Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tina Modotti

Tina Modotti (1896-1942) is best known as photographer, but her's was one of those lives that joined the dots between different radical and cultural scenes in the first half of the twentieth century. She was born in Udine, Italy, where her father was a militant worker and member of a banned socialist group. Tina had to drop out of school and earn a living as a silk worker in a sweatshop where 'the silk reelers were sometimes allowed to sing as they toiled. At first pianissimo and barely audible over the whirring of machinery, the juvenile voices would soar into the popular 'They call me Mimi' from La Boheme or 'ves doi voi che son dos stelis', a Friulian love song they had all been humming since childhood'.

In 1913, aged 16, she moved to San Francisco where she became an actress. She had a starring role in a Hollywood silent movie, The Tiger's Coat (1920), playing a Mexican servant who ended up heading a dance troupe.

After a period in Los Angeles bohemian circles she ended up in Mexico City in the aftermath of the revolution, living with the photographer Edward Weston, befriending Diego Riviera (who she modelled for while he worked on some of his murals), Frida Kahlo and B.Traven, and throwing herself into radical politics, including the unsuccessful campaign against the execution of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the USA in 1927. Another of her lovers, the Cuban revolutionary Julio Antionio Mella was shot dead as the two of them walked together. In this period she was increasingly developing her practice as a photographer, with her work appearing in international radical publications such as El Machete, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), and New Masses.

She joined the Communist Party, and like many radicals of her generation was compromised by her links to Stalinist terror, particularly during the Spanish Revolution/Civil War where she worked alongside her lover Vittorio Vidali, a notorious henchman implicated in the death of many Poumistas, trotskyists and anarchists (including Alberto Besouchet, the first Brazilian to join the International Brigades, who disappeared after being denounced for Trotskyist sympathies - the evidence against him including an association with the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston, ex-wife of the surrealist Benjamin Peret who we have mentioned here before).

Leaving aside this terrible episode (in which the extent of her complicity is a bone of contention), I think we can still appreciate her photography and wonder what it would have been like to have gone to one of her legendary parties. Just after the First World War she lived with her lover Ricardo Gomez Robelo in LA:

'The most enduring memories of 313 South Lake Street are of boisterous parties in the studio, mobilizing Los Angeles's small bohemia, a provincial avant-garde striving for effect. "Intense, dreamy and vibrant", in Robelo's recollection, evenings throbbed "with the magic of art and congenial, exquisite friends and Saki!" Photographer Edward Weston noted of his fellow revelers: They were "well-read, worldly wise, clever in conversation,-could garnish with a smattering of French: they were parlor radicals. could sing IWW songs, quote Emma Goldman on freelove: they drank. smoked, had affairs .... "

The screen door slapping open and shut, Tina greeted her guests wearing something flowing and distinctive, her tie-dyed tunic perhaps, over a long skirt. She adored silk stockings and stacked jangling bracelets on her arm. Her eyes were rimmed in black, mouth painted into a ripe cherry, hands smoothed with her favorite honey-and-almond cream... As the evening heated up, the gregarious, streetwise Wobbly Roy Rosen might set the room on a roar with tales of the scoundrels he confronted as a "tough, tough baby" bill collector. Rosen hailed from New York, but many guests were refugees from San Francisco art circles: the painter Clarence Hinkle and his wife, Mabel, and the curly-haired Mexican Francisco Cornejo, who had created costumes and decor for Xochiquetzal, the "Toltec ballet" staged by the Denishawn modern dance troupe. An unruly sexual charge swept around the room, sending tall, tousled ex-barmaid Dorothea Childs reeling into somebody's arms as the lecherous and amusing old satyr Sadakichi Hartmann pranced from one woman to another. Jazz or Japanese music spinning on the Victrola, the studio dis:olved into a smoky, incense-fragrant maelstrom dotted with pools of colored lights from Tina's homemade Japanese lanterns. The crowd wrangled oveer aesthetics, got drunk on bootleg sake, and sucked on cigarette holders as they quoted Nietzsche and Wilde. Eyelids drooping, Robelo recited Swinburne while couples drifted out to the porch in a fever of kissing and groping.

Among the Richeys' guests was Ramiel McGehee, a baby-faced man with one glass eye and a pinched, disapproving mouth. Once a dancer who had toured Asia and was obsessed with Eastern mysticism, Ramiel metamorphosed into an undulating contortionist at the first sound of a sitar or daibyoshi'.

Living in Mexico City with Edward Weston, Modetti was once again at the centre of bohemian social life:

'New Year's Eve found the kitchen at 12 Lucerna in an uproar as Lupe Marin whipped up a spread of firecracker Mexican dishes, for which she had shopped, thus enabling a couple unable to scrape up January rent to throw a lavish party. Guests fox-trotted their way into 1924, pausing to quaff rum punch and smack their lips over the delicacies. So successful was the tertulia that Tina and Edward made it a weekly event, to be underwritten by passing the hat. "Because of grave conditions resulting from the revolution," the pair chortled, they kindled up the fabled Saturday nights, turning the Modotti-Weston household into the most dazzling light on the vanguard social circuit.

