbidden areas sapped her energy.

She reached home early in 1938. Apart from the large collection of artefacts that she had dutifully collected for the museum, she also brought back reels of 16mm cine film. Some of this silent footage is here:

and here’s Part One of a 2011 documentary by Alison Kahn:

By 1938 Blackwood was almost fifty years old. The artefacts of the Pitt Rivers Museum where she resumed her work were in ever greater need of cataloguing. Having worked there through the war, many of her seniors died over the following years; but she re-established contact with Barbara Freire-Marecco, who was still engaged with anthropological news despite her comfortable domestic life in Hampshire. Blackwood’s work was recognised; she still dreamed of returning to New Guinea. Even after retiring in 1959, having already worked at the museum for four decades, she continued to come in there until shortly before her death in 1975.

The fate of Katherine Routledge
After returning from Easter Island to considerable acclaim in 1916, Katherine Routledge and William Scoresby took some time writing up their notes for a book. With the origins of the island’s culture still enigmatic, they were keen to visit other islands in the region for further clues. In 1920 they set off again, reaching Mangareva in the Gambler Islands in 1921, where they stayed for fourteen months.

In 1924, back in London, Katherine bought a large mansion in Hyde Park Gardens with her inherited wealth. Always abrasive, she became ever more unpredictable and delusional. In 1927 she threw her husband out of the house and changed the locks. They now became locked in a squalid battle over the house, and over her mental health.

Katherine dismissed her servants, boarded up the ground-floor windows and locked herself inside. She gave lucid interviews to journalists, bemoaning the disadvantaged legal status of women. In January 1929 she was taken away to Ticehurst House Hospital in Sussex, a private mental institution for the wealthy. Though relatively comfortable, it was a prison for her. She died there of a cerebral thrombosis in 1935.

The last days of Winifred Blackman
Winifred Blackman had continued scraping funds together for her annual stays in Upper Egypt. But after her 1927 book she only published two short papers. Even when funding finally dried up she managed to keep living in Cairo until the outbreak of World War Two. In 1940–41, in her late sixties, she endured the Liverpool Blitz. With the family home destroyed, along with the collections of Egyptian artefacts that she and her brother had collected, they moved to north Wales. But in 1950, soon after losing her sister Elsie, Winifred, suffering from dementia, was taken to the Denbigh Asylum, where she died in December.

* * *

In the final chapter Larson reminds us of the culture shock these women experienced on returning to the placid life of England. While fieldwork was extremely challenging, for the men it was more of an intellectual investment in a secure future; for the women, it offered elusive hopes of liberation from the constraints of their lives in England. 

To become anthropologists, they had to resist powerful social forces that pressed domesticity on them at every turn; the parents who wished they would stay at home or marry; the friends who quietly disapproved of women earning their own living; the professionals who objected to female anthropologists because, as one senior colleague put it, “there are things a woman ought not to know”.

Freire-Marecco observed that her time in Santa Clara had given her “scope to live and be a real person”—part of which had to be abandoned on her return.

All this enterprise took its toll. Their mental health suffered. Czaplicka killed herself at the age of 36; Routledge and Blackman ended their lives in mental hospitals. Czaplicka, Blackman, and Blackwood never married; the price of Freire-Marreco’s genteel English life after marriage was to abandon her career.

And their pioneering work remained uncelebrated; as the multidisciplinary ethos of the early 20th century became outmoded, they were largely overlooked by the later generation of anthropologists. [1]

In her vivid narration of the stories of these admirable women, Frances Larson has a great gift for encapsulating many of the major issues in anthropology and gender.

 


[1] Among much discussion of various points about fieldwork highlighted here, Nigel Barley drôlely expresses the conflict between theory and field experience; the benefits of our own flounderings in the field for interpreting the reports of others; and he outlines “veranda anthropology” under the fine heading Honi soit qui Malinowski.

On a jocular note, among my roundup of posts on The English, home and abroad is Roni Ancona‘s wry take on intrepid female explorers.

Franca Rame: The same old story

Rame cover

In 1982 I was fortunate to hear the great Franca Rame (1929–­2013) in London performing her Female parts: one-woman plays (1977, co-written with Dario Fo).

Waking up
A woman alone
The same old story
Medea

The stories, satirising the chains of Church, State, and machismo, are based on her Tutto casa, letto e chiesa; here’s the first part of her virtuosic 1977 live performance in Milan—using the clichéd image of femininity to further confuse her Italian audience:

And here she performs Waking up (Il risveglio) for TV that year:

The same old story, with its foul-mouthed dolly (translated by Ed Emery here; and in Stuart Hood’s booklet for the 1982 London performances), is particularly fine. She may be a tough act to follow, but here’s Jennifer Long performing the concluding doll story in English:

So anyway, once upon a time there was a lovely little girl who had a lovely little dolly. Well, actually, the dolly wasn’t lovely at all… she was all dirty and tatty and made of rags, and she used to say terrible swear words, which the little girl learned and went round repeating.

One day her mummy asked her: “But who on earth taught you those horrible swear words?” “My dolly,” said the little girl. “Ooh, you liar! You’ve been hanging round with those horrible boys.”

“No, mummy, really, it’s my dolly. Come on, dolly, say a few swear words for mummy!”

And the dolly, who always did everything the little girl asked her to do, because she loved her so much, came out with a whole string of terrible words: “Porca puttana! Stronzo! Mi piaci un casino! Culo!” [She chants, like a slogan] “Cu-lo, cu-lo, cu-lo!” […]

“Excuse me, gnomey,” she said, “have you seen a big ginger cat with a rag dolly in his mouth, who swears all the time?”

“Er, there he is, there,” says the gnome, waving with his willy, and splosh, he squirts out a big stream of widdle, which lands right on the ginger cat, which promptly falls down dead. Because, as we know, gnomes’ widdle is terribly poisonous for cats! […]

The dénouement makes the message clear:

And the grown-up little girl takes her dolly and hugs her closely closely to her, and gradually, gradually, the little dolly disappears, right into her heart.

And now the grown-up little girl is out there all on her own, on a long, long road… She walks and walks, and she comes to a big tree. And underneath that tree there are lots of other grown-up little girls just like herself, and they make her ever so welcome, and they say: “Sit down here… with us… We’re all telling our own stories. Why don’t you start…” they say to a fair-haired girl sitting there. And the girl begins: “When I was a little girl I had a rag doll who used to say terrible swear-words…”

“Me too!”
“Me too!”
“Me too!”

And all the girls burst out laughing. And one of them says: “Well, who would ever have imagined it: Your story… my story… We’ve all got the same story…!”

You can admire more of Franca Rame’s own performances on her YouTube channel, such as her version of Mistero buffo, debunking Catholicism (Dario Fo’s full version is here, with English translation here; cf. Patricia Lockwood).

The course of feminism is not always smooth.

Carlos Kleiber

Kleiber

The conducting of Carlos Kleiber (1930–2004) was, and is, revered. The film of his astounding Brahms 2 (1991) is tucked away in my post Conducting from memory, where I have hardly managed to expand the global audience it so deserves.  The YouTube link comes and goes, but you can find it

*here!*

Be spellbound by the coda of the 1st movement (from 12.52), with the horn solo introducing the violins playing high on the G string… and then the slow movement!!!

* * *

In Norman Lebrecht’s The maestro myth, Carlos Kleiber and his father Erich appear in the chapter “The mavericks”, along with Horenstein, Celibidache, and Tennstedt. See also e.g. Declan Kennedy on “the Kleiber myth”, referring to Carolyn Watson’s thesis, and Tom Service’s tribute.

Reclusive and mercurial, Kleiber shunned the press, and was averse to recording. Even in the rather few concerts that he took on, he often seemed to be more presiding than conducting—trusting in the musicians.

Kleiber parts

Kleiber’s use of free bowing for his 1991 Brahms 2 was unusual; generally he carefully prepared the orchestral parts in advance. From film I am lost to the world (see below), from 34.42.

However, whereas Rozhdestvensky was minimalist both in both gesture and rehearsal, I was bemused to learn that Kleiber’s apparent spontaneity on the platform was the result of fastidious preparation (see viola part above) and an inordinate amount of rehearsal. Even with continental orchestras already used to far more rehearsals than their British counterparts, he demanded up to five times more than other maestros—and for a repertoire that the musicians already knew well, to boot; [1] you’d think the band would be able to perform from memory too (cf. my note on Celibidache). Anyway, this rather explains Kleiber’s economy of gesture on stage; his micro-management in rehearsal gave him freedom in performance. As he declared,

With a good technique, you can forget technique.

Indeed, Kleiber claimed to dislike conducting. “I only conduct when I am hungry”; “I want to grow in a garden, sit in the sun, eat, drink, sleep, make love, and that’s it.” Still, he could play the prima donna.

We’re fortunate to have several films of his performances; all the petty detail of rehearsal is forgiven when we see him in concert.

Tristan at Bayreuth, c1974–76:

While Kleiber’s main projects were in the opera house (La Traviata, Rosenkavalier, Wozzeckand so on), his orchestral concerts were also sensational.

Temporarily absent from YouTube is his 1991 performance of Mozart’s Linz symphony with the Vienna Phil (this is definitely no time for me to go all Early Music on you; and for the orchestra’s resistance to gender equality, see note here).

Beethoven 7 [2] with the Concertgebouw (1983):

Just as gorgeous as Kleiber’s Brahms 2 is his Brahms 4, which he recorded several times. Here’s a live performance with the Bayerische Staatsorchester in 1996—a rare occasion when he had a score in front of him, but don’t worry, it’s merely ornamental. Currently it appears on YouTube in instalments—here’s the opening:

(3.33 milking mice again!)—a crafty link: Die Fledermaus overture (a piece not to be sniffed at) from 1970, in rehearsal and (from 36.15) performance:

And here, split-screen shows how Kleiber conducted performances of the overture in 1986 and 1989—his different gestures deriving largely from the greater familiarity of the Vienna orchestra (on the right) with the piece:

From Johann to Richard Strauss—an audio recording of a live 1993 performance of Ein Heldenleben with the Vienna Phil: [3]

Finally, two impressive documentaries: Traces to nowhere (Erich Schulz, 2010; watch here), and I am lost to the world (Georg Wübbolt, 2011—the title referring to Mahler’s song).

See also The art of conducting: a roundup.

 


[1] I guess someone must have researched the history of rehearsal in WAM; certainly Bach’s musicians were used to performing unfamiliar music every week with a minimum of preparation, but it’d be interesting to learn the timeline for expanding rehearsal times, and budgets, over the 20th century (and how British orchestras rarely afforded them).

[2] Wagner’s description of the symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance” is irritatingly famous, his authority presumably resting on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene; for a different kind of transcendence, try Moroccan ahouach, or Northern soul (cf. What is serious music?!).

