Sunday, 18 October 2009

Tinariwen - The Academy, Dublin

I am very prejudiced against the hippy drippy-style of dancing of some people – mostly women – during gigs by African bands. This dates back to seven or eight years ago when I saw a group of tribal dancers performing in St Georges Market in Belfast. Each dance and its significance was explained by a group member - some were performed to celebrate a birth, a wedding or a coming of age, others were to mourn a death or berate a turn of bad fortune. The musicians would then start up and the dancers in full tribal regalia would begin their highly stylised moves.
Meanwhile, infront of the stage, where the dancers and musicians were symbolically lamenting the death of child, a dozen or so women in tie-dye teeshirts and floaty skirts kicked off their moccasins and started twirling their hands, gyrating their hips and twisting their bodies in a free-from style of dance that they presumably thought of as 'ethnic'.
So when Tinariwen took to the stage last night in Dublin and started clunking at their guitars and battering their drums my heart sank as a few people tried to clap along and totally failed to find the rhythm - most guitar, bass and drum concerts follow a simple 4/4 beat, but this seemed to be in 6.5/11. By song three, however, things had settled into a slightly more clappable and danceable rhythmic pattern.
As opposed to the tribal group in St George's Market, Tinariwen were clearly keen to see their audience move, with various members swaying and clapping their hands out over the audience to help them get their rhythm.
Their songs are often played around a single droning guitar note with staccato guitar runs cutting across it, backed by bass, tribal drums and whole clatter of backing singers - although none of the females whose wails are so distinctive on Tinariwen's studio albums were on stage.
Tinariwan's main singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, although exotically dressed, was the only one not wearing flowing desert robes that covered the entire bodies and most of the band members'heads. He left the stage after the first two songs, which he sang, and the vocals were taken over by various other members of the group, until he reappeared for most of the rest of the set.
Tinariwen's music has been described as 'desert blues'. It has been argued that the blues, in the sense of American blues, evolved among the descendants of slaves in the American deep south. Musicologists have looked to tribal chants and wails to find the source of the blues.
In the case of Tinariwen the music has come home and they have taken American blues and adapted it to create their own unique style and punked it up a bit. It was Andy Kershaw who described Tinariwen as the closest thing he had ever seen live to the Clash.
Tinariwen seem to almost slip into each song, find a guitar grove, pick up a bass line, drums and then vocals that builds into a creshendo. The effect is dramatic and while the lyrics are often about the effects of drought and population displacement, the songs are infections and entirely danceable.
Not that I indulged myself, apart from some foot tapping.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Given that Bolaño devotes the first 150 pages or so of his novel to four characters it would be easy to assume that he wants us to identify and develop a relationship with them that will keep us engaged and care what happens to them over the 900 pages of this sprawling book. But when they exit at the end of Book One, that's it and we hear no more of them.
Not that the characters are particularly interesting. They are literary critics, a woman from London and three men from Paris, Madrid and Turin, who are all obsessed by a German novelist called Benne von Archimboldi.
They meet at conventions to discuss the German writer and establish a series of friendships and relationships. They travel to conferences in Europe, to each others' homes, have affairs and form varying degrees of friendship with one another.
Archimboldi, is just a rumour in Book One. He is often name-checked, and his various novels are referred to. The critics meet people who have met him, or claim they have, and arrive at a conference where it is reported that he will appear but fails to do so.
Eventually three of them travel to a (fictional) city in northern Mexico called Santa Teresa, close to the border with the US, where it is reported that Archimboldi is living but they are unable to track him down.
They hear reports of a serial killer on the loose in Santa Teresa, said to be responsible for more than 100 murders.
In Book Two the story is taken up by Amalfitano, who appeared as a minor character in Book One. The Chilean academic lives in Barcelona and is abandoned by his wife to bring up their daughter alone.
The story veers off to cover the unbalanced wife for a while before coming back to Amalfitano who constantly seems on the verge of falling out of sanity. He moves to Santa Teresa with his daughter and once again reports of the numerous killings in the city begin to filter into the story.
Book Three seems as if it was intended to be an entirely different novel altogether and for the first 60 or 70 pages follows a black journalist called Fate around the US as he reports on former militant black activists and comes to terms with his mother's death.
Then Fate is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match (although he is not a sports writer) between a black US fighter and a Mexican. The series of killings in the city come more into focus and Fate can't understand why a serial killer whose body count is running into the hundreds has not been more widely reported.
Amalfitano, appears towards the end of the book and urges Fate to take his daughter out of Santa Teresa before she too becomes a victim.
The last 40 pages of this section are unbearably tense and the expectation of violence is constantly lingering.