Virtually every well-known writer and artist in Mexico participated. Mexican-born, Texas-educated journalist Anita Brenner described how 'workers in paints drank tea and played the phonograph with union and non-union technical labour-scribes, musicians, architects, doctors, archaeologists, cabinet-ministers, generals, stenographers, deputies, and occasional sombreroed peasants."
....Invariably hungry, they dug into Tina's spaghetti with butter and cheese Anita's version of chongo, a traditional syrupy curd, which she served with cinnamon toast and tea, and a delicious curry and sweet rice prepared by an Indian revolutionist named Gupta. After dinner, the men heaped Colts on a table as tangos and the wicked Cuban rumba scratched their way our of the phonograph. On one memorable occasion, a guest stumbled upon her lover entwined with another woman and holloed him from room to room, popping at his feet with a small pistol. On another, Tina and Edward exchanged clothes, mimicking each other so convincingly that revelers were perplexed until Edward kicked up his pink-gartered legs and vamped outrageously. Edward loved to prance, but Tina, clumsy and uncomfortable on the dance floor, caught her breath on the parties' less frenetic edges, where talk gravitated to revolutionary art and politics'.

Quotes from Patricia Albers, Shadows, Fire, Snow – The Life of Tina Modotti, Clarkson Potter, 1999. See also this post at Museworthy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More Silent Raves

Earlier this month, police staged an operation to prevent a silent rave at Glasgow's central station. Elsewhere people did manage to put on similar events - 100 people danced at Chorlton Green (Manchester), apparently to celebrate somebody's birthday. In Milton Keynes, up to 400 people partied in the main shopping centre (see below):

Not so silent in Milton Keynes was a party in a Church Hall. The 18 year old organiser received a police caution for fraud after booking the hall for a family '50th birthday party' and then inviting hundreds of people via Facebook who apparently left the 'area strewn with broken glass, cans, beer bottles and glow sticks'.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Miners Strike: (2) Kent; (3) Dick Gaughan

Following my earlier post about the 25th anniversary of the Miners Strike, here's some recollections of being a strike supporter in Kent - plus next in a series on miners strike songs, Dick Gaughan's The Ballad of '84.

When the Miners Strike started in 1984 I was living in Whitstable in Kent, very close to the small Kent coalfield. The Kent mining villages in the 1980s were radically distinct from the surrounding area. In the middle of the 'garden of England' the three pits of Snowdown, Tilmanstone and Betteshanger were more or less the only major industry, employing two thousand miners, many of them living in the villages of Aylesham, Elvington and Mill Hill on the edge of Deal. A fourth Kent pit, Chislett, had been closed in 1968.

Betteshanger in particular had a long history of militancy. During the Second World War, three union officials were imprisoned and over 1000 men were prosecuted after going on strike. In 1961 miners occupied the pit for 6 days in a stay-down strike in a successful protest against redundancies - 'an old record player was sent down the pit, and each of the teams organised a show of songs and comedy acts' (Pitt). In the 1972 strike, Kent miners had travelled around the country as 'flying pickets' .

Map of the Kent coalfield (from Pitt)

My first introduction to the mines was during my pre-strike time in the Socialist Workers Party when the worst task for a drinking and smoking student was a paper sale at the pit gates early in the morning as the miners were changing shifts. We never seemed to sell more than 1 or 2 - there were a few vaguely sympathetic miners, but nobody wanted to talk politics a couple of hours the wrong side of dawn. Most just walked by no doubt wondering quite rightly why anyone would want to get out of bed that early unless they had to. Soon I too was crying off the early shift, and indeed the whole trotskyist project, but that's another story.

When the strike started, me and some friends at our college (University of Kent at Canterbury) took the initiative to set up a Miners Support Group. The aim was practical solidarity - we collected money, organised transport to demonstrations and pickets and generally encouraged support for the strike. There was plenty of support to be tapped into, even though for most people this never went beyond putting some money in a bucket and wearing a 'coal not dole' sticker. As the radical historian Raphael Samuel perceptively argued at the end of the strike: 'In retrospective it can be seen that support for the strike, though fervently expressed, was also precarious; that it was predicated on the miners' weakness rather than their strength; and that it owed more to a humanitarian spirit of Good Works, than, in any classical trade union sense, solidarity, and it is perhaps indicative of this that the local organisation of aid took the form of Miners Support Groups rather than, as in 1926 - an analogy fruitlessly invoked - Councils of Action. The support was heartfelt and generous, but with the important exception of the seamen, the railwaymen and the Fleet Street printers, it did not involve stoppages of work'.

