Saturday, March 27, 2010

so quaint and mouthy

It's a funny thing, reading Don Juan after hundreds of pages of Lowes' calling Coleridge a genius. Byron scorns Coleridge, scorns Wordsworth, scorns the contemporary Poet Laureate Robert Southey even more, and thinks that everyone associated with the Lake Poets is a waste of his time.

Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy

I found Don Juan at a new branch of our local library system, walking there last Saturday -- I think it opened on Thursday. The book was on a set of shelves labelled Classics. "I see you've found the Classics section," said the librarian when I took my books to the counter. He went on to say that he thought the books in Classics might have been donated by the publisher, which would explain why they were almost all black-spined Penguins, and perhaps also why no one had thought to buy the first two parts of Dante. (I should write them an email. Dear Sir and or Madame. Your library is lovely. Stocking the last part of a trilogy is cruel. Would you treat Tolkien this way? Yours, etc. (A fact sheet about librarians on the wall of our local branch suggests that most of them are High Fantasy enthusiasts. One likes Patrick White's The Tree of Man, which, as I once said on Whispering Gums' blog, is the White for people who don't read White. I believe this in the way that I believe Tale of Two Cities is the Dickens for people who don't read Dickens. Tale is a parched, dead Dickens, compared to the splurge that he wrings out of himself when he's at his most noticing. Some readers object to the splurge -- he writes too much, they say --

he has very very long and boring sentences that keep going on and on

-- complains a poster at LibraryThing. But that splurge is Dickens, it's the bubble that rises in his genius-alembic. And Tree is White coming as close as he ever did to a nice, normal Australian novelist.))

They had three or four shelves of brand-new Lonely Planets, probably donated too. I waved my hands around and yammered at the desk librarian about their new Les Murray Collected Poems. I've been wondering if you would buy this! I said, or something like that. You've had another Murray collection for ages --

Ah -- he named one.

No, I said, a different one, a little Selected, years old, with a white cover --

So. This new Classics section has given me The Diary of Samuel Pepys: a Selection as well as a few other things. And in Poetry they had Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation, and a collected Phillip Larkin. "I am most pleased," as Pepys says. I decanted myself from the library "leaving all things there very gallant and joyful" and stuck my nose into a car boot sale on the way home.

Pepys keeps up a running commentary on the subjects of profit and food, which prompted me to think of Christina Stead, who brings the same two topics into her fiction with the same naturalness. This is one of the things that makes her work seem so lifelike, this realisation that people are interested in money and food, and interested in them in an ongoing and passionate way -- I mean, as if they were the stuff of life, which, in both writers, they very much are. "I'd fight for money to my last drop of blood," says the Man Who Loved Children's Henny to Old Ellen. "Can you live on air?" In 1664 Pepys looks through old papers and discovers "a romance which (under the title of Love a Cheate) I begun ten years ago at Cambridge" but when he's writing for himself he's less interested in romantic Love than in barrels of oysters and bottles of wine and whether his kidney stones have come back or not, and his profit margin. "I bless God with great joy to me; not only from my having made so good a year of profit, as having spent 420l and laid up 540l and upward. But I bless God, I have never been in so good a plight as to my health." This comes before the praise for his "pretty and loving quiet family," which is not storybook love, or Love a Cheate, but closer to steady pleasure, assurance, and comfort.

There are no adventures in the Diary, not in the sense that characters in romance novels have adventures (the ghost in the castle, the battle, the rescued lover) but things happen, things are constantly happening, and the whole book mutters like thick liquid boiling over heat, always moving, not in the sharp forward direction of the romance-adventure, but with an all-over engagement: events appearing, submerging, then coming back again. Pepys is told that his brother is ill, then he is more ill -- this goes on for a little, along with other concerns, then the brother dies, and what, in a planned novel, might be known as the sick brother plotline becomes so important that it takes up nearly all of the diarist's attention. Then there are inheritance problems, some family feuding, and Pepys discovers that his brother had an illegitimate child, who has been sent away to live with another family under a different name. In the planned novel (the one in which this is the sick brother plotline) the discovery of this child would likely lead to the illegitimate daughter plotline -- something would be made of her. Here she vanishes quickly, she is only another fact of life, dealt with, and less interesting than the oysters. And even this sickness and death is tied up with money. After discussing his dying brother's finances with his uncle, who believes the brother "owes a great deal of money," Pepys concludes

And what with that and what he owes my father and me, I doubt he is in a very sad condition; that if he lives he will not be able to show his head -- which will be a very great shame to me.

