‘Surele’ by Benzion Witler
Winding down a week of doing an intensive yiddish course. This has been in my head for days.
‘Tanto Mar’ by Chico Buarque
Buarque’s letter to Portugal after the Carnation Revolution. #tropicalia
Lusotropicalismo was a concept developed by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre; its main idea is that Portuguese colonisation differed from that of other European powers, due to Portugal - a country which had been colonised itself many times over, and which had longer and more direct contact with peoples outside of the European sphere than the other colonial powers - holding a spirit which discouraged racism and promoted miscegenation.
One can argue that there are factors that made Portugal a less horrible colonialist power than, say, Belgium (almost the Godwin’s Law of colonialism by now); personally I’d say there’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the fact that colonialisation is in itself criminal, and the practices associated with it (first and foremost slavery, which Portugal indulged in as much as the other powers) evil before we start quibbling over who is the least horrible perp. What cannot be denied, however, is that Freyre’s theories were a godsend to the fascist government in Portugal.
During the 1950’s, Portugal was still clinging on to numerous colonies, including territories in India and South-East Asia as well as the African territories of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. But with post-colonialism in full swing, and mounting international opposition to Portugal’s role in these countries, a little rebranding was in order: of course Portugal doesn’t own colonies, the dictator Salazar and his cronies would explain - people in Guinea or East Timor were just as Portuguese as the loyal farmer from Minho or the Lisbon socialite sipping his coffee. Racism, exploitation, those were the tools of other peoples - Portugal, as lusotropicalismo had proven, had brought nothing but peace and prosperity to its territories.
This move was essentially cosmetic, but it had real consequences: racial discrimination in the colonies had to be restructured into a more complex sort of cultural bigotry, where now a black man could certainly move up in life (not all the way to the top, of course, but certainly into the upper middle classes), as long as he spoke Portuguese, had sufficient academic qualifications, did not dress like a “native” or speak any native African languages and, very importantly, did not associate with anyone who did. Thus the colonies did slowly morph into something slightly more integrated than most other European powers can lay claim to - at the expense of the total erasure of African culture.
There is a lot of lusotropicalismo in the narrator of “Fado Tropical”, one of the most famous songs by Chico Buarque, one of Brazil’s most recknowned musical performers. It originally hails from the soundtrack to a play called Calabar: O Elogio Da Traição, written by Ruy Guerra, a poet from Mozambique, and which deals with the 17th century invasion of Brazil by forces coming from the Netherlands. Sadly I’ve never read the play, but this, I think, puts me on equal ground with most of the song’s admirers.
The song’s narrator jumbles up signifiers of Portuguese and Brazilian culture (Fado itself being a Portuguese musical style), finally trying to arrive at a mixture in which miscegenation (and racialised fetishism) loom large:
E a linda mulata,
Com rendas do Alentejo
De quem, numa bravata
Arrebata um beijo
And the beautiful mulatto girl,
Dressed in laces from the Alentejo
Who with candour
Throws a kiss
Ruy Guerra, presumably still playing the same character Buarque does, contributes a monologue, starting by declaring himself sentimental and attributing this to his Portuguese blood (he also says said blood gives you syphillis - this was too much for Brazilian censors, thus the weird sound gap you can hear in the song); he then goes on to describe the conflict between his murderous hands and his poetic soul - a lusotropical excuse for all the bloodhsed, the slaughter of the native Americans and the slave trade perpetuated by the Portuguese people? And always the chorus intones:
Ai esta terra ainda vai cumprir seu ideal
Ainda vai tornar-se um imenso Portugal
Oh, this land will attain its ideal
It will become an immense Portugal
To me, “Fado Tropical” feels like a clear satire of lusotropicalismo, of the half-baked mysticism and sentimentality masking greed and violence in colonial occupation, a hypocrisy enthusiastically embraced by both the Portuguese government and the Brazilian dictatorship, which had its own system of racial opression. This is not how everyone sees it, though: to some, it is poking at Brazil’s economic dependence on European powers; to others, its talk of fulfilling an ideal was a call to revolution. Go on YouTube, and you will find dozens of comments by Brazilian users describing this song as a reminder of their roots and of the special relationship between Brazil and Portugal. The song was released in 1973; a year later, it would acquire a new meaning for Brazilian listeners.