Coal Not Dole - slogan in Whitstable, Kent (by the Labour Club)

The strike polarised society with passionate support on the one hand and equally virulent opposition on the other. We encountered some of the latter in Kent too, from the college official who tried to stop us collecting to our landlord in Whitstable who tried to get us to take down posters from our window.

Kent NUM leaflet from May 1984 [click on pictures to enlarge] - 'Our fight is a fight for everyone' - the language of this leaflet is very much in line with the Communist Party of Great Britain politics of Kent NUM leaders Jack Collins and Malcolm Pitt, combining calls for solidarity with appeals to nationalist sentiment (e.g. 'The Coal Mining Industry of Britain belongs the whole nation')

When the strike started, the Kent miners unanimously joined in. In Nottinghamshire many miners continued to work, and strikers from Kent travelled up to the Midlands to join their comrades from Yorkshire in picketing the working mines. The police mounted a massive operation to prevent the Kent miners from moving around the country. 'On Sunday March 18th, police officers from the Kent constabulary attempted to stop anyone who appeared to be a miner or who was going north to aid the miners strike from crossing the Thames through the Dartford Tunnel'. Strikers were threatened with arrest for trying to leave Kent, even though the police had no legal powers to stop them (State of Siege).

Malcolm Pitt , President of Kent National Union of Mineworkers, was jailed for 18 days for defying bail conditions which prohibited from going anywhere near a picket line. I took part in pickets of Canterbury Prison, where he was being held in May 1984.

Later in the strike, some Kent miners did begin to go back to work and the strikers mounted pickets of the Kent pits. The Miners Support Group joined the pickets, and the canteen in the miners welfare club had to get used to the vegetarian demands of student radicals!

The Kent miners were the last return to work in March 1985, staying out longer than the rest of the country in an attempt to win the reinstatement of miners sacked during the strike. Within five years all three of the remaining Kent mines had been closed for good, with the loss of 2000 jobs (Betteshanger was the last to go in 1989)

References: Malcolm Pitt, The World on Our Back: the Kent Miners and the 1972 Strike (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979); ; Raphael Samuel, Barbara Bloomfield and Guy Boanas (eds.), The Enemy Within:Pit villages and the Miners Strike of 1984-5 (London: Routledge, 1986); Jim Coulter, Susan Miller and Martin Walker, State of Siege: Miners Strike 1984- Politics and Policing in the Coal Fields (London: Canary Press, 1984). There's some interesting material on the strike in Kent here

Dick Gaughan

The folksinger Dick Gaughan was a tireless supporter of the Miners Strike, performing at benefit gigs all over the UK. Immediately after the strike he wrote a song about it entitled The Ballad of 84, first performed at a benefit for sacked miners at Woodburn Miners Welfare Club in Dalkeith, Midlothian in '85.

Gaughan's song recalls the strikers who died, as well mentioning Malcolm Pitt and others who were imprisoned:

Let's pause here to remember the men who gave their lives / Joe Green and David Jones were killed in fighting for their rights / But their courage and their sacrifice we never will forget / And we won't forget the reason, too, they met an early death / For the strikebreakers in uniforms were many thousand strong / And any picket who was in the way was battered to the ground / With police vans driving into them and truncheons on the head/ It's just a bloody miracle that hundreds more aren't dead... And Malcolm Pitt and Davy Hamilton and the rest of them as well / Who were torn from home and family and locked in prison cells'.

You can listen to the song here.

I will be doing some more posts about the miners strike, if you can recommend any songs (or better still point me in the direction of MP3s) let me know. Particularly keen to get hold of Chumbawamba's Common Ground and Fitzwilliam - my tapes long lost - and The Enemy Within track (done by Adrian Sherwood).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sapeurs of Bakongo

Interesting review by Dylan Jones of Gentlemen Of Bakongo, Daniele Tamagni's book chronicling "a journey with the Sapeurs of the Bakongo district of Brazzaville in Congo, the real cradle of Sape, the 'religion of clothing' ". Apparently many of the Sapeurs 'fantasise about walking the streets of Paris or Brussels - places most can only dream of visiting - returning to Brazzaville as sartorial aristocrats of ultimate elegance. They emerged from the chaos of the Mobutu reign, their distinctive look a way of rebelling against his dictatorial decree that everyone should dress in traditional African costume... To them, to be well-dressed is to be successful, which is not just the essence of bling, it is a cri de coeur. But they do look extraordinary. They wouldn't look out of place strolling down Savile Row, resplendent in their multicoloured finery, carrying canes and cigars, putting one white buckskin loafer in front of the other and smiling as though they haven't a care in the world'.