In the foreground we have Pepys, always, and his concerns, his food, his money, his family, while in the middle ground there are those things a little further away from him, his ties to his Lord, the enmity of a colleague, mentioned a little less often, but always present behind the first lot of things. Beyond that there are those things that history notices, the Restoration of Charles II, which occurred in the first year of the diary, 1660, a war between England and Holland, the Great Fire of London, and the Plague. Pepys in his thoroughness inhabits all of them. His description of London on fire takes in a large view in longshot --

... we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long

-- the historical spectacle of it (with the inclusion of that "about half a mile long" it's Marquez's numbered elephants again) -- and the very close details --

And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

His intimate life, his life at work, and the greater life of the city and the court, are always with us in the Diary, and here I am going to wind this back to Stead again because The Man Who Loved Children has those same layers in play: the intimate life of the family, the middle ground of Sam's work and Louie's school, and somewhere beyond that, the wider society that keeps women married to husbands who won't let them escape, and the fairyland of Sam's ambitions, his radio show, his tribe of multi-ethnic children, the President he trusts, the whole strange outer foreign world, which is represented by Malaya. Both books bubble.

Friday, March 26, 2010

when the nargun began to leave

Weeks ago I was sitting with a group of people when one of them told us she was trying to write a fantasy novel, but an Australian fantasy novel, she said, with Australian mythology, not a European fantasy novel, not European mythology --

Oh, said one of the other women almost straight away, there's an author you should read -- she writes for children but she's incredible, very good, and she writes Australian fantasy, The, what was it -- The Nargun and the Stars -- and other books -- now -- her name -- her name --

Australian author Patricia Wrightson dies at 88

Saturday, March 20, 2010

as they are

I've decided to turn my list of Christina Stead links into a separate page of its own, rather than a series of posts. The posts are still there, but from now on I'll leave them as they are and only update the page.

Friday, March 19, 2010

drawing together the confluence

Charlie Gillet has died.

Few people can have opened so many ears to such a variety of music over the last four decades as Charlie Gillett, the author and radio disc jockey, who has died aged 68 after a long illness. Charlie wrote the first serious history of rock'n'roll and went on to become a central figure in drawing together the confluence of international sounds that became known, to the benefit of many artists whose work might otherwise have remained in obscurity, as world music.

Tributes from posters at his Sound of the World forum.

Here he is last year, conducting the members of the Éthiopiques into a tent and speaking to Francis Falceto.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

the beautifulest Fish of all

Last night I came across two comparisons between a woman and a speckled fish. In The Wife of Martin Guerre, Janet Lewis wrote:

When, upon a certain day, she asked him if he remembered such and such a little incident, he responded, smiling, "No, and do you remember when I told you that your eyes are speckled, like the back of a mountain trout?" she only smiled in return, full of confidence and ease.

In the endnotes to The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes quoted from volume XIII of Samuel Purchas' Puchas His Pulgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others. A sea captain named Henry Hudson is describing a mermaid.

… her skin [was] very white; and long haire hanging downe behind, of colour blacke: in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.

Hudson didn't see the mermaid himself, but he had this report from two of his men. "Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner." Lowes' endnotes run for more than a hundred pages. "There are," he writes, "those who find the notes in a book more interesting than the text.

I often do myself. But for the sake of others otherwise inclined the notes in this book are, for the most part, securely kenneled in the rear. There they will molest no incurious reader who is circumspect enough to let them lie."

Lowes is enraptured by the side-facts pertaining to the main fact and the anecdotes that attach themselves to central stories. Without that love it seems unlikely that he would have written this book, in which he spends nearly four hundred pages running through everything he can think of that might have inspired parts of The Ancient Mariner. He reads eight hundred and six pages of Joseph Priestley's "ponderous" History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light and Colours and finds the clue he wants on page eight hundred and seven. He considers Dorothy Wordsworth's journals and comes to the conclusion that she and Coleridge discussed the moon. He spends pages tracing historical instances of the word weft. He sees that other writers have criticised Coleridge over the size of the albatross, calling it impossible, a man's neck supporting the weight of a Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, a bird with a thirteen-foot wingspan, so he investigates albatrosses and discovers the existence of the smaller Sooty Albatross "once Diomedea fuliginosa, now, in scientific parlance, Phoebetria palpebrata antarctica," although Wikipedia has it as Phoebetria fusca. He searches for a specimen of Phoebetria palpebrata antarctica, finds a dead one, and the suggestion in the book is that in his enthusiasm for proof he strung the corpse around his neck to see if his poet's idea could be vindicated.

… the smaller bird, might readily enough , as I know from experiment, have been carried suspended from a sailor's neck

Decades after the Mariner was written, Wordsworth told friends and interviewers that he had suggested the albatross to Coleridge during a walk. The other poet was trying to think of a sin the Mariner could commit, and Wordsworth, who had been reading Captain George Shelvocke's A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea, proposed that he should kill an albatross. "The idea of "shooting an albatross" was mine," he stated. Lowes, hunting down Shelvocke, discovers that the albatross in that book is almost certainly the little black-feathered Sooty.