Starting in 1961, Portugal’s African colonies, begining with Angola, started to offer armed resistance against the occupying power. What at first seemed like skirmishes turned into a progressively bloodier war, with hundreds of young Portuguese soldiers being sent off to fight. This was probably the biggest factor setting off the military coup of the 25th of April, which, due to the enthuasistic participation of the population, is now known as the revolution that freed Portugal from the clutches of dictatorship - with Pop songs being used as passwords for the original manouevres, red carnations in weapons becoming the ultimate symbol of the event, and a total death toll of six (shot by members of the Secret Police whose headquarters the population had surrounded), it seemed a brave new dawn.
This was the context many Brazilians had for “Fado Tropical”, including the person who has uploaded the song to YouTube. And suddenly, the character of Guerra’s monologue, whose hands are “busy torturing, choking, slaughtering” while his heart “closes its eyes and cries sincere tears” morphs into the Portuguese soldier, planning revolution while fighting an injust war against his will; and the idea that Brazil’s ideal would be to become “an immense Portugal” seemed quite enticing.
They were not alone. Over in France, Egyptian-born son of Greek Jews Georges Moustaki, fired up by the Portuguese revolution, decided to adapt “Fado Tropical” into a French song called, simply, “Portugal”. Listing the victims of fascism and imperialism in Chile, Spain and Vietnam, Moustaki turned the chorus around to a note of triumph:
A ceux qui ne croient pas
Voir s’accomplir leur idéal
Dis leur qu’un oiellet rouge
A fleuri au Portugal
To those who don’t believe
That their ideal can be reached
Tell them, a red carnation
Has bloomed in Portugal
The ideal Mustaki envisioned was not to be - revolution didn’t spread through Europe, and after a few years of turmoil, Portugal settled into a Western-style democracy, currently keeping Greece company in the category of countries most affected by the eurozone crisis, a victim of Central European imperialism and of its own financial class. Portugal’s sudden retreat from its former colonies after the revolution, though clearly the only thing to do in the circumstances, provoked several bloody civil wars, thus assuring that the story of decolonialisation would be as bitter as that of colonialisation itself. And Brazil, in 2014, is still a society plagued by racism and classism.
But it’s not just nostalgia for the unremembered 70’s that makes me cherish these records, nor is it bittersweet leftist fatalism. There is something awe-inspiring when you start making these connections, this sense of a worlwide dialogue between those interested in cutting down hypocrisy and striving towards some sort of ideal - even if it comes from misinterpretation and ambiguity and confusion. It’s always a messy business.
Had a chance to revisit Street Fighter yesterday - though it certainly drags in parts, it remains a joyously dumb film, and the Prince Charles Cinema crowd did a fine job of cheering at all the right moments.
One thing it got me thinking about: is this the only big American action movie to glorify the United Nations (thinly disguised as the Allied Nations)? With military intervention in Bosnia in full swing, this was the one historical moment where US military power was in full sync with the organisation - of course there is still the presence of a pencil-pushing, terrorist-negotiating bureaucrat (Simon Callow) to make it clear we shouldn’t be rooting for peacenick eggheads, but the contrast between the heavily militarised, clumsily multicultural (every soldier has a tiny sticker showing what country they are from - I spotted Israel, Germany, Belgium and Brazil) depiction the movie makes of the UN and how it would be portrayed in any red-blooded action flick in 2014 really is something to behold.
Also of interest: the film’s frequent anti-corporate gags, quite a galling statement coming from a blockbuster movie adaptation of a best-selling video game. And yet M Bison raves about corporations embracing him while governments defy him and asks his Speer-like architect to build a larger food court - “all the big franchises will want in”. Capitalism is greatest at appropriation, and so by the early 90’s anti-consumerist satire had become just another meme, another piece of cultural driftwood to be picked up by movies that could be passionate and articulate about it (deathless masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch) but also by movies that have no interest whatsoever in what it’s actually trying to say and just wave it around desperatley, nodding “this is a thing, right?” as they would for ninjas or robots or yo momma jokes.
‘’The Struggle of the Magicians’ (Excerpt No. 1)’ by Thomas de Hartmann
Get #based this weekend with this composition by 19th century spiritualist George Gurdjieff.