The book blurb notes that 'In 1922, G. A. Matsoua was the first-ever Congolese to return from Paris fully clad as an authentic French gentleman, which caused great uproar and much admiration amongst his fellow countrymen. He was the first Grand Sapeur. The Sapeurs today belong to 'Le SAPE' (Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes) - one of the world's most exclusive clubs. Members have their own code of honour, codes of professional conduct and strict notions of morality. It is a world within a world within a city. Respected and admired in their communities, today's sapeurs see themselves as artists. Each one has his own repertoire of gestures that distinguishes him from the others'.

More Sapeur photos by Hector Mediavilla (who took the picture above here).

(note to self - must get round to doing that post on proletarian dandyism...)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Flash Mob Simulacrum Continued

Following the analysis here of the recent T-Mobile pseudo-flash mob, I notice that Stewart Home was actually inadvertently present at Liverpool Street station when this was being filmed. He notes: 'This definitely wasn’t a flash mob because the filming was still going on when I returned to Liverpool Street station an hour later. Coming back I noticed a sign that claimed if I went into the area being used to fabricate the ad, I had consented to being filmed… Not so, since I hadn’t seen this sign until after I’d been through the station once, and besides which not everybody can read English… Liverpool Street station is a public space and a lot of people have no choice about using it if they need to catch the tube or an overground train'. Naturally he has demanded payment from T-Mobile should they use his image!

In the comments to Stewart's post, someone mentions Baudrillard and his notion of the Simulacrum. I must admit, though not an uncritical admirer, my first thought when I read that T-Mobile had created a simulation of a flash mob (in itself arguably a simulation of a Reclaim the Streets party), and that subsequently thousands of people had created a real flashmob partly as a simulation of this simulation - thus rendering the notion of what was 'real' at least problematic - my first thought was 'Blimey, Baudrillard eat your heart out'. Unfortunately Baudrillard is no longer around to spin a few moments of flashmobbing into a pithy if incomprehensible epigram.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Moving Gallery - The Mysterium

Moving Gallery - The Mysterium was an event held at Trinity College of Music in Greenwich last month (19th February) as part of In the Moment: a Festival of Improvised Music and Dance. The festival was a joint initiative between Trinity and the Deptford-based Laban centre - the two of which are working together as Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

The inspriation was Alexander Scriabin's never realized plan for his Mysterium, a work that called for a cast of 1000 musicians and dancers to realize his vision where: 'There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours."

For this event, every corner of the building seemed to have been turned into a space for performance and installations, with corridors, corners and rooms full of dancers and musicians, through which the audience wandered between and within waves of movement and sound.

We particularly enjoyed Night Chant, a beautiful piano performance by GéNIA (picutre below), inspired by Yeibichai (Night Chant), a Navajo ritual. The Aviary, a bird themed performance by the group The Conference of Birds, also felt quite shamanic with dancer Helka Kaski moving as if she was channelling a bird.

The Practice Corridor, a homage to Rebecca Horn's Concert for Anarchy, featured eruptions of piano noise with dancers and pianists moving around the corridor:

The baroque buildings, designed by Christopher Wren, used to be part of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Trinity College of Music, which occupies them now, remains tied to Royal patronage but nevertheless it was pleasing to see a former hub of the Empire and military transformed into a festive space. And indeed for some of the ex-colonial subjects to temporarily take over some of the space - Samvaada was a musical collaboration between the Bhavan Institute for Indian Arts and some Trinity music students:

The final piece was Snowscape, outside in the courtyard, and beginning with a procession of a dancer wrapped in lights.

Watching contemporary dance can sometimes feel like hard work, and we weren't sure whether we were going to enjoy four hours of performance. As it happened we ended up only being able to take in a fraction of the events and wished it had gone on longer. In fact it would have been interesting if it had gone on all night, and perhaps begun to get a little messier with the boundaries between audience and performers maybe blurring a bit more.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Miners Strike (1): Here We Go

As many people have mentioned over the last couple of weeks, it is 25 years since the start of the last great Miners Strike in Britain. On 5 March 1984, mineworkers at Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire walked out and the strike soon spread to other parts of the country.

The focus of the strike was the threat of pit closures, but everybody involved knew that there was much more at stake than simply jobs in the mining industry (important as that was). Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was clearly determined not just to win the strike but to decisively break the most powerful section of the working class. Ten years before (in 1974) the previous Tory government had after all been forced to resign after a miners strike, and another strike in 1972 had led to power cuts.

This time round the state had made elaborate preparations, stockpiling coal and putting in place a massive police operation. As a result, the direct economic impact of the strike was minimised - power stations and other industries were not closed down, a major factor in the strike's eventual defeat a year later. The strike did though have a huge impact across society, and it has now assumed a kind of depoliticized iconic status. Witness the ongoing success of the film/musical Billy Elliot, the story of a young boy learning to dance against the backdrop of the strike. Witness too a recent advert for Hovis bread in which images of the strike feature in a parade of images of Northern authenticity that the little brown loaf has borne witness too!