This is Shelvocke:

[W]e had not had the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the Streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, save a disconsolate black Albitross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley (my second Captain) … in one of his melancholy fits … imagin'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen … [Hatley] shot the Albitross

There is no proof, Lowes tells us, that Coleridge knew his Wandering from his Sooty; his point is that the albatross is not impossible. "In the use to which Coleridge puts the albatross in the poem, neither ornithological fact nor poetic truth moults a feather," he says, adding, "The essential matter is that this incident in Shelvocke crystallized the structural design of the poem."

Charles Lamb used similar language in his essay on Goethe.

Some trifling incidents at Witzlar, and the suicide of an unhappy acquaintance, were the means of 'crystallising' that wondrous perilous stuff, which the young heart oppressively held dissolved in it, into this world-famous, and as it proved world-medicative Werter.

Lowes is modest about most of his discoveries, and defers to Coleridge always, calling him a genius, insisting that he does not mean to explain away the Ancient Mariner, he does not want us to think that he is trying to rise above it, or make himself look smarter than the poet, no, in fact the opposite -- the more sources he uncovers, the more miraculous it is, that one man should be able to transmute so many disparate items into a single poem -- here -- he tells us -- here, in this process of transmutation, is the genius of this genius, the soul, the very nature of genius -- an alembic.

Other critics have seen the same quality in other writers. Here is Harold Bloom on Charlotte Brontë:

The amazingly incompatible precursors are John Bunyan and Lord Byron, and only the combative genius of Charlotte Brontë could have melded The Pilgrim's Progress and Manfred into the remarkable unity of Jane Eyre.

If the Ancient Mariner is a poem about an anguished wanderer then Xanadu is a book about a delighted one. Lowes spins off into word-picture curlicues ("neither ornithological fact nor poetic truth moults a feather") as if the sheer excitement of his Coleridge-love has made him sprout plumes.

And the three powerfully suggestive particulars set the imagination winging, while the livery fair behind and fair before strips every feather from its pinions

is another example, as is

[W]e have watched the tangible realities of of known and charted seas waver and, and disintegrate, and dissolve, like the evolutions of the mist, to reassemble into the luminous apparitions of the insubstantial deeps.

I found these by opening pages at random. The book is full of them.

I didn't intend to write all of this. I started with those first two quotes because I wanted an excuse to post some of the other passages he borrows from eighteenth century travel books. They have the vividness of things seen for the first time and described as precisely as possible, which is just what they are, as if very young children, coming across birds, water, and other ordinary phenomena they had never seen, had been given the power of adult speech --

"In the tenth of March in fortie-two degrees, the Sea was all red as if it had beene mixed with bloud, being full of red Wormes, which taken up leaped like Fleas."

taken from Purchas

"We had been frightened with Stories of Bears that haunted this place, but saw none. It seemed rather a place of resort for Fairies and Genii than for Beares."


"The fifth, wee saw the first Ice, which we wondered at, at the first, thinking that it had beene white Swannes, for one of our men walking in the Fore-decke, on a sudden began to cry out with a loud voice, and said: that hee saw white Swannes: which wee that were under Hatches hearing, presently came up, and perceived that it was Ice that came driving from the great heape, showing like Swannes, at being then about Eevening."

written by Gerrit de Veere

… Narlborough's sturdy Saxon penguins: "they are short legged like a Goose, and stand upright like little children in white aprons, in companies together" … The Vicugnes of of Peru, which "are greater than Goates and lesse than Calves," have hair, Acosta tells us, which "is the colour of dried roses."

But above all of them I prefer this report from a sailor named Fredrick Martens, because it is a description of something that seems so simple, the same fish that glitters like a mermaid's tayle, the mackerel:

All the colours of this Fish shine like to a Silver or Golden Ground, done over with thin transparent or illuminating colours … It is the beautifulest Fish of all that ever I saw

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

as if this explained a lot

I went to a local festival on Saturday afternoon, a carnival in a park, a row of food stalls, a band, and tents dedicated to paintings, crocheted flower badges, and New Zealand bone carvings. One of the stalls was selling Ethiopian food. When I saw the sign, I thought, "Mahmoud Ahmed." As he came into my head I prepared myself to enjoy a dramatic coincidence. My brain lifted itself to attention; it felt as skin feels when it erects its hairs to trap the heat. It became sensitive in pinpricked dots. "This time last weekend," I wanted to think, "I was watching Mahmoud Ahmed. Now I am here, looking at an Ethiopian food stall in a park …" but I saw the Addis Ababa singer on Friday and Sunday, not Saturday, so that piece of very exact nostalgia (which would have filled my mind with unshed tears -- oh Mahmoud Ahmed, who sang on Stage One twice without letting us know that he was racked with toothache!) fell through.

