Tuesday 24 March 2009

Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the politics of the new Asian dance music

For anyone interested in the British-Asian music and cultural scene up to the mid-1990s, here's a quick mention of a book now available to download on the web here or here (or below). It's being made available "to celebrate the landmark edited collection being published over a decade ago".

Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the politics of the new Asian dance music (1996, Zed books), edited by Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk and Ash Sharma.
“This book writes back the presence of South Asian youth into a rapidly expanding and exuberant music scene; and celebrates this as a dynamic expression of the experience of diaspora with an urgent political consciousness. One of the first attempts to situate such production within the study of race and identity, it uncovers the crucial role that South Asian dance musics - from Hip-hop, Qawwali and Bhangra through Soul, Indie and Jungle - have played in a new urban cultural politics …” (Back cover)

This book was the first of its kind as far as I'm concerned, giving attention to a particular lived cultural reality of many second-generation Asians. It came out at a time when we were surprised to find that being Asian could be kinda cool (at last, we had received the permission of the west to be fashionable...). After the thirsty years of trying to appropriate 'black' music as ours (after all, which London British-Asian didn't follow jazz-funk and lovers reggae in the 70/80s?) this seemed a time of plenty for '2nd-generationers' - there was the music (Bhangra), dedicated newspapers (Eastern Eye) and cable channels (Zee TV) galore. But be warned, this book is more than a nostalgia-trip - it grapples with some serious concepts, connecting music with race, identity and political consciousness.

So what does the book cover? These are the chapters in the book (downloadable here as pdfs):

Introduction - Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk and Ashwani Sharma
Sounds Oriental: The (Im)possibility of Theorizing Asian Musical Cultures - Ashwani Sharma
Noisy Asians or ‘Asian Noise’? - Sanjay Sharma
Asian Kool? Bhangra & Beyond - Rupa Huq
Remixing Identities: ‘Off’ the Turntable - Shirin Housee & Mukhtar Dar
Psyche and Soul: A View from the ‘South’ - Koushik Banerjea & Partha Banerjea
Re-Sounding (Anti)Racism, or Concordant Politics? - Virinder S. Kalra, John Hutnyk & Sanjay Sharma
Repetitive Beatings or Criminal Justice? - John Hutnyk
Versioning Terror: Jallianwala Bagh & the Jungle - Koushik Banerjea & Jatinder Barn
New Paths for South Asian Identity & Musical Creativity - Raminder Kaur & Virinder S. Kalra
References & Index

So enjoy this book, though be warned it is steeped in Cultural Studies and Anthropology-speak and needs a bit of attentive reading.

Saturday 21 March 2009

6th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq

I'm a day late in posting my acknowledgement of the 6th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. On 20 March 2003 the bombs started raining down on the people of Iraq in this misguided 'war'. People were fooled by the US coalition, which included the UK, into believing that the war was necessary was because of Saddam's 'weapons of destruction'. In the end, defeated by the 'dodgy dossier' debacle, they settled for 'regime change'. In February 2009, true to his election promises, Obama announced his plan to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. Let's hope the Iraqis themselves can work towards filling the various power vacuums.

There's been surprisingly little about this anniversary in the UK press -the BBC has a jaunty piece about the "pigeon fanciers of Baghdad" and "how they have managed to keep up their passionate pursuit through the darkest of times". Interesting, though hardly reflective of the suffering involved and anger about this invasion.

Many tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in this war (the precise number is contested), as well as over 4,000 military personnel - you can read the American Huffington Post's take on this here.

France24 tells us that "Neither the US military nor the Iraqi authorities have announced plans to commemorate the March 20, 2003 invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein, an anniversary marked only by anti-war protesters and hastened US pullout plans."

Interestingly, France 24 goes on to quote Tariq Ali, a Pakistani-born, British-based author and activist, speaking about the supposed success of the recent surge of US troop:
“I think basically what the US did in Iraq was to buy off the opposition. Large numbers of people who were fighting them, especially from the Sunni section of society, were paid a lot of money and partially given control of their towns,”
Doesn't bode particularly well for the future.

Micheal Moore gives us a piece about veterans reflecting on their service, including one former U.S. marine who, home after a tour in Iraq, has taken to taking cover under the kitchen table every time local fireworks go off.

Before the invasion, I remember in late 2002 to early 2003 the growing anti-Iraq rumblings building up following the terrible 9/11 attacks in New York. When the prospect of government action started looking serious, I remember joining the largest ever number of street-protesters in the UK . This was when hundreds of thousands of people (again, figures contested) took to London's streets for a three and a half mile march to demonstrate their opposition to military action in Iraq. The march was organised by Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Muslim Association of Britain.