I am not even going to attempt an overall analysis of a year of hope, violence, solidarity, betrayal and ultimately defeat. But I am planning a series of posts setting down some of my memories and reflections, including some of the musical aspects of the strike.

Here We Go

Several songs were written about the Miners Strike, and many more performed at the countless benefit gigs up and down the country. But if there's one piece of singing that reminds more than any other of the strike it's the chant 'Here We Go', heard on demonstrations and picket lines, and sungalong to in bars and parties. For instance, Bob Hume recalls that at Hatfield Main Miners Welfare club in Yorkshire 'We brought the New Year in [1985] with a disco/buffet... knees up, for all our kitchen staff, pickets and visiting friends, the night and early morning came with rousing 'Here We Goes', the Red Flag and Never Walk Alone'.

Here We Go is a football chant (in the US as well as UK) sung to the tune of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. Banner Theatre recorded a cassette based on the strike called "Here We Go" in 1985. The cartoon below from the time of the strike shows Thatcher & Co. singing the song as the car of 'British Capitalism' heads towards a crash.

(The Bob Hume quote comes from 'A Year of Our Lives: Hatfield Main, a colliery community in the great coal strike of 1984/5', Hooligan Press, 1986)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dancing and Xhosa Resistance

The revolt of the Xhosa against the British colonial forces in early 19th century South Africa was marked by dancing. Like the Native American Ghost Dancers, and similarly faced with overwhelming military force, some hoped that dancing would summon the ancestors to aid them in their struggle. The Xhosa did not rely on dancing alone though, and waged a long campaign of armed resistance. Today an area of the Eastern Cape is named after Makana (sometimes splet Makanda or Makanna) the leader of this campaign.

A close association of millennialist prophecy and warfare against intruders occurred in South Africa during the unsettled period of European conquest in the first half of the nineteenth century. European misconceptions of the tribal system of the Bantu and, even more, the misapprehension of the missionaries concerning native religion, were important factors in the wars between the Xhosa and the British forces in the Cape in the carly nineteenth century.

... Ndlambe [leader of many of the Xhosa groups], who had been a persistent enemy of the British... was pushed over the Fish River by British forces in the Fourth Kaffir War in 1812. A prophet, Makanna, arose as Ndlambe's adviser, and he persuaded Ndlambe's following, and the warriors of the Gcaleka, that with his aid the bullets of the English would turn to water, and the English themselves would be pushed into the sea. The numbers involved on the two sides were so utterly disproportionate that, once bullets were neutralized, such a result appeared a certainty. He would release lightning against them, and ensure victory for Ndlambe's warriors...

He taught that he was the emissary of Thlanga, creator of the Xhosa, who would raise ancestor spirits to assist them in battle. The god of black men, Dalidipu, was greater than the white god, Tixo, and Dalidipu's wife was a raingiver, while his son was Tayhi, the Xhosa name for Christ. Dalidipu sanctioned the Xhosa way of life, including the customs of polygamy and brideprice, which the missionaries said were sins. Makanna taught that black men had no sins except witchcraft, since adultery and fornication were not sins: on the other hand, the white men were, on their own admissions full of sins. Dalidipu would punish Tixo, and the white men would be destroyed. If the Xhosa danced, they could bring back the ancestors, who would come armed and with herds of cattle.

The British were allied with Gaika [leader of another group of Xhosa], who was the first object of attack by Ndlambe and Makanna. His defeat led the British into the Fifth Kaffir War of 1818-19, but their first success against Ndlambe's men beyond the Fish River did not prevent further hostilities between Gaika and Ndlambe, and Makanna's army crossed the Fish River singing that they would chase the white men from the earth. On 23 April 1819 ten thousand warriors, led by Ndlambe's son, Dushane, and Makanna attacked Grahamstown, which they failed to take and where they suffered heavy losses. This failure did not, however, bring about Makanna's downfall, and the war continued with the British driving the Xhosa back as far as the Kei River. In August Makanna gave himself up because his people were starving, and, so he declared, to see whether this would restore the country to peace. He was drowned some months later in attempting to escape, after his fellow prisoners on Robbell Island had overwhelmed the guard and made a bid for the mainland. That he was dead was not believed by the Xhosa, who for years expected his return to help them.

Source: Bryan Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Heinemann, 1973).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Musical Psych Ops in Kent

Poor Joe Strummer must be turning in his grave at the latest abuse of his music:

'A report into the policing of last year's Climate Camp demonstration [at Kingsnorth power station in Kent], to be presented today in parliament, has criticised Kent police for its apparent use of "psychological operations". To wake protesters during the week-long protest last August, police are accused of using vans to play loud music that included Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and the theme from 80s sitcom Hi-de-Hi. On the final day of the protest the van departed and - in what was taken as a smug gesture of triumphalism - blasted out "I fought the law and the law won", the lyrics to the Clash's rowdy cover.