(Francis Falceto, compiler of the Éthiopiques series, told us about the toothache in an Artists In Conversation event at Womadelaide on Saturday night, apologising for Ahmed's absence. Ahmed was in pain, Falceto said. It hurt to speak. He was saving himself for his shows.)

At Womadelaide in 2009 I stood in front of Dengue Fever fretting and distracted like Proust's narrator when he sees Berma for the first time. Once home I found footage of the other musicians on Youtube and my emotions coalesced. The Narrator reached the same point with, I think, the help of M. de Norpois and a newspaper article. A few days ago I came across a passage in John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu that reminded me of it.

But I have had the feeling … that Fancy and Imagination are not two powers at all, but one. The valid distinction which exists between them lies, not in the materials with which they operate, but in the degree of intensity of the operant power itself. Working at high tension, the imaginative energy assimilates and transmutes; keyed low, the same energy aggregates and yokes together those images which, at its highest pitch, at merges indissolubly into one.

Lowes is proposing that Coleridge's imagination submerged a collection of different books in its "Well" until they emerged as the Ancient Mariner. But the idea of imagination assimilating and transmuting caught my attention. My brain had to stow the 2009 festival away in its Well for a while before it could pick out the highlights, and present them to me, transmuted into a whole impression, in other words, a mental object that I could walk around and judge.

These are the acts I saw this year, in the order I saw them. All of the youtube videos with the exception of the Calexico one were posted by a blog called Womadelaide Live.

Yamato, the Drummers of Japan.
Japan is full of drumming hobby groups. Yamato is that hobby grown huge. They've worked out comedy routines -- one woman emerging above the biggest drum with an enormous stick, one man going berserk while the rest raise their eyebrows until he notices and looks sheepish. The boom of the drums rolls off the stage like a thunderstorm.

Ojos de Brujo
Part of the Spain's nuevo flamenco movement, a combination of flamenco, hip hop, and other music. I saw them twice and didn't like them as much as I thought I would (I enjoyed their first album (not so much the next two) and imagined they'd have a strong live presence). The different musicians seemed disassociated from one another, as if they were gesturing across gulfs from pocket-sized stages of their own. Other members of the audience didn't come away with the same impression. I overheard them afterwards telling their friends what a wonderful time they'd had. The lead singer, Marina, was endlessly active -- possibly the most extroverted performer at the festival. Makes starfish with her hands as she talks. I sat two rows in front of her on the flight home.

I abandoned Ojos de Brujo to watch the second half of Calexico's act. Every year the organisers bring in one US indie-rock crossover-music band like this. Last year it was Dengue Fever (US/Cambodia), the year before it was Beirut (US/Balkan, with wobbly trumpets that make the professional world music reviewers humph with scorn, but they don't seem to understand that the group is working to an indie aesthetic, not the trad one that rewards tightness. I've noticed that the richer the country, the more likely it is that some portion of its audience will regard shaky or distorted playing as evidence of a valued authenticity. Lots of it in Japan, eg, Maher Shalal Hash Baz). In 2010 it was this US/Mexican group, "from Tucson, Arizona" (the announcers kept saying), which perked me up every time I heard it because M. was raised in Arizona. I told him. He didn't seem to care.

The nightclub scene in Addis Ababa reached an apotheosis in the 1960s and early '70s before the Derg junta arrived to throttle it with eighteen years of curfew. (The word Falceto used was "strangled.") The only nice thing you can say about Mengistu is that he wasn't Pol Pot, who had Cambodia's urban musicians driven into the countryside and worked to death or shot. Mahmoud Ahmed, a youngish singer back then, still has his flexible, quavering voice and superb accuracy. The show ended in an audience roar of, "Mah-moud, Mah-moud, Mah-moud!"

Grrilla Step
One of the Avalanches came up with the idea of combining krump and PNG log-drumming, which sounds, on paper, like the genesis of a novelty act, but there is nothing incongruous about the performance (although putting the krumpers, in their urban streetwear, on the same stage as a man in traditional PNG half-nakedness, might have seemed so, if both parties didn't acquit themselves so well): very fast, very forceful, the percussion suits the music, and the dancers move with an exactness that is exciting. The human body, which fails us, which decays, which ages, which suffers cramps, injuries, stumbles, shakiness, has here been willed into precision. They pop and twitch as if ghosts are grabbing at them.

The Skatalites
Not the popular hit of the festival but the band with the loudest fans. The lead saxophonist, who was probably the only original member of the Skatalites onstage, was a stubby man with a round chin and catfish whiskers.