The photographs in this post were taken by my husband and I on that bitterly cold day, Saturday 15 February 2003. They show views of the march by Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus' Eros and heading north up Park Lane towards Hyde Park for the rally.

Alas though, our display of 'people power' had no effect at all because just over a month later, in a complete disregard for public opinion, the invasion began.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Obama to appear on Jay Leno Show

Some quick news...This is NOT a blog devoted to Obama, honest, but you gotta be fascinated by the news that Barack Obama is to appear this Thursday evening on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It's the first chat-show appearance by a sitting US president. Opinion seems to be divided between this being a popular move which privileges communicating with 'the people' rather than the Washington village (see Evening Standard discussion), and, on the other hand those who think this 'dumbs down' politics and diminishes the prez. You've got to admit it's novel that he will apparently be pushing his economic policies, rather than the usual latest book or film by other celebrity guests. You can follow The Guardian CIF discussion about this announcement here. Personally, I'm really interested to see how this plays out...what do you think?

Sunday 15 March 2009

How Obama appeals to Black and White

I recently came across a satisfying synthesis of my interests in politics and code-switching. What is code-switching? Put simply, code-switching is the use of more than one language (or variety), by the same person, in a conversation (or event).

The Politico (a leading USA political website) had an interesting article by Nia-Malika Henderson about how ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ hear Obama differently. It includes a story about how a phrase he used (‘nah, we straight’) was interpreted as Black English Vernacular (BEV) by black listeners and actually misheard by white listeners (as ‘No, we’re straight’) because they expected him to be speaking ‘standard English’.

Obama’s switch to BEV would be analysed by sociolinguists as a classic example of code-switching between one language variety and another, to achieve a particular effect, whether consciously or unconsciously. Many academics would be more interested in the unconscious behaviour to unravel how the brain interacts with language production. On the other hand, political scientists might of course be more interested in the conscious responses, in terms of what works, what can be controlled and therefore used for political effect.

The article goes on to cite other examples of how Obama’s speeches, in style and content, are able to appeal to black and white audiences at the same time and goes on:

John McWhorter, a linguist at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said that he believes that in Obama’s case coded messaging, which can be a matter of words, sound or grammar or all of them, is partly conscious because “he knows it arouses black audiences.”
(although note that the use here by McWhorter of ‘coded’ means ‘covert’ rather than a ‘system’ or ‘language/language variety’).

A forthcoming book, Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics by J. W. Ceaser et.al. also apparently discusses “the president's skill at code-switching” though I haven’t read this yet – it’s due to be published 28 March.

For non-sociolinguists not familiar with the concept, Black English Vernacular (BEV) is also sometimes used interchangeably with African-American English vernacular (AAEV). Writing since the early 1970s, William Labov (one of the godfathers of sociolinguistics btw) was amongst the early academics to analyse this variety and argue for the ‘systematic principles’ involved on this non-standard English variety. You can read more about what he means here and more about Labov here.

But back to now, I was excited by the Politico piece because, whilst the connection between linguistic analysis and politics is hardly new, it shows the use and significance of code-switching, not just in the interactions of the millions of multi-lingual individuals around the world, but on a international stage and in the use of persuasive language. And it kinda validates my particualr research interest, which is always nice…

Friday 13 March 2009

John Legend plays Brixton, London

Last Monday night my husband finally got to enjoy his Christmas present – two tickets to see John Legend’s sold-out gig at the Brixton Academy and luckily he took me. It was a fantastic night of listening to sublime music and watching a great talent at work. John Legend – one-time church choir leader, now singer, songwriter, pianist, producer and label-manager (deep breath…) – returned to Brixton again, working towards confirming the definition of his adopted surname (he was born John Stephens in Ohio 30 years ago).

He headed a great live show, though a little full-on visually with constant huge screen in the background giving us a suitably cool take on the man. Sometimes grainy black-and-white footage of JL, giving him an air of history and authority, and sometimes just psychedelic 60s-type revolving graphics, and often beautiful, etheral women. He played through his well-known back-catalogue from his previous two albums (including the best-known ‘Ordinary People’ in the encore) and promoted his third, ‘Evolver’. The musicians and backing singers (including the feisty one with the seemingly sprayed-on trousers) gave great support, helping build up many of his moments-of-life songs to a rousing cresendo.

And I know it’s a sleb cliché but he did speak movingly, towards the end of the gig, about the charity in which he’s involved, helping African villages and, especially the Show Me Campaign.

Interestingly, Legend was a crucial cultural figure for the Obama campaign when he worked on the 'Yes We Can' video which became a huge viral hit on YouTube, and he also played at several Obama campaign stops.

David Sinclair’s TimesOnline review of Legend's gig on 9 March managed to captured the seductiveness of JL and his set, though ends a little unfairly, in my view - you can read it here.