The report, launched by the Liberal Democrats, said the music seemed "an attempt to deprive attendees of sleep". The report also highlighted the police approach to participants of a "festival picnic" procession mostly made up of families and small children. A helicopter ordered them via loudspeaker: "Disperse now, or dogs, horses and long-handed batons will be deployed."'

[full story in today's Guardian]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Artists and Borders

A campaign has been launched against the impact of the government's latest tightening of immigration controls on arts and music. According to the Manifesto Club: 'The Home Office recently introduced new restrictions on international artists and academics visiting the UK for talks, temporary exhibitions, concerts or artists' residencies. Visitors now have to submit to a series of arduous and expensive proceedures to get their visa, and then more bureaucratic controls when they are in the UK. Already a series of concerts and residencies have been cancelled'.

A letter signed by artists including Jeremy Deller and Anthony Gormley states: 'As professionals committed to the principles of internationalism and cultural exchange, we are dismayed by new Home Office regulations which will curb our invitations to non-EU artists and academics to visit the UK. All non-EU visitors now must apply for a visa in person and supply biometric data, electronic fingerprint scans and a digital photograph. The Home Office's 158-page document also outlines new controls over visitors' day-to-day activity: individuals must show that they have at least £800 of savings, which have been held for at least three months prior to the date of their application; the host organisation must keep copies of the visitor's passport and their UK biometric card, a history of their contact details; and if the visitor does not turn up to their studio or place of work, or their where-abouts are unknown, the organisation is legally obliged to inform the UK Border Agency. We believe that these restrictions discriminate against our overseas colleagues on the grounds of their nationality and financial resources and will be particularly detrimental to artists from developing countries and those with low income...'

Immigration controls have always acted as a barrier to the circulation of musicans - last year for instance Congolese band Konono No.1 had to cancel a London gig. If major art institutions are going to find the new points-based system hard to negotiate, imagine how difficult it will be for someone just putting on a gig or a party with a band or DJ from outside the EU.

No One is Illegal

While the campaign is welcome, we shouldn't make a special case of musicians and artists. The UK and EU border regime also causes misery to many other people - indeed the deaths of hundreds of people every year (usually at sea) as they try and enter Europe in defiance of these restrictions.

I was reminded of this while re-reading No One is Illegal, a seminal manifesto written by a group of people including Steve Cohen, who sadly died at the weekend. The text argues: 'Immigration controls should be abolished. People should not be deemed ‘illegal’ because they have fallen foul of an increasingly brutal and repressive system of controls. Why is immigration law different from all other law? Under all other laws it is the act that is illegal, but under immigration law it is the person who is illegal. Those subject to immigration control are dehumanized, are reduced to non-persons, are nobodies. They are the modern outlaw. Like their medieval counterpart they exist outside of the law and outside of the law’s protection. Opposition to immigration controls requires defending all immigration outlaws'.

The manifesto also makes that point that seeking to reform immigration control by 'defining who may be excluded from it by necessity entails defining who is included in it'. The UK Border Agency has created a separate category of temporary 'creative workers', with specific rules for them, but we should be wary of treating them as more deserving than other human beings subject to these barriers to the freedom of movement.

Dancing Questionnaire (14): Paul from Twickenham

1. Can you remember your first experience of dancing?
My mum used to have a Felicity Kendall exercise tape, which she would have in a little stereo on the landing, and I would dance along aged 5 or so. One of the tunes was In the Navy by the Village People and another was Being With You by Smokey Robinson, which I do still like today.

2. What's the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?
I don't know, the first night I ever went out in Oxford I was punched in the face, Ol' Dirty Bastard had just died and we'd been in the pub getting pissed. We went to a club and I expect we were enormously obnoxious, my flatmate had climbed over the DJ booth and was screaming for Black Sabbath (he wasn't wrong), and I was wearing a bear-trapper hat and some other hat and my coat and my then-girlfriend's coat and her huge hot-pink scarf and running on the spot holding my two pints. Anyhow, they put on God Save the Queen by the Pistols, and I seized this guy by the lapels and screamed 'we mean it maaaaaaaaan' in his face, and he punched me, which I deserved, and the earflaps of the first hat protected me anyway.

3. You. Dancing. The best of times…
Electrowerkz, a birthday party, loads of tunes I thought I'd never hear out, mostly modernish freaky ragga ones, we did hear a lot of Supercat too. Any time the Specials have been on, actually, often drunk round someone's house and just prancing around.