Gochag Askarov
Mugham singer from Azerbaijan. I spent most of my time watching his tar player, Malik Mansurov, whose nickname in my head was Mr Severe for his silver crewcut and stern expression. Poking around in the CD tent I discovered that the Musique du Monde people put out a solo album of Mr Severe over a decade ago. (Musique du Monde is a good label for things like tars, or dombras, or other out-of-the-way instruments.) M.M. is extraordinarily dedicated, according to the album notes, a man who abides by tradition, resisting all calls to simplify or modernise his music, yet he is also modest and friendly. Onstage he looked as if he were about to shoot you or sell you hardware.

Mama Kin
"[H]er highly personal songs of love, life and motherhood are brought to vivid life over a stomping piano groove," according to the programme notes. I sat in front of her trying to work out why I was so dissatisfied. Reducing interesting ideas to, "I was strong," I wrote in my notepad. She would tell us the story behind the song, and then sing the song itself, and the lyrics were, without fail, blander than the prose. The lightbulb came on two mornings later when I watched Jane Siberry sing at the Women's Voices workshop. The voice in Siberry's song was that of a daughter addressing her mother, and the lyrics began by establishing both parties in a place (the narrator asks her mother to "put that teatowel down" -- you can assume they're in a kitchen), then goes on to sketch out the exchange between them. The mother has sometimes exasperated the daughter ("Don't worry 'bout my health. / My body is just fine"), but the daughter loves her nonetheless. She tells her mother that she can rely on her. We might guess that she has had to overcome her exasperation to reach this point of sympathy. It is an emotion she has had to work for, it is not a straightforward baby-method of loving someone, it is adult, and it has weight. Think of Paul Kelly's "How to Make Gravy", which lets us know the singer-narrator is in prison without ever having him say, "I'm in prison," or Larkin's Myxomatosis, in which the act of violence at the centre of the poem is never named. Indirectness asks us to think a little, keeping us alert, waiting for the next clue. Mama Kin was too simple, too direct, and she didn't have those hints of place and character.

Besh o droM
Hungarians, mixing traditional music with other ideas. "Hop-a hop-a!" at high speed. The djembe player grinned like a man who was doing the only thing in life he had ever wanted to do.

Los Amigos Invisibles
Venezuelans, based in New York: Latin funk and disco. The keyboard player took his shirt off and the singer wore purple sunglasses. I took a photograph more or less up his nose.

The keyboard player still had his shirt on at this point.

Mairtin O'Connor Trio
An Irish trio with O'Connor on accordion. Then there's a fiddler and guitarist. O'Connor lives near the site of an old monastery, he told us, and his white hair falls all around from a single point at the crown of his head like a friar's.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra
A Melbourne-based Afrobeat band, with brass, dancers, socially-conscious lyrics, and the big-band Nigerian sound, but the cold was starting to kick in, and I wasn't paying attention.

Lepisto & Lehti
I do not understand the Finnish enthusiasm for tango.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Witness: a man who can play the trumpet with one hand and grab his crotch with the other. From Chicago, an all-brass party band with effective audience management tactics. "Let me hear you say Yeah Yeah!" -- and bob up and down, while they played synchronised strutting urban horns -- which was huge fun. Respect to the man with the tuba, who had to keep both hands on his instrument and so got locked out of the crotch-grabbing and audience-waving-at sides of things. "Everybody, even the cool motherfuckers, all right, get down a little low."

Babylon Circus
Some time after I saw them perform I walked past the table near the CD tent where they were signing autographs, and a quivering plump tween boy came to the front of the line, and said passionately, "That was so good. I am totally in love with you." He seemed more sincere than the girl who loved Eliades Ochoa. Someone had handed the band members a lilac-dyed long-haired chihuahua. One of them tucked it inside his jacket.

Eliades Ochoa
Former Buena Vista Social Club member making the most of an adoring crowd. We were "alle grande familia," he said, or however it's spelt. My Spanish is on a level with his English, which seems to consist of one sentence: "My English is … no good." Nobody gave a damn about languages at this point, everybody loved him. Then he played "Chan Chan" and everybody loved him even more. (On the subject of languages, I've noticed that bands who come from non-European nations will address us with whatever European language they know, even if it's not English. As far as most of the crowd is concerned they might as well go on speaking Wolof or Mandarin. It would lead to less confusion. I think we once convinced a Tuareg we could all understand French because we shouted, "Oui, oui," obligingly during a pause in his speech when he looked at us. On the other hand, each performer usually attracts at least a small group of their -- what's the word I want here? Their home team? Who will understand the language. My mind has been arrested by the memory of the Portuguese who roared into Mariza's concert years ago, waving football scarves. Every time a Greek group plays we end up with a circle dance, which I love very much and sometimes even deign to get involved in.)