[3] Strauss completed Ein Heldenleben in 1898—between Mahler’s 3rd and 4th symphonies. Dedicated to Willem Mengelberg (whose own 1928 recording is here; we can even hear Strauss himself conducting it in 1944), it continues to divide opinion. Perhaps Strauss rather shot himself in the foot by providing such an explicit programme: had he merely presented the work as an abstract symphonic poem with the usual contrasts of yin and yang (actually not value-free, as Susan McClary stresses!), it might have been free of the taint of master-race ideology—if not of this kind of criticism (another of the scurrilous reviews assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky):

The composer indulges in self-glorification of the most barefaced kind… The Hero’s antagonists are described by him with the utmost scorn as a lot of pygmies and snarling, yelping, bowwowing nincompoops… The climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant, and erratic, the most perverse music I ever heard in all my life, is reached in the chapter “The Hero’s Battlefield”. The man who wrote this outrageously hideous music, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy. (Otto Floersheim, Musical Courier 1899).

Later pundits—if not musicians and audiences—have generally concurred: Norman Lebrecht considers Heldenleben “tacky in every way, a blob of sensationalist Nietschean philosophy bound together with orchestral virtuosity and no nutritional substance”. No pleasing some people… Don’t let all this quibbling deafen you to the transcendent final movement! See also under Melody: the major 7th leap.
For more on Richard Strauss, see Metamorphosen.

Clair de lune

Debussy salon

Like many classic “lollipops” (such as the “Air on the G string“), Debussy’s Clair de lune (1905, from the Suite bergamesque) is such an ubiquitous media soundbite that I’ve always tended to switch off after the first phrase—like meeting a beautiful person with the word “CLICHÉ” scrawled in lipstick on their forehead. Nor is it helped by the sentimental renditions of glossy superstars. But at long last, overcoming my reluctance, I am properly immersing myself in its magic.

It was inspired by the poem of Paul Verlaine:

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune.

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

Here’s the first of Debussy’s two vocal settings, from 1882:

As to the piano piece (composed with the sonority of his Bechstein upright in mind), we have a precious 1913 piano roll. Debussy did make rolls of his Children’s corner suite (see here); this one too is widely attributed to him on YouTube and elsewhere, but appears to be by Suzanne Godenne (see here, leading us to the detailed scholarship of Roy Howat). Anyway, I love the tempo (Andante!), and the rubato. While the reliability of piano rolls as sources has been much discussed, perhaps this gives an impression of the performance style of the day:

And typically, I’m a great fan of Hélène Grimaud’s rendition (on her 2018 Memory album)—again with plentiful rubato:

Some may say that Debussy already builds rubato into the notation, subverting the 9/8 metre with tuplets and syncopation, thus making further rhythmic latitude superfluous, even harmful, except in the passage where he actually specifies rubato (from 0.54 in the 1913 recording, bar 15); but I’m all for these more fluid interpretations.

CDL rubato

The piece also suits the harp, such as this (very slow!) version:

I wonder if Noor Inayat Khan played it…

It was orchestrated by the splendid André Caplet:

and arranged by Leopold Stokowski for a scene from Fantasia, later deleted:

Here’s David Oistrakh with Frida Bauer in 1962:

For a rendition on the ethereal theremin, see here.

It has inspired jazzers too, such as Kamasi Washington (2015):

On a lighter note, here’s Slim Gaillard, again in 1962:

Clair de lune is the subject of a programme in the BBC series Soul music, with salient comments by Philippe Cassard.

CDL score

For Mahler’s piano rolls (also from 1905), see here. See also under Reception history; and do explore Ravel too (starting here)!

You say tomato

penne

The apparent ambiguity of the Englischgruss (see under Mahler 4, and for Brahms, in The Annunciation in art and music) reminds me of Antonio Cesti’s spectacular opera Il pomo d’oro (1668). *

You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).

Pomodoro cover

The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering

  • David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),

whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.

The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.

In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:

And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.

Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.

Cesti titleCesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:

The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].

An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.

The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.

Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.

In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following

a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.

Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.

Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.

Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601.
Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.

In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.

Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:

Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.

Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.

As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.

Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.

Pom 54

Recipe, 1705.

Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.

Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.

By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.

Pom 61

Recipes, 1773.

We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **

Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.

An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.

Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.

Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples. 

Pom 73

By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.

Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:

We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.

By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.

The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.

So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.

The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.

Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:

Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.

The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.

Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”

Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).

In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).

Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s;
right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.

Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:

Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.

Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.

In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.

Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.

As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.

The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and

the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.

An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):

The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.

The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.

By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.

Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.

The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]

It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.

Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.

The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.

Pom 144

Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.

Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.

Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.

While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.

After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.

Pom 182

For Faccetta nera, see here.

Pom 166

On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.

Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.

Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):

and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):

The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.

The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):

Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.

In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:

and in prison:

Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):

Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.

By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.

In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,

Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.

EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).

Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.

This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.

* * *

All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.

We might follow this up with Gentilcore’s 2012 book Italy and the potato, 1550–2000 (on a rather different tack, see Music and the potato). See also In the kitchen, and this sequel on risotto, with yet more links—as well as an alternative interpretation of the famous song You say potato. Note also Robert Orsi’s historical ethnography of religious and social life in Italian East Harlem, New York.


* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.

** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch:
Cleese: “How about Cheddar?”
Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.”
Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!”
Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.

Some notes on Deutschland 89

Deutschland 89

Further to my series on the GDR (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), some random notes on Deutschland 89, the final series. Within the stylish format of the thriller Anna Winger and Jörg Winger manage to subsume a range of thorny issues (see their reflections here and here).

The whole series is also a visual feast, with the “riot of beige and formica” that I noted at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, contrasting with the more lurid colours of expeditions in foreign locations.

Stasi office

Pic: Stasi office. Source here.

The pop soundtrack for the whole series is evocative too—there’s a good selection here. And in the first episode the Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass makes a fine choice to accompany original footage of the scenes of elation upon the breaching of the wall, capturing the depth of people’s emotion—however transient.

There’s much to savour in the dialogue. As the functionaries of a suddenly defunct regime seek to reinvent themselves, I like this briefing at the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service HVA, when the desperate bosses are trying to send their dour operative Schweppenstette on a mission to the Deutsche Bank, for which he is to be portrayed as a psychological anthropologist:

“A what?”
“An anthropologist. They study, analyse, and interpret societies and their behaviour. Just like us.”

This definition may come in handy for fieldworkers in China trying to explain their brief to the authorities (cf. my own run-ins with the constabulary, and Nigel Barley in Cameroon). In a meeting with the bank, Schweppenstette concocts the title of his fictional thesis: The East German political elite: attitudes towards taboos and moral failings.

And a West German businessman is unconvinced by the new invention of another GDR operative, a computer that allows users to see each other. To him it suggests he must be from the Stasi:

This thing may be normal to you, but in an open, democratic Western society, nobody will ever allow people to look into their offices and homes.

Surely there was a place on the series’ soundtrack to feature Someone to watch over me, a suitable nominatation for the GDR anthem?!

Learning of the uprising in Romania, a West German comments:

The unstoppable rise of democracy and freedom. The era of the autocrat is over once and for all

—the irony underlined by the telling final sequence (cf. Can’t get you out of my head).

The liberation of US culture

By coincidence, I began composing this blog in late 2016—just as the poor ol’ USA was descending into a deep abyss, “waters deep, fires raging”. So it’s a great relief to be able to write free of that dark shadow, as sanity makes a welcome come-back gig after a four-year vacation, and grown-up-sounding comments re-emerge from the White House. Anyway, here I break the champagne over the bows of a new USA tag in the sidebar (these tags are useful, BTW, however rough and ready! Do consult them!).

It seems suitable to start with the series that I wrote on

Among numerous posts under the jazz tag (to which I’ve only awarded the USA tag sparingly), which I’ve rounded up here, see e.g.

Bearing in mind the scars of genocide and slavery, conflict has never been absent; but many such posts pay homage to boundless creativity and energy. Some more examples:

On film,

On music, musicology, and fieldwork:

Note also

Other posts take the story on, such as

Considering daily language, some usages are charming:

So while one always wants to rejoice in all this, somehow such posts were always blemished by the Putrid Tang emanating from the White House; but now, with the renaissance following these traumatic four years, it finally seems suitable to celebrate again—even if the battle for social justice continues.

Phonophobia and s-s-s-syncopation

Porky

Further to my discussion of Covid and plosives (a recent addition to my stammering tag), a couple more articles catch my attention.

writes in a lyrical style reminscent of French philosophy, with examples of historical discussion from Galen and Francis Bacon to Freud. Some readers may be more amenable than I am to this kind of thing:

The voice is the vehicle and the arena of this agon between dissipation and replenishment. Our celebrations of the voice are too monotonously pitched in the register of fullness, richness, clarity and penetrativeness, the privilege is too regularly accorded to the energetic out-loud and the “haute voix”. The autumnal, deciduous voice, which is heard in illness, fatigue, ague and age, is not epically shredded by passion, but rather silted with lilting circumstance.

I would love to hear a group of stammerers, or indeed anyone, trying to get their tongues around “paradoxical polyphiloprogenitiveness”.

Call me superficial (You’re superficial—Ed.), but With All Due Respect to Ancient and Modern Sages, I’m intrigued by some of the asides. Connor notes Marc Shell’s observation that when animals were given human speech in animated film, they often, like Donald Duck, or Porky Pig, suffered from speech impediments. I see that Porky shared his stutter with the voice actor who originally played him; but because he couldn’t control his stutter, recording sessions took hours and production costs became too high (cf. my own attempts at voiceover). Here’s a helpful roundup:

which features the “That’s all folks!” sign-off:

There’s even a ten-hour version (WTF). But scholars don’t seem to agree that the word “Hottentot” is an onomatopoeic mockery of stuttering that early Dutch colonists in South Africa thought they heard in the speech of the local people.  I’m keen to read Robert Arthur’s 1964 story The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (cf. the truth-speaking parrot of Tibetan opera).

* * *

Less fantastical is this study, supplementing my More stammering songs:

Stammering’s material culture of the past lends itself to historical analysis and therefore allows us to gauge how medical and social attitudes toward the impediment have changed.

She notes:

The impediment not only provided (pseudo) medical actors with a lucrative market for various curative objects and practices, but also propelled the (sheet-) music business. Stammerers themselves appear in this story of materialisation and market as both agents and objects. The cheap self-cures, medical manuals, sheet music and (later) recordings that were produced not only for, but also by, them, show how easily the impediment was aligned with the modern consumer’s identity and how the persona of the stammerer was, ultimately, lodged in the Western collective memory in very material ways.

Writing of the “collusion between consumerism and stammering” in the late 19th century, she observes:

The cures targeted a middle-class audience that would presumably care most about speech impediments (they were in a profession requiring fluent speech), but—more importantly—would also have the means to afford a cure. Self-help manuals seem to have targeted a similar audience: they were relatively cheaply produced, but a book on stammering would necessarily have been a “luxury” item, requiring its owner to be literate. This image of the consumer of self-help manuals dovetailed conveniently with the image of what most scientists considered to be the typical stammerer: a white middle-class man, the victim of the modern “strenuous” life, but also autonomous and capable of curing himself.

It was often claimed that stammerers were typically found in the professional classes and characterized by an extraordinary intelligence. Hoegaerts cites an 1896 paper:

“Children of weak intellect rarely stutter because their thoughts are slow, and their speech always keeps pace with their thoughts.”