Did you know I used to write about music, like, a lot? This is still my favorite sustained piece, some stylistic issues aside. (Was still trying too hard to be vernacular in places, too much of the old-guard Village Voice still hanging around in the bloodstream. My natural style is stuffy. I wear neckties when I don’t have to.) Mainly because it’s the best shot I ever made at getting across why I think pre-rock music is important; it’s for the same reasons that I think rock music is important, and the music of the post-rock era too.
Slowly making my way through this - had to give it a break to listen to that opening radio show in full, “Bing CRosby doing a Dick Tracy parody” was too sweet a bait to resist - and it is, predictably enough, stellar stuff. Recommend anyone who’d like to develop a stronger interest in pre-Rock popular music to check it out.
"We’re sort of the big leagues. We play a certain game, and that game is telling superhero comics. We have financial imperatives that drive us. We run our business a certain way."~Axel Alonso in response to a question about Marvel lagging behind the rest of the Comic…
I think this sort of attitude totally exists in Hollywood as well, for what it’s worth - making a bid budget popcorn flick is still seen as “making it” for a great amount of filmmakers around the world, just look at the amount of South-East Asian directors who have “gone Hollywood” in the past few decades, usually with less than stellar results. And there are comic equivalents of Bergman and Von Trier, too - imagine telling Alison Bechdel or Marjane Satrapi that they haven’t “made it” because they’re not writing Wolverine. Cinema has a stronger non-sales driven culture than comics, but that’s mostly because it’s a larger industry, too…and still, note how even media that shouldn’t really care about such things ends up covering the Oscars, and witness how excited any nation’s papers get whenever one of their native directors is nominated for something.
"The Seven Per Cent Solution" features Nicol Williamson in the role of Sherlock Holmes. But did you know that, according to Amazon UK, the Great Detective actually came out of beekeeping retirement to direct the film himself?
The New Yorker is a weekly magazine with a mix of reporting of politics and culture, humor and cartoons, fiction and poetry, and reviews and critic…
Glenn Beck’s buddy Malcolm Gladwell was on the “New Yorker” podcast recently, talking about his review of a book about notorious Cold War double agent Kim Philby. Listen to the first half, and it all seems reasonable enough - Gladwell explains how the work done by Philby and his ilk never resulted in that much of an advantage for the Soviet Union, while the climate of distrust in the West lead to McCarthy in the US and a similiar witch hunt conducted by MI5 officla Peter Wright in the UK during Harold Wilson’s government. “McCarthy was bad” is hardly a controversial stance to take, but it is also true.
Move on to the second part of the podcast, though, and something very strange starts happening. Gladwell uses the McCarthy and Wright examples to construct a typically reductive and business-speak-style vacuous spectrum, where relations are either “high trust” or “low trust” - British society, Gladwell argues, should for example have trusted Harold Wilson enough not to suspect him of communism. “Can this logic be applied in other areas?” the interviewer asks; Gladwell is happy to oblige. The General Motors faulty ignition scandal, and indeed the lawsuit against Toyota for producing cars with vehicle acceleration problems, are examples of Low Trust being deposited in entities that, Gladwell argues, are absolutley deserving of our High Trust. “General Motors in 2014 is not in the business of killing its costumers” the author blurts, raging against a ridicolous strawman to muddle the conversation - as if anyone thought of this scandal as GM going on some sort of Dexter style rampage and not just caring more about its profits than it does about human lives (and if you think you can’t have the former if you’re ruining the latter then you’re really underrating the corporate PR machine - one of whose apologists you are hearing on the very podcast under discussion). In a High Trust society, what would we do? Pat GM and Toyota on the back and say “you’ve produced unsafe products and knowing this put them on the marketplace, we get it, so much stuff to do, you just didn’t get around to it, we still trust you, TGIF eh?”.
Welcome to Malcolm Gladwell’s world - a place where cutesy systematizing and eyebrow-raising contrarianism combine to create a spirited defense of our corporate overlords, all under the guise of soothing, middlebrow liberal thought, safe for the “New Yorker” and for a Stephen Fry “Guardian” interview. Listen to Gladwell’s kindly professor voice, let yourself be lulled by his friendly tone, and half an hour later, wake up to find that you’ve just listened to someone tell you that if you think McCarthy was bad then you should think lawsuits against corporations are bad, too.
Talk about your con artists.