Gilles Peterson
Late night UK DJ stationed near Gate Two. I hung around his set for a while on the way out. He was working through a string of African-American samples when I heard him: Nina Simone, and a rapper I didn't recognise.

Ross Daly & Ensemble
Cretan music. Daly has the kind of dedication that Musique du Monde attributes to Mr Severe. Intricate, measured, intelligent -- music that the musician has to pay attention to in order to play it at all, and so, so do you, to listen. The impression you come away with is one of profound integrity, your brain washed clean and beautiful by the effort of listening. Ended with a circle dance, the leading man tucking one hand behind his hip, the fingers gathered loosely together at the tips.

Unified Gecko
Turkish-Israeli-Australian folk-rock band. I recall liking them at the time but don't remember what they sounded like. Sorry, Unified Gecko. According to my notepad I was standing, waiting for them to start playing when I overheard this exchange:

"Are these guys Aussies? No. They're not Unified Gecko?"


"From Melbourne. Oh, Melbourne" as if this explained a lot.

On a tangent, I heard someone else at a different venue talking about their favourite Womadelaide act. "I think the best show I've seen was a few years ago, the overtone singers. Did you hear the Tuvan overtone singers? From Siberia?"

Mariem Hassan
Nicknamed "The Voice of the Western Sahara." The Western Sahara is a sliver of ex-Spanish colony being jealously tusseled over by the nations around it. Last time I looked, months ago, it was part-sort-of Mauritania and part-limbo. Anyway, they want autonomy. Hassan's group is something like a minimalist version of the Tuareg groups that have become popular since Tinariwen stormed into our non-Tuareg lives a decade ago. There's electric guitars, and a woman on percussion. Hassan has one of those strong, abrasive, long-noted desert voices, and is a powerful ululator. At the end she wrapped herself in a flag. I thought, "Do we know what we're cheering?" We were cheering a general ideal of freedom, I think. How many of us knew the first thing about the Western Sahara, or what freeing it might mean?

A band fronted by the Narcoleptic Agentinean from Moulin Rouge, here growling in Russian. A one-joke band, but they push the whole Russian-criminal-cabaret thing marvellously, and it was worth being there for Kolman's asides, which were all about black prison bread and the tears of little children. "Can you feel in your mouth [pause] the black prison bread? [dramatic glowering pause] Well you can sweeten it with rrrevenge." And they rip into the next song, which is probably about murdering someone with a broken bottle in a brothel.

The Armada
A three-piece band led by Jeff Martin, formerly of the Tea Party. I hadn't thought of the Tea Party -- hadn't listened -- to the Tea Party for years, but when I saw that Martin was an ex-, I wondered if I remembered liking them. I think I did. Standing a little way ahead of me in the crowd I saw a black mohawk that seemed familiar, then, under it, the word Yamato on the back of the t-shirt and, yes, it was one of the drummers from Yamato. After the show one of the other audience members flew up to him, gushing. I worked my way surreptitiously around to the front and saw that he was wearing an apron.

Kathakali Dance Ensemble
They spent four hours donning makeup. We were allowed to peek into the tent. Then two hours performing a story from the Mahabharata. (The moral of the story was that the human body is but a transient envelope containing the perpetual soul, therefore it is quite all right to knock your enemy down, rip open his stomach with your bare hands, smear yourself in his blood, and dance around with his intestines in your teeth.) The makeup came off and the demons and nobles were replaced by middle-aged balding Indian men, which seemed wonderful in itself, as if the whole six hours (seven, counting the one-hour interval) was only a lead-up to this, the one marvel that seemed really unbelievable even as I was watching it happen.

Dean & Britta
A US indie duo providing a live soundtrack to Warhol's Screen Tests. Surging music.

LAFA & Artists Dance Company
Modern dance company from Taiwan, performing "an extended version of its beautiful and acclaimed work Single Room." I enjoy dance but the price of tickets stops me going, so I was grateful for this.

Women's Voices
Mariem Hassan, Mariem Hassan's percussionist, Amal Murkus (Palestinian singer), Marina from Ojos de Brujo, and Jane Siberry sang together to celebrate International Woman's Day, which made me uncomfortable, because I'm not so sure about having my consciousness raised through song, thank'ee all the same. After this I wished I'd managed to fit Siberry into my schedule somewhere else.

Young Wagilak Group
I'm going to copy out the note I wrote for Whispering Gums. "A mob from Arnhem Land, dancing and singing. Everything but the dancing and singing was disorganised (they arrived ten minutes late to their own show, which was unprecedented in this tightly-run festival) but once they opened their mouths to sing their bodies and minds seemed to snap into focus. The man in the middle (whose name I didn't catch) was one of the best traditional singers I've heard -- an articulate voice with a firm backbone."