If you’re curious, or just plain sycophantic, you can see some photographs from the gig here. And an interview with the man in the Mail on Sunday by Angus Batey last July 2008 here.
I, for one, enjoyed a now all too rare evening gig sans les enfants - I mean, we were out past midnight forgodsakes! Priorities have changed, an'all that, but it was good to be reminded about the richness of London's cultural offerings, and the great music which we've seen over the years.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Tongues on Fire Asian Film Festival, 6th - 15th March 2009, London

This great festival starts soon. It is "dedicated to expressing the drive and spirit of Asian independent media and cinema cultures of South Asia". See the events calendar and website here.

Highlights include the UK premiere of Deepa Mehta's HEAVEN ON EARTH, with special guest DEEPA MEHTA on 6th and 7th March 2009. This film leads the big gala opening - in it "Preity Zinta plays the leading role of Chand, a young Indian Punjabi woman who finds herself in an abusive arranged marriage with an Indo-Canadian man".

Tickets are sold out for the 6 March showing with the Q&A, but Heaven on Earth will be screened again on 9th March at Watermans, you can book through them directly. I'm told there are still tickets available for Saturday, 7th March, Life in Pictures, with Deepa Mehta, which will be a tribute to her works and Deepa will be there in conversation -this is £40/pp includes a champagne reception (blimey!)

Another highlight is In conversation with Gurinder Chadha on Fri 13 March, at Courthouse Kempinski, 19.00 for a reception, 20.00 for the conversation.

This strangely under-advertised festival is a gem - there is no similarly 'niched' event on this scale in the UK, so get along to it if you can, and let me know what you thought.

Monday 2 March 2009

Coming out about Bollywood

Why would any sane, thinking, educated person be attracted to 'Bollywood'? Well, this is a loaded question - it encodes all sorts of assumptions about this genre and neglects to appreciate its multi-layered offerings (which are even more multi- if you are a Brit-Asian). Frankly, it's a bit akin to the 'Big Brother' bashers - I mean, if you're interested in people, social relations, personal and identity politics intersected with media behavior, programme editing and 'celebrity', then surely BB is a dream!

I have always been intrigued by popular Indian cinema (or 'Bollywood', the western-friendly name to have emerged over the last 15 years or so). When I was a child it was the art form (the only one as far I can remember) which enthralled my mother's generation and class in the UK. In between double-shifts at factories, canteens and plants, these Indian immigrants in the late 1960s/early 1970s would eagerly dress up (beehives, mascara, pale lipstick and saris) and head off to the local cinema which some Indian entrepreneur had rented for the big Saturday night. For us this meant going to 'the Dominion' in Southall, West London in the UK, a town which had a concentration of Indians and particularly of Punjabi Indians.

My brother had I only had then a basic, developing, knowledge of Punjabi but still we managed (mostly) to follow the Hindi dialogue of films such as Andaz, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Bobby, Pakeezah, and Sholay, classics for which any Indian will be able to reel of a fair amount of dialogue They were magical but strange nights. Stepping out of our English, weekday selves, my brother and I entered a world which was completely alien to our assimilated personas at school. So that's one relationship I have with Indian cinema.

Later, in the age of affordable domestic video players, cinema-going diminished amongst Brit-Asians in the late 1970s though viewing films remained popular. In my teens now I was more interested in creating some space between my tastes and that of my parents' generation. Trouble is, there was very little British-Asian 'youth culture' about (But that's the subject of another blog...).

Skip to the present, and Bollywood is my connection with my 'imagined community', as I now live in a pretty much non-Brit Asian world. Apart from the usual fare, I particularly enjoy the relatively more 'left-field' stuff especially films which have something to say about society and politics; films such as Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi ('A thousand dreams like this') (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 2005) - this film follows its three protaganists in the 1970s against the backdrop of the Indian Emergency, and India's massive social and political changes, including the Naxalite movement in South Bengal. A gratuitous picture of Shiney Ahuja here, one of the film actors - another good reason for watching this film (ahem...).

If you want to know more about popular Indian cinema you could do a lot worse than to read Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History (2007). Despite it's cover (blimey!), it's actually a very comprehensive and readable gallop through Indian cinema, right from the first shaky and silent black-and-whites right up to the early 2000s.

So that's the explanation of my 'guilty pleasure', though I think some of the films are crossing over into 'world cinema' and would easily be the subject of a 'western' film buff 's trip down to the BFI. But I make no excuses (well, just a few...) and need no endorsement, honest. I'd like to hear some of your recommendations from Indian cinema. And I may from time to time tell you about what I've been watching. So, kaan khol ke sunlo.... ('open your ears and listen' - a much-used formulaic line from Bollywood).