And she observes:

That the stammerer was “civilised” was shown by the fluent speech of “savages”. Travelers were called upon to show that no one had ever encountered speech impediments in the uncivilised world. “All travellers, who have long resided among uncultivated nations, maintain that they never met with any savages labouring under an impediment of speech”. This was because, according to scientists like Hunt, its inhabitants were not subjected to the stress and strain of civilisation: their fluent speech was owed to “their freedom from mental anxieties and nervous debility, the usual concomitants of refinement and civilization.” Likewise, the lower classes did not appear to seek the help of therapists and were considered to be relatively free of the impediment. […]

Women, on the other hand, were not so much thought of as uncivilised, but rather as more suited to civilisation and its rhythms of speech than men. Individual cases of female stammerers occasionally surfaced, but they were thought to represent a very small percentage of stammerers. According to Richard Faulkner, women expended less energy on speaking. “We have compared subsequently the energy developed in conversing by the voice of a man and that of a woman, and have found that women are fatigued, in talking, four times less than a man”. Others had already suggested that women were naturally good at speech. What made women’s speech so fluent, these theories surmised, was that most of it was idle chatter anyway.

So

Whereas “savages” could not speak of anything beyond the concrete and women did not move beyond the trivial, the (male, middle-class) stammerer’s laborious speech betrayed his intelligence.

Hoegaerts goes on,

That a woman could appear at her most attractive and intelligent by not talking at all would easily have been accepted by therapists and gentlemen-scientists of the period.

Women came to acquire the authority in the field of speech therapy—although I note that many of the most famous therapists have been men, while women comprise a majority of the work force—Typical!

The sound of stammering
Stammering became a popular theme for Tin Pan Alley songs, further popularised by sheet music. Yet

The popular representation of stammerers in songs, at the turn of the century and up until the 20s, seems very far removed from this image of the privileged, highly intelligent modern individual.

Composers treated stammering as a poetic and commercial opportunity, rather than as an impediment. It is no coincidence that almost all stammering songs were romantic and/or humorous in their content. The impediment was, in that sense, not the subject of the song, but merely a rhythmic device, the means to emotionally engage the audience, or the set-up for a joke. Sometimes, it was all three.

Of course, the rhythmic syncopation of stammering is an extrapolation by composers: the real sound is unpredictably non-metrical, aleatoric.

Following The stuttering coon (1898),

The connection of stammering to race allowed for rhythmic license. More specifically, the halting sound of stammering allowed composers to ride on the lucrative wave of ragtime music. Most explicit in the “use” of the sound of stammering was the 1913 song Stammering Sam, in which a young black boy’s stammer is presented as the “origin” of ragtime:

Then Stammering Sam sang,
and the company sang “babababa! Babababe!”
Singing his stuttering song with glee
and that was the very first ragtime melody.

Like the stammering girls, these stammering “coons” defied scientific knowledge: their ethnicity as well as their social class should have protected them from speech impediments. Yet there they are, imaginary creatures proudly claiming syncopated speech in order to entertain.

Of course, in many ways the “stammering coons” are images of manifold oppression: their almost clownish representation derided their ethnicity, the connection arguably degraded ragtime music as it refused to take it seriously as a style, and the depiction of their accented, lower-class speech placed them firmly at the bottom of the social ladder. Being put on show, after all, also meant being subjected to the harsh gaze of the audience, to become an object of consumption. Significantly, the songs would most likely be performed by non-stammerers for other non-stammerers (although those who did stammer could, of course, hear them as well). The stammerers in the songs were mere figments of their writer’s imagination, specifically created to be “performed”, “bought”, and “used” to serve the purposes of entertainment and consumption. Whereas stammerers were approached as agents on the market in therapeutic manuals, popular music banked on the characteristic sound of stammering in order to “sell” stammerers, rather than selling something to them. […]

In an ironic reversal of the therapeutic logic, [the stammering song] turned fluent speakers into stammerers (thus perhaps proving that speech could indeed be manipulated to a great extent). […]

The culture that emerged from this “modern” consumerist world was shaped by women, down-at-heel sailors, and young black boys as well. […] One could wonder if the worlds of the privileged stammerer and the imaginary one in songs coincided at all.

It’s good to see the factors of race, gender, and class featuring in the analysis of disfluency.

Caruso: the song

I’m grateful to Sophia Loren, well, for everything—but right now, for introducing me to Lucio Dalla’s song Caruso (1986), her own favourite among her excellent Desert island discs recently.

Over a slow pulse, the text is delivered in an urgent parlando-rubato style, the intensity of the melody highlighted by a vertiginously high register, suggesting flamenco deep song:

Lucio Dalla (who actually came from Bologna) was staying at the Excelsior Vittoria Hotel in Sorrento, coincidentally in the very same room where many years earlier Enrico Caruso had stayed shortly before his death. As the owners told him about Caruso’s last days and his turbulent love life, Dalla was inspired to compose the song—the melody and lyrics of whose refrain are based on the 1930 Neapolitan song Dicitencello Vuie. (As a foil to the male gaze, the background of Naples is a fine pretext to remind ourselves of the brilliant novels of Elena Ferrante.)

While in both its theme and its style Caruso clearly invites versions by tenors like Pavarotti and Bocelli, it makes a good instance of how such music is better heard without polished artifice (here Dalla sings it with Pavarotti).

Qui dove il mare luccica,
E tira forte il vento
Su una vecchia terrazza
Davanti al golfo di Surriento
Un uomo abbraccia una ragazza,
Dopo che aveva pianto
Poi si schiarisce la voce,
E ricomincia il canto.

Te voglio bene assaje,
Ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai,
Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai.

Vide le luci in mezzo al mare,
Pensò alle notti là in America
Ma erano solo le lampare
Nella bianca scia di un’elica
Sentì il dolore nella musica,
Si alzò dal pianoforte
Ma quando vide la luna uscire da una nuvola
Gli sembrò più dolce anche la morte
Guardò negli occhi la ragazza,
Quelli occhi verdi come il mare
Poi all’improvviso uscì una lacrima,
E lui credette di affogare.

Te voglio bene assaje,
Ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai,
Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai

Potenza della lirica,
Dove ogni dramma è un falso
Che con un po’ di trucco e con la mimica
Puoi diventare un altro
Ma due occhi che ti guardano
Così vicini e veri
Ti fan scordare le parole,
Confondono i pensieri
Così diventa tutto piccolo,
Anche le notti là in America
Ti volti e vedi la tua vita
Come la scia di un’elica
Ma sì, è la vita che finisce,
Ma lui non ci pensò poi tanto
Anzi si sentiva già felice,
E ricominciò il suo canto.

Te voglio bene assaje,
Ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai,
Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai

Here Dalla sings it live, for an audience who are clearly just as enraptured as Sophia Loren:

* * *

Two women

Source here.

So returning to Sophia Loren, in her Desert Island discs she discusses her most recent project working with her son Edoardo Ponti on The life ahead. And she recalls her illustrious early career, such as the filming of Two women (La Ciociara, Vittorio de Sica, 1960)—a story about the horrors of war, based on the book by Alberto Moravia (cf. The conformist). Here’s a trailer:

In her account of working with Charlie Chaplin on A countess from Hong Kong (1967), she is more discreet than her co-star Marlon Brando about the experience. Chaplin’s inspiration for the story was his encounters with down-at-heel Russian emigré aristocrats in 1930s’ Shanghai (for his 1936 visit, and his enthusiasm for Peking opera, see here); his own theme tune (cf. Smile) later made a hit song for Petula Clark.

The film ends with Loren and Brando dancing a tango—in the words of this review:

Chaplin was a sexual revolutionary long before the sexual revolution, and here, at the age of 77, he foresaw—even unto the film’s concluding tango, half a decade before Bertolucci’s—a world in which sex would break down the doors and come out of the closets.

Though the film wasn’t a great critical success, at least it was admired by John Betjeman and Jack Nicholson—more unlikely bedfellows

Back with Desert island discs, how delightful is Sophia Loren’s final greeting—making us staid Radio 4 listeners feel even more grey and reserved:

Ciao 💋💋💋💋💋 Baci baci baci!!! Ciao tesoro ciao!!!

* * *

For Italian song, try also Crêuza de mä (featured towards the end of Italy: folk musicking), the great Enza Pagliara, and Songs of Sicily. See also Italian cinema: a golden age; and Italy tag.

Can’t get you out of my head

Curtis title

Do watch the brilliant BBC TV series

Love, power, money, ghosts of empire, conspiracies, artificial intelligence—and You

The series, in six parts over some eight hours, is broadly chronological, with an ambitious coverage of major events and recurring themes—failed political revolutions amidst a widespread distrust and resentment of elites; radical movements, and their defeat; pessimism as old power structures remain intact and kleptocracy rages; racial antagonism (with sexism revealed less explicitly); anger, insecurity, and paralysis in the age of individualism, haunted by the malignant scars of the past, lacking a vision for the future, “free but alone”; personal expression, technology, psychology, consumerism, advertising, mass electronic surveillance and algorithms. You know the kind of thing…

While countercultural discontent has long been a much-discussed theme, Curtis’s take is virtuosic. The dystopian vision of his message, juxtaposing cultures, is conveyed as much through the collage of blending images and a sinister, psychedelic soundtrack (including pop and Chinese revolutionary opera) as through graphic newsreel footage, interviews, and his own voiceover.

Funnily enough, among interviews, this—with Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk), no less—is rather good.

I think I get so sucked into the stories that you choose and the people you concentrate on. They’re not boring people. Like Jiang Qing! She could’ve been from Bolton.

As Ms Cunk, herself master of the deadpan delivery, notes:

It’s partly your calm, authoritative voice. I feel like you could be a cult leader. You could tell me that bananas were invented by the Polish secret service and I’d believe you. There’s something hypnotic about it.

Here’s the fine parody of Curtis’s style mentioned in their chat (“In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet”):

Themes
In the USA, bastion of individualism through the Cold War, we are introduced to Richard Hofstadter (tracing suburban anxiety, fear, and hatred right back to the pilgrims), the John Birch Society and the Illuminati conspiracy theory; the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments; Black Power, and infiltrators.

In Britain, the loss of empire also gave rise to insecurity and xenophobia. Curtis covers Kenya and the Mau Mau; and the disillusion of new arrivals from the former empire. In the wake of the slave trade, in the USA guilt mutated into fear and anger, along with deep resentments over racism and police violence. Featured are the Yellow Peril, and the KKK; the IRA, and MI6; Blair’s Britain.

In Germany the Red Army Faction (aided by the Stasi) responded to what they saw as the mutation of Nazism—with the far right indeed growing. But revolutionary chic also emerged.

Politicians gave up being our representatives who would challenge the powerful on our behalf, and began to tell us what to do on behalf of the powerful. But we didn’t notice because we were too busy shopping.

Alongside climate change and suburban alienation, Valium (and later OxyContin) submerged people’s disillusion at the false promises offered by material comfort—at first particularly for women. The blurring of reality and illusion is illustrated by The dream of the red chamber. Curtis surveys Nixon, the Vietnam war, his visit to China, and Watergate; ever more volatile money markets; US and British involvement in the Middle East, and oil; 9/11, Iraq, Syria, ISIS; USSR dissidents and prison songs; new despair in Russia after the fall of Communism; oligarchs, corruption; the Balkan wars, and the corrosive allure of nationalism, always connected with the past.