George Kamikawa & Noriko Tadano
"I've seen that man busking in Bourke Street Mall. Haven't I?" Kamikawa was a salaryman for one year in Japan (says his biography) but he couldn't stand it, and for the past ten years he's been a blues slide guitarist with a confident zoom and zing. He's based in Melbourne. So is Tadano, and he met her there. She plays shamisen. A hard pluck stabbing through to the zoom. A lot of the stage patter revolved around alcohol. "Get pissed," Kamikawa ordered. "Where did you learn language like that?" Tadano asked. "What?" "Who taught you to talk like that?" "Aussies."

Arrebeto Ensemble
I saw so little of this that my opinion can't be called informed. Clearly articulated instrumental flamenco nuevo, as far as I could tell.

Kamel el Harrachi
An Algerian oud player, ripping into chaabi with panache and an expression of perplexed agony, thanks to the way he had to turn down the corners of his mouth when he sang. He seemed to be coming to the end of one song, then -- ha ha -- a few notes popped out of the tune -- and a rising pleasured moan of "Ah-h-h!" flew across the crowd because this was undoubtedly the beginning of "Ya Rayah", and who, who knows "Ya Rayah", doesn't love it, unless they've heard it a million times and have reached the point of wanting to strangle the composer?

Djan Djan
I only saw a little of this group's set because the All-Star Jam was up next and I was itching to get into the pit and see what was happening on Stage Two. But the combination of kora, tabla, and guitar was rippling along on that easygoing lilt koras can adopt when they want to, and the tabla kept things from getting sleepy.

Ravi Shankar & Anouschka Shankar
One show only, and his fame drew an enormous crowd. Womadelaide has sit-down shows and standing shows, designated as such, an intelligent and needed response to a problem that was bringing some performances down in an atmosphere of anger and nastiness. One group of people would settle on the grass, meaning to watch the musician from their rugs, then another group would come and stand in front, wanting to dance, and everything would devolve into shouts of, "Sit down!" followed by shouts of, "Stand up!" and it was ruining (as you can imagine) the performances. This all happened years ago. Sit-down shows on Stage One still have the ghost of this charge of mutual resentment running through them: the stage is huge, the crowd is huge, and in all this mass of people there's always somebody out there who's too tall, or wearing a hat. The Shankars were a sit-down show.

Dub Colossus
A Town Called Addis was one of my most-loved albums two years ago. (The most-loved was Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara's Soul Science, in which the musicians do a lot with a little.) I was panging to see this group. The album leans so heavily on mixing that there was almost no way anyone would be able to reproduce it on stage without bringing out your big machine and sitting there, pushing knobs, so this was not so much 'Dub Colossus' as 'A live show based on Dub Colossus, featuring people who appeared, sampled and remixed, on the album.' Nick Page, the UK brain behind the Ethiopian mix, was present, looking like Bob Hoskins and being droll. He introduced the musicians. "This is" -- and he said the man's name, whatever it was. "Excellent piano player. Keyboard to you. Great player. Nice hat." A pause as the man stood there. "Taciturn."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

the pixie hat stall is still there

So --

I'm home from Adelaide after a weekend spent covering Womadelaide. I had a photographer's pass on a lanyard around my neck, my notebook and camera in one leg-pocket of M.'s BDU pants (which were on my legs, not his; his were at home), and an ordinary plastic bag in the left-hand arse-pocket for the wrapping up of the hardware in case of rain. I didn't think it would rain, because it never rains at Womad, or if it does then the rain is only a sprinkle and not worth worrying about -- think of the light shower during the All-Star Jam managed by Johnny Kalsi in 2006, for instance, arriving with a breath of cool wind from the direction of the clothing stalls that, every year, sell thick felt pixie hats, handbags made from recycled tyres, and a heap of cheap yukata. (The heap of cheap yukata has vanished now. Why, I wonder? I think the pixie hat stall is still there.) But this year it rained. By mid-afternoon on Saturday I was soaked, and by eight that night when Babylon Circus was about to perform I was shivering so much that one of the professional photographers in the pit in front of the stage spoke to me for the first time, saying, You're freezing.

These experienced photographers own serious camaras fronted with huge long lenses like rows of black plastic cups wedged together, and by the end of the weekend I was feeling lens envy. My camera is a small digital one, wearing nothing but the truncated lens it was born with, and when I caught sight of a picture one of the others was taking, I thought, "Ow, I want one of those cameras. I want to zoom, baby." The picture was a close-up of Anoushka Shankar. She was onstage and we were in the pit. What a scrum it was, that Stage One pit, during the Shankar performance. Everybody's editor must have told them to get a good shot of Ravi. ("I know who you've come here to see," said Anoushka, laughing graciously, and acknowledging that the vast half-invisible crowd in front of the stage would not be so vast or so restless if this had been merely her. She was gracious too when a couple approached her at the airport the following morning as the entourage was going through the check-in for their flight. We saw your father last night ... How do I know this? I was standing a few feet away, zipping my boarding pass into my bag, thinking, suddenly, "That man in that wheelchair looks familiar. Of course he does. I remember that head. Ten hours ago I was trying to get the forehead into focus. And that fluffy, floating, wispy hair. His legs are so thin.")