Book Four focuses on Santa Teresa and the killings, dozens and dozens of them, one after another. It could be monotonous but Bolaño manages to give most of the victims a life story before their deaths, bringing the cast of this novel into the hundreds.
Detectives trying to investigate the killings are profiled and then sideline before making an appearance again 50 pages later.
A psychic, who can see all the killings, weaves in and out of the story as does a young cop called Lalo Cura. Cura means 'priest' in Spanish (in which Bolaño wrote) but the name Lalo Cura can be written using the same series of letters as La Locura (the madness).
A German is arrested and blamed for the killings, even as new bodies are found and more women and girls disappear.
Book Four is the longest but despite the seeming constant litany of woman's bodies turning up, often raped and mutilated, it is the most engaging of the first four books in 2666.
That is until you get to Book Five in which Archimboldi reappears 80 years earlier when he is born in Germany. In a fairly straightforward narrative we are told his life story from boyhood, through to his time in the German army during the Second World War and his career as a writer and decision to live as hermit despite his growing fame until his story catches up with the earlier stories in the mid 1990s.
The sections on the war are the strongest as Archimboldi advances through Romania and Ukraine with his unit before being driven back. Again we are subjected to endless death and destruction, threaded through with stories of lives lived to the full and people merely existing.
Themes reoccur throughout the five books in this novel, the mundane details of individual lives counterbalanced against great and horrendous events of the 20th century. Secrets are kept and buried, just like the bodies in Mexico and in Europe during the Second World War. Echoes of future events are dropped in - an artist in the 1940s whose paintings are full of dead women.
Santa Teresa is a machine in which millions of people have been caught working in cheap-labour factories churning out goods to feed their wealthy neighbours across the border. The brutal sexual assaults, torture and killings of hundreds of women could be seen as symbolic critique by Bolaño of capitalism - the system debases people, kills them and then dumps their bodies in a desert when they have finished with them and while voices of protest are raised no-one really cares.
Book Five maybe sets the context for what has gone before. The Second World War is within many people's living memory. The human condition that brought that about still exists. The scale may be smaller but humans are still capable of the most horrendous crimes against one another.
At the end you are left with the vague impression of a pattern and an understanding of what Bolaño was trying to achieve with his diverse and seemingly unrelated stories and characters.
It is like a huge piece of abstract art in which different sections of the canvas have unique motifs that link to those next to them but are vastly different from what is on the other side of the canavas. But when you stand back and look at the thing as whole it somehow seems to form a complete work and if you squint your eyes and tilt your head to the side a bit even seems to make sense.
Bolaño died in 2003 before he completed 2666 although a footnote at the end says the novel appears more or less as he intended it. There are a few clumsy links where presumably the editor is trying to make a leap from once section to another which Bolaño hadn't fully tidied up when he died.
There is the possibility of course that he might have tightened the whole thing up and made the various components less abstract from one another but for the most part it works as it stands.
This is truly one of those novels that does cause a shift in your perspective and when you have finished reading it you find yourself running at a slight tangent to where you were before.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Noisettes, Vicar Street, Dublin

1950s pop sensibities, 60s Motown, and 70s glam rock and punk all infuse the music of The Noisettes. They are contemporary and yet their songs are comfortingly familiar.
Singer Shingai Shoniwa dominates their live performances both in terms of her physical presence, vocal delivery and (rather impressively I thought) bass-playing skills.
Dressed in a glitzy party dress Shoniwa looked almost weighed down when the bass was first handed to her. For a singer whose vocal range often reaches the shrill it seemed entirely inappropriate that she should play an instrument whose range is towards the lower end of the musical register.
For much of the set she left the bass-playing duties to a band member who doubled as a roadie, freeing up the singer to prance and dance across the stage, straddle the drum kit, hang upside down from a rope ladder and venture to the back of the venue and serenade those who stood there.
‘Don’t Upset the Rhythm’ is probably The Noisettes best- known song, yet it was the second song in the set which suggests that they are a band who have confidence in their material and are aware that their lesser known songs are just as strong.
My personal favourite is ‘Never Forget You’ which somehow seems to combine the whimsical feel of a Ben E King song with a punk-driven guitar-style chorus.
The set was dominated by tracks from their second album although the encore was funky cover of ‘Children of the Revolution’ during which Shoniwa came off the stage and down through the audience to the back of the Vicar Street venue and then balanced on a barrier infront of the mixing desk. It was a crowd-pleasing move that endeared a besotted audience to her even more.