Democracies, subordinate to financial and bureaucratic interests, often seemed to be producing the wrong results (north Africa, the Middle East)—“What if the people are stupid?”. Meanwhile humanitarian aid arose from frustration with politicians, attempting to change the world by bypassing them; but it was vulnerable to being exploited by them, as in Ethiopia.

With technocrats ever more powerful over politicians, and constant global financial crises, a conservative nostalgia for empire re-emerged. Curtis notes the magical vision of Britain’s feudal past that had been created by artists and writers from the late 19th century; passing over socialist currents within the folk music and dance revival, he suggests they were

invented to create a kind of safe dream of the nation that could hide the violence and the horrors. The dream persisted under the surface of the 20th century. But as the fears and uncertainties and the chaos of the last few years rose up, millions of people started to believe that dream. That it was real.

Part 5 ends with a particularly disturbing montage, as How beautiful they are, the lordly ones accompanies images of Isis and Morris dancing.

What had begun a long time ago as a make-believe version of England, created in the deserts of Mesopotamia as the British Empire fell apart, had now turned into a terrifying nightmare.

This has led to the similar urge in the USA and UK to recreate the dream of a lost greatness—Trump and Brexit, the inevitable dénouement that Curtis’s whole project has sought to explain.

Part 6 takes in the rapper Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni, with civil rights an ever unresolved issue; Saudi Arabia, and jihad as a remedy for nihilism; Chaos theory and Complexity theory amidst growing paranoia; the 2008 economic crash and austerity, as resentment against elites grew further; the growing power of global corporations; AI, conspiracy theories, manipulation, “a world beyond freedom and dignity”.

China dolls

In Russia, Curtis shows post-Soviet unrest, with popular protest at corruption and chaos; Putin, Pussy Riot, Navalny. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong; capitalist consumerism in reform China, Deng Xiaoping and the limits of democratic reform; Tiananmen 1989 and the disturbing figure of Chai Ling; land grabs and corruption, the downfall of Bo Xilai’s attempt to revive collective idealism, popular grievance; mass surveillance—and Xinjiang—under Xi Jinping.

And so to Trump, Bannon, QAnon; Cummings, and Farage—with Covid now compounding inequalities. Politicians have moved from espousing reprehensible visions to having no agendas beyond power itself. With liberalism in retreat, tech companies feed off paranoia.

Characters
Largely eschewing the Usual Suspects, Curtis’s choice of personalities and interviewees is most original, with a wealth of fascinating stories to follow up, making the viewer reach for wiki—including Peter Rachman and Michael X, Ethel Boole and Maya Plisetskaya, Edgar Mittelholzer, John L. Lewis and Harry Caudill representing the miners of Appalachia; Kerry Thornley, Operation Mindfuck, and Lee Harvey Oswald; Daniel Kahneman; the Russian criminals sent (along with Solzhenitsyn) to New York in 1974 who became the Potato Bag Gang, and Eduard Limonov; Horst Mahler, Afeni Shakur.

Jiang Qing and her psychological makeup feature (perhaps too) prominently:

In her operas, Jiang Qing had gone back into China’s past. Her aim had been to rework them, to express a new kind of revolution. But in reality, she had reawakened a dark and poisonous kind of violence that had lurked under the surface of China for hundreds of years. It was driven by a resentment of the rigid hierarchies that the revolution had not really changed. Mao had not given her or anyone else guidance about what to do with the fury that she had summoned up.

Curtis’s vision will doubtless be unwelcome to entrenched elites. So while he gives the revolutionaries a poor review, and rejects being labelled as a leftie, I guess we might settle for a definition based on having an enquiring mind prepared to challenge the status quo—precisely the fear of conservatives.

Despite all the endless pressures, he ends with the possibilities that the election of Biden may offer hope for a return to a former stability, and that people will be able to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures—dependant on their regaining confidence. We may need further encouragement. Some may recall the counter-intuitive optimism of Steven Pinker over the long sweep of human history. Others might suggest that paralysis and nihilism have not conquered all; while Curtis hardly broaches the more modest (but not necessarily less radical) advances of non-violent movements for social justice (cf. Hašek’s ironic “Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law”!), progressives don’t necessarily seem doomed by the demons of the past, as young grassroots activists increasingly take up noble causes, holding power to account. 

Anyway, it’s an immensely stimulating series, whether “dazzling”, “terrifying”, or “incoherent”; perhaps Hugo Rifkind’s comment is apposite:

I feel I learnt a lot. I’m just not sure what it was—

which indeed encapsulates the very confusion that Curtis evokes.

Representing Aboriginal music and dance

Harris cover

Further to Dream songs, I’ve been admiring

  • Amanda Harris, Representing Australian Aboriginal music and dance 1930–1970 (2020).

The perspective of non-Indigenous art-music composers writing for the public stage may seem niche:

From a music history or musicology perspective the music and dance events that feature would commonly be perceived as peripheral to the main story. They are not the events that have contributed to the canon of important moments in Australia’s music history, itself a minor player in the canon of (European) Western art music. In the histories of Western art music taught in Australia’s conservatoria and high school music courses, the events which feature here are not even a blip on the radar of music history.

Thus Aboriginal culture itself has been marginalised, as has Australian composition within the wider sphere of WAM; and within the latter, Aboriginal-inspired works may seem even more peripheral. However, Harris puts in focus many important issues underlying the encounter between the broad categories of “folk” and “art” musics, making a fascinating story.

The period from 1930 to 1970 was characterized by government assimilationist policies aimed at “protection” and “welfare”. The book is focused primarily on the southeast and the ways that representation of Aboriginal music and dance linked urban centres to Australia’s Top End and its Red Centre.

Many of the works described here tap into “an appetite for representations of Aboriginality devoid of Aboriginal people”:

Non-Indigenous Australians have engaged more readily with works that could be disembodied from the people who created them, than they have with living, singing, moving Aboriginal people. […]

As Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us, Indigenous peoples have long been appalled by the way “the West can desire, extract, and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations”.

Importantly, Harris listens to the accounts of Aboriginal people themselves, “disrupting” the chapters with three essays. While these commentators partly share the values of the settler majority, they are attuned to the ways of their forebears.

Australian Aboriginal people’s rich oeuvres of song and dance point to the importance of embodied and auditory modes of knowledge transmission and continuance in the same way that the West’s libraries of books and reams of paper archives reveal the dominance of the visual and the written in European epistemologies. […]

Under protection/assimilation regimes, immense pressure was exerted upon Aboriginal people to abandon culture by banning the speaking of Indigenous languages and performance of ceremony and by rewarding actions that showed Aboriginal people were adopting mainstream behaviours like residing in a single house, in a nuclear family unit. These pressures were not just notional, but rather, punitively enforced—people who grew up under this regime remember mothers, aunts and grandmothers obsessively dusting and keeping a clean house, knowing that untidiness could lead to allegations of neglect of children, and that children were routinely removed from their families and placed in institutional care, sometimes indefinitely.

Nevertheless, at moments of national nostalgia, events commemorating European settlements sought to memorialise and celebrate the lost arts that had been actively repressed.

Such events go back to the start of the century, becoming more common from the 1930s. Aboriginal people were presented to gawping non-Indigenous audiences as “noble savages”.

Chapter 1 a general introduction, opens with the 1951 Jubilee of Federation, featuring the Corroboree, a symphonic ballet composed in 1944 by John Antill with new choreography by Rex Reid.

Instead of the dozens of Aboriginal people proposed by the publicity subcommittee, Corroboree presented dozens of orchestral musicians from the symphony orchestras of each state and dancers from the National Theater Ballet Company. No Aboriginal people were involved in the production. The show was acclaimed as a landmark Australian work. […]

Non-Indigenous Australians have appropriated this language to stake a claim in Aboriginal culture and to represent Aboriginal music and dance to non-Indigenous audiences. […] But what relationship do these songs bear to those that Aboriginal people were singing?

In the Prelude that follows, D’harawal scholar Shannon Foster recalls her great-grandfather, the activist and songman Tom Foster, who spoke out on Aboriginal rights at the Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938.

Harris 17

As she observes tellingly,

The archival research space is full of contradictions for Aboriginal people. I cannot help but feel a forging of my cultural identity when the archives unveil another piece of “evidence” of who we are and who I come from. I do not need Western research to validate who I am, though it still performs this task, whether I want it to or not. I can use the archives to tell the stories of the destruction of colonization and the violence that has been inflicted on my family, and I need people to know that it is there and not deny it. But I do not want others to misuse this information and to paint us as victims or use our damage to sell their research: to perversely and voyeuristically indulge in our pain and damage. […]

Every time I relish another crumb of information about my grandfathers, the joy is tinged with despair at not knowing or seeing this information until it is delivered to me through a white man’s colonial archive, stained with the blood and pain of our ancestors.

And

I am told by a prominent historian in the audience that they had always seen boomerangs like Tom’s as nothing more than kitsch, cultural denigration, humiliation, and damage. They had never considered (nor thought to ask) how we feel about them. It had never occurred to them that what we see is physical evidence of our existence in a world where we have been consistently erased. Tom’s boomerangs speak to us of survival, resistance, and cultural fortitude and strength.

Harris 26

This account makes a bridge to Chapter 2, on the 1930s. Though Tom Foster took part in the troubling silent film In the days of Captain Cook (1930), he was among those asserting the enduring presence of Aboriginal people in society.

As various official commemorations were staged through the 1930s, Harris describes the Aboriginal presence at the opening of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 1932. The 1938 reenacting of the First Fleet landing was attended by historical pageants—and the Day of Mourning protests. By contrast with the quotidian limitations on their mobility, the performers were coerced into travelling to Sydney.

Harris 28

Anthropologists had long been recruited to government agencies. They now acted as cultural brokers between performers, the arts sector, and the media; under A.P. Elkin a shift occurred from protection to assimilation.

A major actor in cultural agendas and the new “Australian creative school” was the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), founded in 1932. Alongside visits by Percy Grainger, composers building on European explorations in harnessing folk styles included Clive Douglas, John Antill, and Margaret Sutherland.

Chapter 3, “1940s: reclaiming an Indigenous identity”, surveys wartime performances for recruitment rallies; and after the war, the forming of groups like the radical New Theatre, whose productions included the 1946 Coming our way and the ballet White justice, with Eric and Bill Onus coming to the fore.

Ted Shawn, co-founder of the modern American dance movement, was deeply impressed by the performance culture he witnessed on a visit to an Aboriginal community in Delissaville (now Belyuen) in 1947. Still, when dancers were recalled for his trip, “many Darwin housewives found themselves without domestic labour”.

Harris 50

I note that in 1950s’ China too, under the avuncular eye of the Party, dance made a forum for modern experiments, as in the Heavenly Horses troupe in Shanghai (see Ritual life around Suzhou, under “Mao Zhongqing”).