(photo: Electrowerkz, Islington - All You Can Eat, October 2007 - photo from Darrell Berry's excellent clubbing photostream at flickr)

4. You. Dancing. The worst of times…
Just any time you're tired and bored and try and give it a go, in the hopes that you can gee the evening up and you fail.

5. Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you've frequented?
Pogoing in the suburbs, big beat when it was good (which it was), jungly skipping, ska skipping, roots rocking (principally standing still while hurling the upper half of your body up and down, very cool, obviously), and just twatty dancing at house parties, not to take the piss out of dancing or other people who want to dance, just to dance in a silly way, which is immense fun as we all know.

6. When and where did you last dance?
I don't know, I think it may have been a Meat Puppets concert but I often dance in my living room.

7. You're on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?
Wicked Mathematics, by Nicolette.

All questionnaires welcome - just answer the same questions in as much detail as you like and send to (see previous questionnaires)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Anti-music Islamists Destroy Shrine

William Dalrymple on the destruction of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan (full article in yesterday's Observer):

'Rahman Baba, "the Nightingale of Peshawar," was an 18th-century poet and mystic, a sort of North West Frontier version of Julian of Norwich... For centuries, Rahman Baba's shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass has been a place where musicians and poets have gathered, and his Sufi verses in the Pukhtun language made him the national poet of the Pathans. As a young journalist covering the Soviet-mujahideen conflict I used to visit the shrine to watch Afghan refugee musicians sing their songs to their saint by the light of the moon.

Then, about 10 years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the shrine. Soon its students took it on themselves to halt what they saw as unIslamic practices. On my last visit, I talked about the situation with the shrine keeper, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists now came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," said Tila. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble. "They tell us that what we do is wrong. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out - even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually have stopped coming."

... Behind the violence lies a long theological conflict that has divided the Islamic world for centuries. Rahman Baba believed passionately in the importance of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God, as a way of opening the gates of Paradise. But this use of poetry and music in ritual is one of the many aspects of Sufi practice that has attracted the wrath of modern Islamists. For although there is nothing in the Qur'an that bans music, Islamic tradition has always associated music with dancing girls and immorality, and there is a long tradition of clerical opposition.

At Attock, not far from the shrine of Rahman Baba, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical madrasas in South Asia. Much of the Taliban leadership, including its leader, Mullah Omar, were trained here, so I asked the madrasa's director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, about what I had heard at Rahman Baba's tomb. The matter was quite simple." Music is against Islam" he said. 'Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers.'

...Later, I returned to the shrine and found Tila Mahommed tending the grave. Making sure no one was listening, he whispered: "We pray that right will overpower wrong, that good will overcome evil. But our way is pacifist," he said." As Baba put it, 'I am a lover, and I deal in love. Sow flowers, So your surroundings become a garden. Don't sow thorns; for they will prick your feet.We are all one body, Whoever tortures another, wounds himself''.

I thought of this conversation, when I heard that the shrine of Rahman Baba had finally been blown up on Thursday, a few hours after the Sri Lankan cricketers were ambushed in Lahore'.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Agit Disco

Agit Disco is an archive project dedicated to political music, initiated by Stefan Szczelkun. The format is a series of CD length selections of tracks with written commentary, with selectors so far including Howard Slater, Stewart Home, Louise Carolin, Tom Vague, Simon Ford and several others.

Stefan's take is that political music is continually being undermined by corporate pop: 'The harmless pop pap is bolstered and promoted out of all proportion to its value as art. Its production values can be lushed up with loadsamoney to hide the inner vacuity. This deluge of light entertainment then waters down the political messages of music until it is practically colourless. But deeply coloured stuff still bursts through occasionally. .. An agit disco would distill the politics out from the weak solution of popular musics. By counterpointing themes and problemmatising genres and bringing the more repressed and uncommon examples to the surface we might respark this potentially inflammatory material'.

I am working on my own Agit Disco mix at the moment, so will refrain from saying too much more about this for now - I guess it should be clear from previous posts here that I tend to take a more otimistic view of the possibilities of pop, seeing it as open to political appropriation even if the producers didn't intend it. But I appreciate Stefan's contribution in terms of trying to open up a space to think through these issues through listening to and talking about actual songs, rather than just in the abstract.

Anthony Iles makes some interesting points in Dissident Island Discs, a review of the agit disco project at Mute. He asks: 'There is a tendency towards music which wears its political content safely in its lyrics. But what of instrumental music? Is music with no lyrical content never political? What of the milieus around musical production? Could we leave Jazz (largely instrumental) out of any discussion of politicisation and music? Techno and Jungle? And if we can talk of a politics that does not claim to represent its aims or political demands - then can't music also build a politics out of its very material, form and delivery?'.