Guitarist Dan Smith impressed with some blistering guitar solos that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Thin Lizzy concert while the hairsuite drummer Jamie Morrison’s lashing around his kit put Animal (from the Muppets) to shame.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Pilot whales may not be the biggest members of the species in the sea but it is still a special moment when you see them breaking through the surface of the water within almost touching distance.
In the pod that I saw last week, off the coast of Tenerife and heading towards La Gomera, there were fourteen, although there may have been others on the other side of the boat that I didn’t see.
They come to the surface in the mornings, one half of their brains asleep and the other half keeping them floating and breathing. Later in the day and at night they will dive deep below the Atlantic in search of squid, their main source of food.
On the way out to see the whales we had passed a pod of dolphins who were much more lively and at any other time would have been a highlight, but when you’ve seen the playful Fungi off the coast of Kerry his Canarian cousins seemed quite placid by comparison.
Tenerife is probably not the first place a nature lover would think of as a destination of choice as it tends to conjour up images of Brits and Paddy’s with blistered skin lying on a beach after a night out on the rip in a bar called the King George or The Dubliner.
And looking back towards land from the sea where the whales and dolphins swam much of the west coast of Tenerife is a high-rise carbuncle on a barren, rocky landscape.
However, this island, and the entire archipeligo is the result of volcanic eruptions from deep below the waves of the Atlantic and parts of the surface is still smoking and occasionally blasted open by subterranean activity.
From the sea if you look to the north of Playa de los Americas, where most of the mass-tourism activity is situated, you can see Los Gigantes – huge cliffs with gorges cut deep into them.
In one of the gorges is Masca, reached by land via a narrow twisting road that requires stamina to drive along. The village was cut off from the rest of the island until the early 1970s when the road was first built.
Terraces cut into the hillside still provide crops of figs, almonds, aubergines, sweet potatoes and onions and high on the slopes Monte de Aqua, which dominates the skyline inland, lies a rain forest with 20 different species of tree, including pine and laurel.
Masca lies 700 metres above sea level and is popular with hikers who follow a trail from the village down to the shore past darting lizards and below the occasional sea eagle.
A few kilometres north you can see how the island’s mountain range has created two distinct micro-climates that has resulted in a distinctive north south divide with lush green vegetation to the north compared dry arid land to the south where cacti thrive among the blackened contours of lava flows.
At 7,800 metres Mount Tiede dominates Tenerife and on my plane journey in was my first sight of the island as its summit poked through the clouds that covered the rest of the island.
It sits in the centre if El Tiede national park where brown, flecked with black lava flows from the recent (geologically recent in the sense of the last couple of hundred years) sprawl across the landscape.
A huge desert plain stretches out before Mount Tiede, with craggy, petrified magma and scattered cacti recalling the landscape of a thousand American westerns.
In fact this landscape did feature in the film 1,000,000 Years BC in which Raquel Welsh battled the facts of history and some dodgy special effects as placid, tongue-flicking iguanas where cinematically enhanced to make them look like enormous flesh-eating dinosaurs.
Again lizards can be seen darting between the rocks and there more than 200 other species of bird and mammal roaming the volcanic landscape including a rather sinister species of bat known in Spanish as ‘senores de la noche’ – lords of the night.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Former Chilean dictator General Pinochet, the country’s most famous poet Pablo Neruda and the German writer Ernst Junger all appear in this novel alongside fictional poets, artists and writers.
The narrator is Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest from Chile, lying on his death bed and recalling scenes from his life.
Lacroix is a poet and a critic, although it is the latter that his reputation is built on. He travels in Chile and in Europe and retells not just stories from his own past but those of others he has met or heard of on his way.
Lacroix recounts with unnerving dispassion the overthrow of the left leaning President Allende in Chile in 1973 by Pinochet and the surreal attempts at normality during abnormal times, how the seemingly respectable can hide dark secrets and how those who try to stay out of it all are wracked with guilt at their own stance.
Bolaño is very much a writer’s writer, focusing on literary themes and experimenting with different styles.
Throughout the novel there are no paragraph breaks although the style of writing changes along with each scene or period of time.
One section takes a question and answer format, another has a sentence that runs over several pages before a full stop is inserted, while others have more conventional narratives.
This is a short novel, running at just under 130 pages, compared to the much longer (900 pages) and more compactly spaced 2666 which I am also reading at present.
By Night in Chile is a good introduction to Bolaño – shifting narrative perspectives, stories within stories, casual violence and philosophical musings yet somehow it seemed to take an age to read and I found myself putting it down everytime I had read a few pages.
2666 by contrast flows past and it is easy to cover 70 or 80 pages in a sitting. Perhaps it is because Bolaño spreads out his material in the longer novel and trying to pack the same breadth and intensity into his novella.
I might be able to call that one better when I finish 2666.