Harris refers to the short 1949 documentary Darwin: doorway to Australia (filmed in 1946), which includes footage of a tourist corroboree in Darwin Botanic Gardens (from 6.23):

As Aboriginal activists continued to meet obstacles, the Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair was exceptional with his recital tours of the USA. Meanwhile the ABC was promoting non-Indigenous composers in “representing an Aboriginal idyll”.

Harris 55

Within this niche, John Antill and his Corroboree, with its clapstick beat persisting amidst the “modernist antics” of the orchestra, made a considerable impact, suggesting comparisons with The Rite of Spring:

New organisations supplementing the cultural work of the ABC included the Arts Council of Australia. Echoing Chinese clichés, “international cultural exchange” now “took Aboriginal music to the world”—specifically to the USA, as Australia’s ties with its imperial parent were downgraded. Ironically,

Just as Aboriginal people were increasingly steered away from maintaining their own cultural practice, non-Indigenous people turned new attention towards it.

But Aboriginal performers still met with obstacles in touring abroad.

Chapter 4 sets forth from the debates surrounding the 1951 Jubilee celebrations. The official cultural initiatives of these years were accompanied by strikes and protests. Performances took on a political dimension, with Bill Onus and Doug Nicholls taking leading roles in asserting Aboriginal rights.

As others have noted, Aboriginal visual and material arts are more readily packaged, reified, than their expressive culture. Despite their sincere aim of enhancing Aboriginal status, the Jubilee committee’s proposals for massed corroborees didn’t come to fruition, being replaced by Antill’s Corroboree. Still better received was the new dance drama Out of the dark: an Aboriginal moomba.

Linking Corroboree to the political, economic, and social exclusion suffered by the Aboriginal owners of the cultures that had inspired it, Margaret Walker of the New Theatre movement proposed her own alternative. She saw Aboriginal people as both a society of “primitive communism” and an oppressed group to be liberated through socialism. In 1951 the Unity Dance Group even toured to East Berlin. In 1958 Aboriginal soprano Nancy Ellis toured China, just as convulsive political campaigns were intensifying there.

Among arts bodies in the 1950s, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was founded in 1954—looking forward to a cultural renaissance of a type later ridiculously promised by Brexiteers. The Adult Education Boards sponsored major tours by Beth Dean and Victor Carell, whose ethnographic shows introducing song and dance from around the world gave a role to Aboriginal culture—albeit based, until their 1953 “expedition”, on reading anthropology rather than any acquaintance with the people themselves. In 1954 Dean did a new choreography of Corroboree. For events to mark newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 visit, Aboriginal performers again had to travel large distances to perform.

Debra Bennet McLean brings us down to earth:

We asked ourselves how many Aboriginal people could ever really contemplate, let alone afford, to attend the ballet in the era of the “colour bar”; most Aborigines could not walk freely into an Australian town without an exemption form or “dog tag” at the time of Antill’s composing Corroboree, nor could they even sit in the same milk bar or use public toilets at the time of the premiere of the ballet Corroboree.

Harris writes with such empathy about all the diverse actors in these encounters that the following Interlude is timely, refocusing on the people who were the object of all this well-meaning attention, with Tiriki Onus thoughtfully reflecting on his grandfather Bill (for whose films, see here).

In Chapter 5: 1960 to 1967, Aboriginal performers begin to take the main stage. Harris discusses opportunities for public performance and the limitations imposed by state agencies. She begins with talent quests from 1961, the North Australian Eisteddfod, and tours of northern companies in the south—notably the well-received Aboriginal theatre, presented in Sydney by Aboriginal people from north Australia in 1963. Such shows

aimed simultaneously to engage those interested in Aboriginal performance from an ethnographic and/or historical perspective and those creating and producing new works of modern dance, music, and visual art on Australian stages.

As Harris notes, a defining feature of these new contexts was the way that performers from different traditions were brought together into a scratch ensemble, or into competition with one another.

In an interview Harris draws attention to a film about the 1964 North Australian Eisteddfod:

Yet international tours remained elusive. In Australia (as in New Zealand and Canada), with Indigenous and European genres competing for resources, the authorities of settler colonies still preferred to highlight their European heritage—by contrast with countries from which British colonisers had withdrawn (Pakistan, India, Kenya, Ghana).

Expatriate Australian Dudley Glass addressed the Royal Society of Arts in 1963,

writing that though Aboriginal people had given little to music [sic!] with their monotonous music and crude instruments [sic!], the “ingenious” John Antill has given a ballet suite “the flavour of aborigine music”, portraying native dance ceremony and using different totems for different parts of the ballet.

This contradictory sentiment, in which Aboriginal music was deemed to have little value and yet non-Indigenous composers were praised as innovative for evoking it in their music, permeated decisions about how Australia should be represented overseas. […]

In representing itself to international audiences, the Australian government sought to maintain a narrative of Aboriginal people as something old and static, not modern and constantly transforming. Tangible art works were sent overseas—works standing in for the artists who had created them, but live performers were excluded from events like the Commonwealth Festival in favour of non-Indigenous composers and performers who would represent Australia as a culture in dialogue with European modernity.

Here, as often, I hear echoes of the Chinese authorities towards their folk culture.

All this leads back to an update on Antill and Dean, with their 1963 Burragorang dreamtime, using non-Indigenous performers. Harris notes the bitter irony that the people whose displacement by the settler colonists was romanticised in the ballets, and embodied by the performers, had themselves just been displaced by a dam project to supply the Sydney population.

Interestingly, Beth Dean reported on Antill attending Aboriginal theatre:

This was far different from anything Antill had seen before. It was not the rather impromptu “tourist version” by Aborigines who had not been living a tribal life for many years, sometimes generations, as they survived on the outskirts of towns. John was thrilled. One may wonder what Antill might have done if he had experienced this kind of Aboriginal music in his early days, rather than on his 60th birthday.

Chapter 6 dicusses the end of the assimilation era—from the 1967 constitutional referendum, which led quickly and decisively to a shift to Aborigines representing their own culture, to the 1970 Cook Bicentenary, marked by protests.

The referendum belatedly paved the way for full rights of Aborigines as citizens. In the performing arts, they now gained greater rights of self-determination, as groups such as the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation and Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre were formed. Although I imagine that such developments had a tangential impact for poor dwellers of the remote Country,

Groups like the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation would be momentous in localising the performance of Aboriginal culture internationally, bringing a regional focus to owned and self-represented cultural practice, in dialogue with global contexts for performance.

In Australia’s music (1967), largely a study of contemporary art music, Roger Covell allowed some space for Aboriginal traditions—recalling the prophetic remarks of Percy Grainger in the 1930s:

What would we think of a Professor of Literature who knew nothing of Homer, the Icelandic sagas, the Japanese Heiki Monogatori [sic], Chaucer, Dante and Edgar Lee Masters? We would think him a joke. Yet we see nothing strange in a Professor of Music who knows nothing of primitive music and folk-music, and music of mediaeval Europe, and the great art-musics of Asia, and who knows next to nothing of contemporary music.

One fruit of this new mindset was the impressive 1971 Sextet for didjeridu and wind instruments, in which composer George Dreyfus collaborated with Aboriginal cultural leader George Winunguj (see cover image above):

For the Mexico Cultural Olympics in 1968, Beth Dean presented the new ballet Kukaitcha, using taped recordings from Arnhem Land, still propagating non-Indigenous representation of Aboriginal culture abroad. Harris comments:

Performing the role of the woman who had transgressed cultural law by witnessing ceremonies forbidden to her in Kukaitcha, while publicly proclaiming her ability to dance men’s dances that women should not even see, Dean seemed more enamoured of the sensationalism of these transgressive actions than of the richness and complexity of the cultures she aimed to represent.

However, new international opportunities for Aboriginal performers were arising, such as performances of the Aboriginal theatre for the 1970 Expo in Japan, amidst complex negotiations.

Harris 121

The 1770 Cook landings, and modern protests over commemoration, are much-studied topics.

Despite the involvement of Indigenous performers, Dean and Carell’s 1970 show Ballet of the South Pacific was now at variance with the prevailing mood. Corroboree was still dusted off, to ever lesser impact.

The re-enactment for the Cook bicentenary, attended by the Queen, with Aboriginal performers among the cast, were now controversial. Protests were a feature of nationwide events.

After the “Too many John Antills?” of Chapter 1, Chapter 7 considers the legacy, progressing elegantly to “Too many Peter Sculthorpes?” and pondering the failure of Australian art music to engage with Indigenous cultures, always (inevitably?) remaining at a remove from Aboriginal performances.

Harris offers a balanced assessment of the inescapable Corroboree:

Antill did not appropriate Aboriginal musical culture. He successfully represented it in a way that settler Australians continued to experience it—as a background presence, a remembered soundscape from childhood, one that was not well understood, was constant, but which would always be subject to inundation by the productivity of nation building. In evoking Aboriginal soundscapes, Corroboree may have appeared to celebrate Aboriginal culture, but the action it performed did the opposite, replacing Aboriginal performance cultures on public stages.

Considering her topic in the light of settler colonial (and post-colonial) theory, she notes that composers’ representations of Indigenous culture “aimed to tame Aboriginal Country and define its value in economic terms”.

Antill’s position as composer of a work that would found a national creative school was not just produced out of his own creative industry and good fortune, rather, it capitalised on the state agenda for representing Aboriginal culture without the messiness of engaging with Aboriginal people and their political demands and physical needs.

As Anne Thomas noted in 1987,

Public dances and performances of folk musics that had been so active in the assimilation era fell away once Aboriginal people were able to advocate for their rights in explicit ways.

Harris goes on to describe later collaborative projects that seem to resist narratives of replacement.

Yet as ethnomusicologist Catherine Ellis observed,

very few composers have taken the trouble to examine the structural intricacies of Aboriginal music. They have preferred to look at the superficialities: a descending melody, a regularly repeated stick beat, a didjeridu-like sound.”

Thus

Though the public rhetoric around these works claimed that they aimed to persuade listeners of the value of Aboriginal culture, value (through public recognition, commissions for new works, performances, and recordings) was attributed to the composers and their works rather than to the cultures that ostensibly inspired them.

Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) went on to become the leading figure on the WAM scene in Australia. Inspired at first by Japanese Noh drama, by the 1960s his music showed greater Australian Aboriginal influence. But as Harris comments, his works have such a unique voice that “they no longer resemble the Aboriginal music on which their performative capital is dependent.”

She also surveys recent works by composers such as didjeridu player William Barton.

Harris never loses sight of the perspective of Aboriginal people, or their maintenance of traditional ritual life under trying conditions. In a lively Coda, Aboriginal storyteller Nardi Simpson reflects further on the encounter. She makes a simple, pithy statement:

I want to do something that hasn’t been done before with the tools and knowledge that I have and who I am and where I’m from and that’s what I want to do.

* * *

This is a most thoughtful, compelling study. For a survey of the timeline, see also Harris’s Storymap site.

For the period since, one might also turn to Indigenous pop and rock music, another hybrid forum for creative representation with a more far-reaching influence, less constrained by officialdom. Meanwhile, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been ever more active in documenting the enduring ritual life of Aboriginal communities—and protests over Invasion Day continue.