Stage One is the main stage, the highest in the festival -- about, what -- seven feet off the ground? I haven't measured it, but it's above my head. There's a raised vertical lip -- like a rampart -- running along the front of the stage. One of the professional photographers discovered this when she tried to balance her camera on what she thought was a solid floor, and had to react quickly when it began to fall over the other side of the lip.

When a musician comes on from the back of Stage One I can't see them from the pit until they're standing at the microphone, which is usually back a little way at the centre. Then I see them from the waist up. Sometimes from the hips, if they come forward. Stage Two is lower, and it has a dark ceiling with a visible lighting rig, where Stage One has a smooth white shell ceiling that goes upwards at a curve. Standing in the audience for the Armada's performance on Sunday, I saw, in the gap between the bottom of this shell and the very back of the stage area, dark grey clouds welling up into the blue streak of sky, and thought, "It is going to rain again, and the Reject Shop this morning was sold out of plastic ponchos. I'll be soaked, I'll shake, and someone will say again, You're freezing."

(During the walk back to the hotel on Monday, I spoke to a man who told me the following story: a friend of his was at Womadelaide years ago when Jimmy Cliff came onstage during a storm and sang, "I Can See Clearly Now." At that the rain stopped.)

Stage Three is only about two feet off the ground behind a fence covered in black plastic hessian. There's a gap of perhaps three feet between this fence and the stage. The photographers sneak along doubled-up behind the fence. The Ravi Shankars and Eliades Ochoas of the festival never appear here, so there's never a photographer-scrum. (Ochoa is one of the surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club, and when he appeared on Stage One the crowd cheered and screamed and a teenage girl crammed against the barrier shouted, "I love you! I love you!" Ochoa is sixty-three years old.)

Stage Four has a similar gap, but this one is narrower, and as the ends are blocked off with earthenware pots filled with long ornamental bright green grasses I concluded that we weren't supposed to use it. Everyone else must have concluded the same because I never saw anyone in there. The speakers or lights or something at the front of this stage bulged out into the rain so the crew covered them with a tarpaulin stuck down with gaffer tape. Part-way into Mairtin O'Connor the tape came loose and the musicians, all seated, were obscured by a cloud of rippling blue plastic.

On the morning of the first day there was a media call-up before the festival opened. We gave our names and received manila envelopes. These contained our passes, a Womadelaide programme, a wristband, and two sheets of paper laying out the rules. There would be no filming of Ravi Shankar, there would be no flash photography of Ravi Shankar, and this year the media would only be allowed to remain in the pit for the first ten minutes of each show. (This was enforced by security. The guard on Stage One was the most brusque. "All right, time's up, fellas." People lingered over the final snap. Oh how the front row in the Shankar performance must have hated us. They all had to sit down (this was the only sit-down show on Stage One) while we, of course, were allowed to stand, and right up the front, too, going click click click click -- and this was audible over the sitar.)

After we had our envelopes we watched two short performances by Ochoa and Mariem Hassan, "The Voice of the Western Sahara." Once they were finished we were allowed to conduct interviews. I wondered who the starched-casual group of men were behind me; later when I saw them on Stage Three and realised that they were the mugham ensemble from Azerbaijan I wished I'd spoken to them. Ross Daly, who is a tallish man, was inclining his noble head over a small crowd of journalists, his white hair whisking around in the wind. Days later at the All-Star Jam a larger wind blew up and the hair streamed out to the right until his head was an immobile comet followed in its inert progress by a cone-shaped tail.

The Voice of the Western Sahara was being photographed next to her percussionist, a round woman swaddled in fine orange gauze. I thought of her as The Orange. The next day she wore a green set of robes and I thought of her as The Lime. On Monday she was in pink and I thought of her as a Strawberry Gelati. What she wore on Sunday I do not know.

The crew had tied red and white striped tags to the lower branches of some of the trees. Those were gone by the time the park opened for the festival that afternoon. Why were they there? Why were they removed?

What else? We had a Media Tent, with tables and chairs, a water dispenser, and an internet connection. I ducked in during the rain and found the professional photographers sitting in a group discussing their cameras. In the background, on Stage Three, the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra was chanting, "Rain, rain, go away," in a call-and-response duet with the audience. But Jimmy Cliff wasn't there, and it didn't.