Stefan though certainly doesn't rule out a politically-engaged music that is lyric-free: 'Music is political through its ability to form alliances of like mindedness that can by-pass verbal discursive activity. By its way of forming part of identity and cultural affiliations... Urgent beats can respond to a sense of forwarding of moving the collective energy of which underlies any challenging change against systemic grains'.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Less than Zero

Less than Zero (1985) by Brett Easton Ellis is, as everybody knows, a study in nihilism set among the young, bored and wealthy in 1980s Los Angeles. A lot of time is spent hanging out in clubs and bars. I'm not sure if any of the places Ellis mentions were real clubs, or based on real places (anyone know?), but there are some good descriptions of feeling pretty vacant in nightclubs.

Clay (narrator/main character) visits The Land’s End on Hollywood Boulevard:

'From the back door you walk into the club like you're walking into a cellar and it's dark and like a cave with all these partitions separating the club into small areas where groups huddle in the darkness... Before I can make out any faces, my eyes have to wait a minute to get used to the darkness. The club's crowded tonight and some of the kids waiting out in back won't be able to get in. 'Tainted Love' is playing, loudly, over the stereo system and the dance floor is packed with people, most of them young, most of them bored, trying to look turned on. There are some guys sitting at tables who all look at this one gorgeous girl, longingly, hoping for at least one dance or a blow job in Daddy's car and there are all these girls, looking indifferent or bored, smoking clove cigarettes, all of them or at least most of them staring at one blond­haired boy standing in the back with sunglasses on... We pass through the crowd and walk into the back, leaving the thumping music and the smoke-filled room behind us.'

He also goes to the New Garage 'downtown between 6th and 7th or 7th and 8th':

'The New Garage is actually a club that's in a four-story parking lot; the first and second and third floors are deserted and there are still a couple of cars parked there from the day before. The fourth story is where the club is. The music's loud and there are a lot of people dancing and the entire floor smells like beer and sweat and gasoline. The new Icicle Works single comes on and a couple of The Go-Go's are there and so is one of The Blasters...'

There are also a couple of scenes set in 'The Edge':

'The DJ at the Edge tonight isn't wearing a shirt and his nipples are pierced and he wears a leather cowboy hat and between songs he keeps mumbling 'Hip-Hip-Hooray.' Kim tells me that the DJ obviously cannot decide whether he's butch or New Wave... Lindsay and I walk upstairs to the restroom and do some coke in one of the stalls. Above the sink, on the mirror, someone's written in big black letters 'Gloom Rules.' After we leave the restroom, Lindsay and I sit at the bar upstairs and he tells me that there's not too much going on anywhere in the city. I nod, watch the large strobe light blink off and on, flashing across the big dance floor'....

'It's two in the morning and hot and we're at the Edge in the back room and Trent is trying on my sunglasses and I tell him that I want to leave. Trent tells me that we'll leave soon, a couple of minutes maybe. The music from the dance floor seems too loud and I tense up every time the music stops and another song comes on. I lean back against the brick wall and notice that there are two boys embracing in a darkened corner.... We walk out into the hot night and Blair asks, 'Well, did we have a good time?' and nobody answers and she looks down'.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Handsworth Songs

Tate Britain in London is currently showing films by the Black Audio Film Collective, including the excellent Handsworth Songs (1986). The film takes as its starting point the riots in Handsworth (Birmingham) in 1985, with its iconic images of burning cars and the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd being confronted by an angry crowd.

photo credit: John Akomfrah: Handsworth Riots - Twenty Summers On
© Pogus Caesar / OOM Gallery Archive 1985

Arguing that 'there are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories', the film summons up some of these ghosts with early footage of hopeful migrants arriving in the 1950s cutting backwards and forwards to later experiences of racism - including harrassment on the streets of Handsworth and the death of Cynthia Jarrett following a police raid on her home in Tottenham (which sparked the Broadwater farm riots).

There's some interesting historical footage of Birmingham, including a 1937 Labour Day procession, Malcolm X on a visit to the city in the 1960s and the 1977 anti-National Front demonstrations in Handsworth. The soundtrack is similarly eclectic, ranging from Lord Kitchener to Mark Stewart and the Maffia's take on Jerusalem, alongside Trevor Mathison's brooding soundscape composed especially for the film. No inclusion of Steel Pulse's classic Handsworth Revolution though -maybe at the time it just seemed too obvious.

The film lasts about an hour and is being shown on continuous loop until May just off the main entrance hall at Tate.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Dancing Furries

Crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge yesterday I came across a group of furries. Apparently there’s a whole international scene of people into anthropomorphic animals who create their own characters, dress up in fursuits and socialise. There’s a London group (LondonFurs) who meet up regularly.

Anyway there was a fun moment yesterday next to the river by Tate Modern where the furries encountered a band busking, resulting in a spontaneous party of dancing animals.