See also Grassy Narrows, Native American cultures, First Nations: trauma and soundscape, and An Indigenous peoples’ history of the United States. For a remarkable vision, cf. Alan Marett’s 1985 Noh drama Eliza. And note What is serious music?!

Expressive cultures of the Himalayas

Musique et epopee

To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,

  • Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),

makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.

Helffer

The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume) and a detailed overview by the editors themselves, followed by a bibliography and discography of Helffer’s work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under https://archives.crem-cnrs.fr).

Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.

Helffer 72

Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.

Helffer 100

The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.

Helffer 222

The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharamsala), including this on Tantrism:

Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).

Helffer 209

Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.

The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.

The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.

Helffer 425

Ample references complement Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography for the Tibetan performing arts.

Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.

See also Recent posts on Tibet.

The death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The death of Stalin just at a time of crisis for another major world power, as the departure of a capricious monster offers the hope of a more humane society (cf. this review).

A study in duplicity and terror, Iannucci’s telling script continues from In the thick of it and Veep. Far from belittling the gruesome history of Stalinism, the film’s black humour makes the macabre, chilling brutality sink home. Amidst the frantic, ludicrous power struggles of the Central Committee, the brilliant cast is headed by Simon Russell Beale as the evil Beria; besides Kruschev, Malenkov, and Zhukov, Michael Palin as Molotov has some telling scenes.

Most commentators agree that it would be churlish to cavil at the artistic licence the film takes with historical facts—indeed, it’s likely to prompt viewers to delve into the grim realities, consulting the detailed work of scholars such as Orlando Figes (cf. this brief page). In her enthusiastic review, the perceptive Sophie Pinkham (always worth reading) also explores the banning of the film in Putin’s Russia (as Iannucci remarked, “In many ways Putin did our PR for us”).

Stalin’s death not only radically altered Soviet people’s lives, but set off a chain reaction outside the USSR. In China, the population was subjected to similar terrors until the death of Mao in 1976 prompted equally momentous change.

The film’s opening and closing scenes (embroidering a story about the pianist Maria Yudina) feature Mozart’s A major piano concerto, making another indelible association for me.

Short of watching the film on other, um, portals, it’s still available for another week on BBC iPlayer.

Under Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup, note e.g. The first gulag, and Kolyma tales. For black humour under state socialism, see herehere, and here. And among satirical stories under the Chinese jokes tag, I’m most keen on You don’t have to be mad to work here, but…Take a flying jump, and Yet more wordplay.

Amazing Grace

Aretha

In my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double album Amazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you can still find it on BBC i-Player (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… [1]

BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.

Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).

Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.

Aretha and Rev

With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.

On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.

The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.

Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.

And here‘s a version on Japanese hichiriki… Do also listen to my eclectic playlist of songs


[1] Among many reviews:

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/aretha-franklin-documentary-review-amazing-grace-754911/

https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/amazing-grace-review-aretha-franklin-1203027289/

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/apr/08/aretha-franklin-amazing-grace-movie-backstory

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/12/amazing-grace-film-review-aretha-franklin-sydney-pollack

Saint Bill: Black books

Coffee and books is a fad.

YAY!!! As further evidence that there’s hope yet for civilisation, I’m delighted that Bill Bailey, guided by the ever-wise Oti Mabuse, has just been canonised by winning Strictly (see this fantasy). So to supplement all the adulation:

His musical standup is brilliant (e.g. here; and Love song: The duck lies shredded in a pancake, Soaking in the hoisin of your lies…). Here’s another one, ranging from panto and military calls to the Alberti bass (“making the music go further—like cutting your blancmange with Angel Delight”), culminating in the East European version of the Match of the Day theme (“The tractor would not start”), following in the footsteps of Mahler:

Nor should we forget Black books—episodes from Saint Bill’s earlier life (Channel 4, three series 2000–2004).

Black books

All three protagonists—Bernard (Dylan Moran, also co-author with Graham Linehan), Manny (Bill Bailey), and Fran (Tamsin Greig)—are delightful, making complementary role-models. Despite Bernard’s persona as a “vile, rude, arrogant, elitist, filthy, chain-smoking alcoholic”, and, um, all the senseless cruelty and violence, the series has the charming mood of a kinder bygone age.

The first episode of Season 2 has more on learning the piano. If you already know that Bill is an accomplished musician (as one does nowadays), then you just have to suspend disbelief. This is a nice reversal of a persistent dramatic cliché:

I always wanted to learn, but my parents forced me not to. I spent hour after hour playing football, all by myself, peering in at all the other children in the neighbourhood practising their piano.

Click here for Bill discovering an affinity for jazz in the bookshop, as well as this:

In a Baileyesque kinda way, all this might lead us to John Cage‘s Sonatas and interludes, the Persian santur, and Studying the cello.

Anna Mahler—Groucho, and sculpture

https://stephenjones.blog/2020/11/18/anna-mahler/Anna Mahler. Source here.

This post leads from the ridiculous to the sublime, so don’t despair.

Courtesy of slippedisc.com, here’s a challenge to the imagination: on 2nd January 1952 the sculptor Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav and Alma, appeared as a contestant on the Hollywood radio quiz show You bet your life, with Groucho Marx as host. Not just OMG, but

O––––M––––G…

It epitomises the Chinese expression kuxiaobude 哭笑不得, which is somehow more expressive, more versatile, than “not knowing whether to laugh or cry”. Anna tries her luck over the first 11 minutes here:

Undeterred, whether desperate or legally bound (both Anna and Groucho were struggling at the time), she came back for more the very next day for the TV version; thankfully it doesn’t seem to appear online—though in a masochistic kind of way, that too would be hard to resist.

The life of Anna Mahler (1904–88; see also here and here) was just as eventful as that of her mother Alma. Anna’s older sister Maria died in 1907 aged 5; her father in 1911, aged 50; and her half-sister Manon Gropius (the “angel” to whom Berg dedicated his exquisite violin concerto) died at the age of 18 in 1935.

Anna’s first two marriages, to conductor Rupert Koller and composer Ernst Krenek, were short-lived. Having trained in painting, by 1930 she gravitated to sculpture.

After another divorce, she fled the Anschluss in 1938, living in Hampstead and marrying conductor Anatole Fistoulari; their daughter Marina was born in 1943. Following the war she made a home, without her husband, in California, before divorcing yet again in 1956. She returned to London after Alma died in 1964, going on to live in Spoleto from 1969 and taking a fifth husband. She died while visiting Marina in Hampstead in 1988; you can read Ernst Gombrich’s address at her funeral here.

Anna’s father had been fêted in New York, both as conductor and composer, from 1908 to his death in 1911—Groucho, then in his late teens and making his way in vaudeville, could even have attended his concerts. Still, by 1952 he could be forgiven for having but a sketchy awareness of the composer’s towering work—it was some years before the craze for his music that took off in the 60s, often associated with Bernstein and Barbirolli (besides Mahler tag, more links here).

Like Harpo, public persona aside, Groucho was thoughtful and cultured: normal conversation between him and Anna might have been urbane. It’s the superficial format that reduces the encounter.

On the show, although Groucho would already have had background on his guests, he does at least sound suitably impressed to learn of Anna’s parentage and Viennese background, trying out his “old-world charm”. While he doesn’t do his Margaret Dumont routine on her, his badinage almost rescues the occasion: it would have been even more cringeworthy with Yer Average vapid quiz-show host quipping his way through such ritual exchanges. Anna puts on a brave face, right up to Groucho’s final question “What kinda fruit do you use in a peach pie?”

* * *

Just around this time J.D. Salinger was elaborating the precocious, mystically-inclined child characters of the Glass family, whom he portrayed as making long-term appearances on the radio quiz show It’s a wise child from 1927 to 1943. And John Cage‘s 1959 appearances on the Italian TV show Lascia o radoppia (“Double or quit”) were based on his serious sideline as an erudite mycologist.

All this was long before politicians learned that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, submitting to ritual humiliation by trying in vain to Get Down with the Kids (think Anne Widdecombe, George Galloway—actually, no, don’t).

And it almost makes the various Monty Python spoofs (like this, with Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao struggling over questions on football and pop music) seem perfectly plausible.

But actually, why the hell not? The music of Anna’s own father is testimony to the synthesis of high and popular art (cf. Alan Bennett, in coda here; What is serious music?!; Dissolving boundaries; and Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual).
[Well, I gave that a trial spin, but I still listen to the show peering through my fingers from behind a sofa.]

* * *

Apart from her stone sculptures, Anna’s work included busts of Berg, Schoenberg, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Walter, as well as Schoenberg’s death mask.

So as an antidote to You bet your life, we can recover with Anna’s exquisite 1954 film A stone figure (do watch here), made over several months, in which she not only provides the instructive voiceover but also plays Bach for the soundtrack—somehow one feels a deep connection with her father (for his relation with Bach, see here).

“Talking of Michelangelo” (and Groucho knew T.S. Eliot! I rest my case), I remain fond of the apocryphal comment on how to create a sculpture of an elephant: “Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

Public health announcement!

One of the great creations of 2020, “informing, educating, and entertaining” à la BBC, is Wear a mask by Noah Lindquist and Ashley Young—the catchiest public health announcement ever, worth celebrating now that the incumbent of the White House and scientists are no longer singing from a different hymn-sheet:

It’s a parody of “Be our guest” from the late Disney movie Beauty and the beast (1991)—its melody charmingly reminiscent of a theme from the first movement of Mahler 3 (from 11.05 and 28.51 in Bernstein’s performance there). Cf. Mozart and Michel Legrand.

Apart from the musical production values (worthy of Family Guy), the lyrics are priceless—such as

Try not to be so grouchy
Have some faith in Fauci

See also Covid: ex-plosivesA shot in the arm, and Stay at home.

Chinese film classics of the early reform era

From The story of Qiu Ju.

Along with the first flush of the liberal reforms that attended the collapse of the commune system, the classic feature films of the 1980s’ “fifth generation” were part of a widespread flowering of the arts, overturning the “socialist realism” of the Maoist era.

As with the other arts, while Chinese films and documentaries have continued to adapt (see e.g. Social issues in rural Hunan), it remains worth celebrating this early body of work—made just around the time when I was becoming familiar with folk music and ritual in village China, fostering my concern to consider wider social change. For more films (mainly documentaries) on Chinese ritual and rural life, see here.

Wedding scene from Yellow earth.

There’s a wealth of academic and media coverage, but here I’ll make a little selection of some films—just the Usual Suspects, for those already in the know—that explore the lives of ordinary people (both rural and urban), including their folk music. Often set in the barren landscapes of rural Shaanbei and Shanxi, several of these works use amateur actors—always a good sign. Some are verité depictions of the early reform period itself, while others are set in the Maoist and pre-Liberation eras, but they were all important in helping revise our image of China. Of course, as fieldworkers we hope to document all three periods.

A seminal film from the early days was

  • Yellow earth (Huang tudi 黄土地, Chen Kaige, 1984). Set in the Shaanbei base area during the War against Japan, exemplifies the travails of early CCP folk-song collectors (cf. Hequ 1953) as they were confronted by the poverty of rural China, and the vast cultural gulf separating them from the peasants they were seeking to rescue from “feudal superstition”. It’s framed by the opening wedding scene, and the final rain ritual:

  • Old well (Laojing 老井, Wu Tianming, 1986, with Zhang Yimou) [1] is based on a poor village’s struggle against constant drought. One well-observed vignette (from 1.20.19) features a village story-telling session with blind musicians, and the peasants’ taste for “dirty songs” licensed by a token politically-correct speech (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”):

Despite the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, this wave persisted into the early 1990s. A timeless, mystical story of a rural blind bard in a stunning landscape is

  • Life on a string (Bianzou bianchang 邊走邊唱, Chen Kaige, 1991):

In more verité style, filmed in rural and urban Shaanbei, is

  • The story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi 秋菊打官司, Zhang Yimou, 1992), surely Gong Li’s greatest and most uncharacteristic role as a sullen, aggrieved, confused peasant, a far cry from her standard fragrant image—with the street scenes particularly authentic, and a soundtrack punctuated by gutsy wanwanqiang singing by Li Shijie 李世傑 (sorry, no English subtitles here):

On the insidious pressures of urban family life under Maoism, a most moving film is

  • The blue kite (Lan fengzheng 蓝风筝, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993)—AARGH, it’s just disappeared from YouTube! Come back at once! (For more on Tian Zhuangzhuang, click here.)

And in similar vein,

In these two films I find links with depictions of the lives of ordinary people under the GDR.

Among many films revising images of Tibet within the PRC (note Robbie Barnett’s chapter in Conflicting memories, and §4 of his Columbia course) is

  • The horse thief (Daoma zei 盗马贼, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986):

Similar themes and approaches were to be explored in the work of directors such as Jia Zhangke, set in small-town Shanxi.


[1] Not to be confused with Blind shaft (fine translation of Mangjing 盲井, Li Yang 2003), another disturbing film about mining.

Smile

Charlie Chaplin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland

Smile was first heard as the romantic orchestral theme in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times (1936), with Paulette Goddard as “the Gamin”.

It’s a political film critical of industrialisation, lamenting the hardships of the Great Depression. Graham Greene feared it would be seen as a Communist film, and indeed Goebbels banned it. By 1954 when the theme was arranged into a song, Chaplin was banned from the USA.

Here’s the original, purely instrumental, with its gorgeous harmonies:

So despite the smoochy strings, it’s innocent of sentimentality; rather, it’s a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived, recognising the challenges of life.

It’s said to be inspired by Puccini, but while the melody is indeed close to Ah, quegli occhi! (cf. Jeepers creepers), it was a more generic sound that Chaplin (one of a select group of left-handed violinists!) seems to have offered to his young arranger David Raksin to embellish (see here and here). If we’re playing the melodic similarities game (always a vexed issue; see also Unpromising chromaticisms), its contour is echoed in the opening of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight serenade:

Modern times is also famed for its nonsense song (cf. Doubletalk):

Talkies had already replaced silent films, but Chaplin persisted; the song is the only time in the Little Tramp films that his voice is heard—ironically, singing gibberish.

* * *

One doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s film to relish the 1954 vocal version by Nat King Cole (one of rather few male pop singers I find expressive):

The bland lyrics may appear to give it a more explicitly sentimental message—the trite concept of being cheery in the face of adversity later satirised in Always look on the bright side of life. But here the effect is still bitter-sweet, transcending the lyrics (like Stand by your [lying, cheating, alcoholic] man.

So with all its further heart-rending harmonic shifts and inspired touches of orchestration, it’s still a sad song. Its mood also reminds me of Michel Legrand’s exquisite You must believe in spring, with its more sophisticated lyrics.

Judy Garland’s 1963 version has a special poignancy:

The Soul music programme on Smile is here.

Of course, smiling is a cultural issue: for smiling in China, see here.

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

I’ve been seeking to glean a few basic perspectives on Iranian society beyond its (seemingly “autonomous”) chamber music—note Laudan Nooshin’s useful Songlines introduction to the sound spectrum in Iran.

  • Ramita Navai, City of lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran (2014)

makes a compelling read, an effective blend of interviews, observation, and research. The eight vignettes read like a novel—in “Sources” she explains how she compiles each account, giving further references. In a final note she summarises her own story: based in London from young, returning to Iran as a journalist since 2004, engaging with the poor of south Tehran. Her website also includes her excellent films for Channel 4 from around the world.

With the long avenue of Vali Asr as a thread linking bourgeois north Tehran and the gritty south of the city, the characters (both male and female) encompass all the contradictions of changing modern life there—regime supporters, mullahs and judges, party-goers and dissidents, morality police and mobsters; fashion, nose jobs, and rap; opium, crystal meth, and heroin.

Among all the waves of repression and executions since the 1979 revolution, the protests of 2009 loom large, as well as the constant lure of refuge in the diaspora—including the murky Iranian underworld in Japan.

The book opens with the tale of an MEK hit-man returning to Tehran for a botched assassination attempt. Other characters include Somayah, a devout girl who still falls foul of the regime’s moral strictures, reveals the society’s misogyny; Amir, unable to forgive a repentant judge for sentencing his parents to death; Leyla, whose divorce leads her to sex work and the thriving porn scene, exploited by hypocritical police and judges; Morteza, an abused young member of a basiji militia who finally manages to have a sex-change operation (a chapter that opens with a vignette on ritual self-mortification); and Farideh, a widow from an affluent family fallen on hard times, who, having learned that swinging 60s’ London was uptight and “backward”, finally decides to make a home there, but returns to Tehran after only two months.

While the contrast between tradition and modernity is a staple cliché of travel writing, here Navai brings real insight to these life stories, always nuanced, conflicted.

Even in large cities, the soundscape is among ways in which such conflicts are evident—in this case, not just the contrast between rap and the call to prayer, but the duality of the art music of the radif and more gritty sounds like festive shawm bands. As Morteza observes the incantations, sobs, and drum-beats of ritual self-flagellants in trance, he notes that they appear strangely like the north Tehran ravers they abhor (cf. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

To varying degrees, duplicity is perhaps a universal in societies, “the consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime”. While it has been noted as a characteristic of socialist societies (e.g. The whisperers), Alan Bennett also regards hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English. More basic is the imposition of power through intimidation, exercised both by political regimes and by traditional values—often reminiscent of China.

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000­–2003; complete English edition 2007),

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

At 343 pages it’s a substantial autobiography, whose innovative format belies its serious message. Under headings such as “The veil”, “The party”, and “The croissant”, it evokes her early experiences after the 1979 revolution, her troubled teenage years in Vienna from 1983, and her return, feeling defeated, four years later to Iran—where she gets married and divorced before leaving again for good. Since 1993 she has been based in France.

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

One of Ramita Navai’s characters approves of the film A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), by contrast with the “overrated and pretentious” Iranian films, with their heavy-handed symbolism, that beguile the Western media—a suspicion that is widely common within societies, again as in China.

Still, the new wave films of Iran have a distinguished history, the “second wave” led by Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) such as the Koker trilogy—here’s a trailer for Where is the friend’s home? (1987):

As to the “third wave”, Samira Makhmalbaf (b.1980), following the path of her father Mohsen (b.1957; family website here) directed her first film The apple (1998) at the age of 17, a moving story of a Tehran family in difficulty (reenacted by the family themselves) that again blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

By contrast, Blackboards (2001) depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees in desolate countryside, against the backdrop of the chemical bombing of Halabja, only revealed at the devastating greyed-out ending. As an itinerant teacher struggles stoically to convince poor villagers of the remote benefits of literacy, he creatively puts his blackboard to more practical uses:

All this just to remind myself again that music is never autonomous… Cf. Three women of Herat.

Tibet: conflicting memories

Coming soon after the English edition of Woeser’s Forbidden memory, another fine contribution to our understanding of modern Tibetan history is the magnum opus

  • Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020, xxix + 681 pp.!).

Covering the periods since the Chinese occupation in 1950 and the death of Mao in 1976, it presents a wealth of original material in the form of memoirs and oral narratives, histories and official sources, fiction and film, dovetailing perceptive essays and primary documents. Besides the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Amdo and Kham are especially well represented.

As Robert Barnett explains in yet another of his exemplary introductions, the book presents the candid narratives of a range of Tibetan and Chinese writers—by contrast with the historiography of the Chinese state, with its “logic of legitimization”. Before the reform era since 1980, the main periods, in an escalating sequence of violence, were the early years of occupation; the crises of 1956–59; and the Cultural Revolution (notably 1966–69).

Oral accounts and memoirs—from Tibetan and Chinese officials, some early Tibetan Communists and progressives, and ordinary and elite Tibetans—“seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions”. While they don’t go so far as to challenge CCP rule over Tibet, they are “historical retellings in which the state has been removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” In all such accounts, we need to “read between the lines”—just as for material on Han Chinese regions (see e.g. here, and here).

Part One, “Official retellings and revisualisations of the ‘Liberation of Tibet’ ”, opens with chapters by Benno Weiner (whose recent book The Chinese revolution on the Tibetan frontier is another important contribution to our knowledge of the modern history of Amdo) and Alice Travers, exploring changing agendas in the published “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao)—also a revealing source for Han Chinese areas (cf. here).

Compared to the extreme violence that was to come, Western, Chinese, and Tibetan authors have tended to portray the early years of occupation as relatively genteel. But Bianca Horlemann’s scrutiny of an account by the Chinese leader of a “Work Group” for the pastoralist Golog region in south Amdo adds to a growing body of evidence that “liberation” was far from smooth.

And Robert Barnett’s own chapter describes in detail the change of emphasis in mainstream Chinese “Tibet-encounter” films and TV dramas from the Maoist era to the reforms (cf. his Columbia course). Setting forth from the beguiling voyeuristic notion (Western as much as Chinese) of Tibet as “mysterious” and “exotic”, he notes a shift from tales of socialist military valour to commercially attractive stories of romance and self-discovery.

He suggests that the rationale for the early films was

in large part to explain and justify to the wider nation the abrupt and large-scale interaction then occurring between Chinese forces and Tibetans. That contact was, after all, on an unprecedented scale and involved entirely different and unfamiliar cultures, languages and social systems. Chinese citizens who were sent to Tibet were being asked not just to risk their lives fighting Tibetan troops and rebels in deeply unfamiliar and difficult terrain, but also in many cases to dedicate decades of their lives as cadres, teachers, doctors, road-builders, labourers, and so forth in order to administer and colonise an area which, unlike other minority areas within China, had had its own government, military and ruling institutions for centuries and where few Chinese had ever lived or worked before.

Throughout the various periods, many films portray Tibetans as grateful allies of the Party; and they dwell on the exploitation of the masses at the hands of the old ruling classes.

At its simplest, films in the Mao era vilified Tibetan culture and the Tibetan social system, while those produced in the reform period beautified Tibetans, their environment, and, increasingly, their bodies.

TV series Love song of Kangding, 2004.

Ever attentive to gender issues, Barnett notes the trope of the “orphan–heroine”. And while Chinese characters have come to be explored in more depth, there remain no credible portrayals of the Tibetan side of the story.

In Part Two, “Rereading the past: stories told by documents”, Alex Raymond again reinterprets the initial “liberation” of Tibet, showing that any “gradualism” in Chinese policy was a matter of expediency and logistics. Chung Tsering assesses a variety of accounts of the ambiguous political career of Ngaphö Ngawang Jigme (1910–2009); Document 4 translates his 1989 speech. And Document 5 is an important addition to work on the Tenth Panchen Lama—a hitherto unpublished speech also from 1989, a critique not just of the Cultural Revolution but of the whole three decades of occupation.

Part Three, “Speaking the past: oral remembering” addresses the uprisings in Amdo from 1958, and the Cultural Revolution there. Dáša Mortensen unpacks ongoing historical amnesia through public and private accounts of the 1966 destruction of Gandan Sumtsenling, the main Tibetan monastery of Gyalthang in Yunnan province, showing how “the politics of memory and forgetting are shaped by both official and individual agendas, competing to produce an acceptable memory at a time when grievances are still deeply entrenched and inconvenient for any side to air”.

Charlene Makley, with two pseudonymised contributors, unpacks an oral account of the years following 1958 by a senior Tibetan village leader (“G.” below) in Rebgong (southeast Qinghai)—using a detailed system of transcription to evoke the subtle messages of his language and his interactions with the participants, which rarely emerge in interview transcripts. A sample (asterisks denoting Chinese loanwords):

T: How many years were you in the *labour camp*?
G: Four and a half years.
T: For four and half years? Oh so that means ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61?
[11:38 G explains how central Party officials came to investigate Qinghai during the post-famine rectification process. Here he goes into the most detail so far. T had never heard this; T and CM are entranced.]
G: [until] ’62… ’62… that’s how long I had to stay. Not just for 1958, but for ’59, ’60, ’61 and ‘62. – T: Oooh. – Until August of 1962, in *September I returned. – CM/T: Mmm/Oooh – The one who reported [the situation] to *central leaders* was … Wang Zhao came, Wang Zhao, the *deputy head* of the *Central Management Department* (Ch.: Guanlibu). – CM/T: Oooh. – So Qinghai *province *sent a delegation down*, and the *Management Department* officials accompanied them. When they came, they *investigated everything. They disbanded the *cafeterias. All those sent to the *labour camp* were released. Wang Zhao said a few words: “Just as for the People’s Militias, keep the *‘group leaders’* (Ch.: banzhang) imprisoned, and release the ‘militia members’.” He used that kind of metaphor, he didn’t say more than that … What did he mean by a *‘group leader’*? He meant the traditional Tibetan leaders, of course. By *‘group leader’,* he meant Tibetan *landlords, or lamas or lay leaders. [Wang] ordered everyone but them to be released. But *half [of those leaders] had already died, They died! They all died! That region was harsh because of the high altitude!

The same period is discussed in an excerpt from a remarkably frank book by Rinchen Zangpo (Shamdo Rinzang).

Shamdo Rinzang (left).

Documents 7–10 are excerpts from the 2016 Living and dying in modern Tibet­, an important collection of oral memoirs from the 1930s to the 1970s for northern Kham.

 Part Four describes “Literary retellings”—the short stories, novels, literary memoirs, and fiction from the reform era that served as a necessary, not optional, forum for Tibetan critiques of the terrors following 1958. Françoise Robin discusses literature recalling the period in Amdo:

Fiction and literature confirm their use by Tibetans to counter official memory and circumvent the hegemonic memory engineering that has been going on for over fifty years. Still facing too many risks to offer directly a revised account of lost events, these works of fiction not so much mark what has been forgotten as delineate the history of state erasure of that past, and its silencing of the generation that experienced it.

Xénia de Heering introduces Nagtshang Nulo’s autobiography Joys and Sorrows of the Nagtshang Boy, set in Machu county, Kanlho, interspersing official documents.

Part Five, “Religious remembering” focuses on history recollected through the lens of faith. Nicole Willock, Maria Turek, and Geoffrey Barstow describe accounts by lamas, Buddhist scholars, hermits, and a religious artisan. Even those who accommodated with the new regime suffered terribly, but they continued to view their role as guardians of Tibetan culture and religion, recalling ultra-leftist violence merely in terms of obstacles to spiritual development.

The volume is further enriched by extensive references, detailed maps, glossary, photos, and an exhaustive index. Hefty as it is, I still wonder how Brill still manages to charge such astronomical prices for their fine books, mitigating against the wide readership they deserve.

Again I marvel at the enterprise, energy, and nuance of recent scholarship on Tibet, so very far from the simplistic, polarised work of the 1980s. But the emergence of a certain space for alternative versions of this traumatic history can be of little consolation for Tibetan people amidst their current plight, as Chinese state control continues to intensify.

See also Recent posts on Tibet; and Tibet and Uyghur tags.

More crime fiction

Weimar Berlin—Stasi—Russia—Hungary

Berlin Alex

From Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.

MetropolisIn Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.

Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in

  • Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),

a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:

Doblin summary

Michael Hoffmann has risen to the daunting challenge of translating Döblin’s quirky Berlinisch prose—do read his Afterword, and this review. Cf. Hoffmann’s version of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):

Babylon BerlinAs to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,

  • Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)

is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:

Meanwhile David Young continues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.

For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:

It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.

Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.

For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.

Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but

after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.

To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.

Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.

* * *

Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.

Musicology: igneous rocks and window-smashing

What’s up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972) must be the musicologist’s favourite movie, Withstanding the Test of Time.

Dr Howard Banister (Ryan O’Neal), earnest scholar of the musical attributes of ancient igneous rocks at the Iowa Conservatory of Music (whither I hope the film has drawn numerous students), is at loggerheads with unscrupulous Yugoslavian musicologist Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars) as they compete for a major grant from the suave yet impressionable Frederick Larabee (Austin Pendleton). In the gendered dichotomy of its time, Howard is distracted from his straight-laced fiancée Eunice (the magnificent Madeleine Kahn) by the trouble-magnet Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand).

I’m not exactly saying that these characters bear any precise resemblance to real participants at musicological conferences. However, the film may strike an (igneous) chord.

The dénouement of the final chase is the most elegantly-wrought silent slapstick:

Amdo rituals: early and recent films

Holton 1a

While my own focus is on the local ritual cultures of the Han Chinese, I’ve recently found myself trying to get a basic grasp of some of the fine research on ritual and musicking among the ethnic minorities within the PRC—such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the peoples of Yunnan.

My Chinese colleagues and I like to cite the dictum attributed to Confucius (“already”!), “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“—which may mean villages just an hour’s drive from Beijing, but is even more apposite for regions more remote from centres of Han Chinese culture.

I’ve already featured some remarkable 1930s’ film footage from Fujian in southeast China; now, alerted by Gerald Roche, intrepid anthropologist specialising in both ritual and the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation, I’ve been admiring footage of similar vintage from northwest China (“northeast Tibet”!), at the far opposite corner of the empire.

The Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai (including the Tibetan region of Amdo) are home to a patchwork of ethnic groups (for some basic resources on the region, see here).

Holton 2

Carter D. Holton (1901–73) was a missionary who worked with his wife Lora in northwest China from 1923 until 1949. His footage on the “two” films online (click here) is identical. It contains material from around Hezhou (now Linxia) in 1940–41, including scenes from Labrang, showing the daily life and rituals of Tibetans, Mangghuer (“Tu”), Muslims, and Han Chinese—during a period of ethnic and political unrest.

The footage itself is (alas) silent, with a basic voiceover recorded in 1995 by Robert Carlson (1928–2019), himself son of missionary parents active in the region at the time. And while the scenes of daily life are suggestive (transport, food, clothing, and so on), the clips of ritual are tantalisingly short (here I refer to timecodes in the “first” film):

  • 11.48 Daoist priests, directing a spirit medium, and
  • 12.45 burial procession (part of same sequence?)
  • 16.26 Muslim observances
  • 25.55 Prostrations and circumambulation at Labrang?
  • 33.10 burial procession
  • 34.04 someone should be able to give more detail than Carlson or I on this sequence, mostly (all?) at Labrang, with female dancers, Bön priests, cham masked dances, processions, and at the end a brief glimpse of Apa Alo with Marion Griebenow (Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.50–52, cf. Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations, ch.4).

* * *

In many ways one may regard this footage as evoking a bygone age; but after the Communist revolution, notwithstanding convulsive social transformation, the style of rituals shown was not erased until 1958, and revived strongly upon the 1980s’ reforms. As ever, I’m also keen to learn of any tenuous connecting threads that persisted through the 60s and 70s.

If Holton’s footage from the 1940s offers slim pickings for those concerned with ritual, far more substantial are recent scenes filmed by Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, in the YouTube playlist “Rituals and ritual practitioners of the northeastern Tibetan plateau“. Roche’s work has focused on nadun rituals of Mangghuer communities for the summer harvest. [1]

One element in the ritual practice in the region is self-mortification. Roche and Wen’s film “The gods incarnate: the huala of China’s Sanchuan region” shows Mangghuer trance mediums piercing themselves with skewers. While other ritual activities also suffer from 21st-century pressures, they seem to remain lively; but Roche notes that such mediums are now becoming less common.

Huala trance mediums:
left, mid-1930s (reproduced here, from the remarkable archive of Zhang Xueben);
right: from Roche’s extensive galleries of images from fieldwork.

The lengthiest sequence, filmed by Wen Xiangcheng (clips 6 and 7, 109 minutes in total, with Chinese introduction) shows the grand four-day consecration of a temple in Jishishan county, Gansu, in 2009, with local household Daoists presiding, featuring much ritual dancing with fan drums, and the parading of a god palanquin:

Alongside all the ritual activity of local ethnic groups, Gansu is one of the major regions for household Daoists, as I keep saying; for Daoist ritual elsewhere in the province, see here, and here. For the changing fortunes of a Confucian temple in Gansu, click here.


[1] Among many articles by Roche assembled here, for the modernizing agenda, and more on Mao worship (cf. Gansu, Henan), see

On early historical change, see Roche’s

See also e.g.

For more on the huala mediums, see e.g.

  • Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun, “Tu fala: trance mediums of northwest China”, Shaman’s drum 23 (1991),

and for some sources on self-mortifying at the Klu-rol festival in Rebkong, see n. here.

The genius of Sergei Parajanov

Pomegranates 2

The films of Sergei Parajanov (1924–90) are utterly spellbinding (wiki here, or this succinct introduction by the splendid Elif Batuman; for photos, see here). I’ve already featured The colour of pomegranates in a tribute to my much-missed friend Natasha, but Parajanov’s other surreal fantasies on the folk cultures of the Caucasus also deserve a tribute.

An Armenian brought up in Georgia, he was inspired by Tarkovsky. His surreal, mystical, sumptuous, austere vision was utterly at odds with Soviet orthodoxy, at a time when people had little choice but to retreat into private worlds (cf. The whisperers).

Shadows of forgotten ancestors (1964) was filmed among the Hutsul people (see here, and here) in the Carpathians of west Ukraine (for Parajanov’s bond with Ukraine, click here) (the film appears intermittently on YouTube, if this link no longer works):

The colour of pomegranates (1969) is his Armenian film. While you may just wish to let the images wash over you (cf. the merits of analysing Beatles songs), a useful companion is The world is a window: