Music

latt

Hardship never lasts forever…

, , No Comment

In 2006 I concluded my review of Reem Kelani’s debut album Sprinting Gazelle with the phrase “I believe it’s a masterpiece.” That belief has subsequently matured into a certainty, and the disc has become one of my favourite albums in any genre. A full decade later Kelani‘s follow-up album Live at the Tabernacle, on Leon Rosselson’s Fuse label, could easily have proved an anti-climax. Instead, it complements its predecessor admirably while also being a masterpiece on its own terms.

Kelani refers in the album booklet to “live concerts” as “the essence of what my musical journey is all about”. This journey has hitherto also entailed composing, teaching, musicology, and performing in works by classical western composers with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, so it is hardly surprising – if frustrating for her growing legion of fans – that she regards recording as something of a sideshow.

The performance recorded here took place at the 2012 Nour Festival of Arts in London (the Tabernacle, Notting Hill), and the double-album eventually materialised thanks to a Kickstarter campaign of which Kelani says: “In an age in which music is structured according to the laws of the market place, and political narratives are suppressed, nothing is more comforting and assuring than grassroots support which can be neither bought nor sold.”

Concerning Sprinting Gazelle, I wrote that Kelani “shuns political rhetoric, preferring to allow the music to speak for itself”. This is as true of the Palestinian material on the new album as it is of Kelani’s comments both on stage and in the excellent booklet accompanying the recording (I really recommend buying the hard copy, as the whole thing is so beautifully produced). Of course Kelani is hardly apolitical. She is a member of the Anti Capitalist Roadshow, a “collective of singers and songwriters… opposed to the ideologically driven austerity programme imposed by this [UK] millionaire government”. Some of the material on the second Tabernacle disc relates overtly to the 1919 Egyptian revolution and the 2011 Tunisian revolution. However, she seems content to allow Palestine’s interminable trauma the status of an implicit if unmistakeable backdrop.

So has a political narrative been suppressed here after all? An informative and sympathetic Guardian interview from 2008 clarified that Kelani “initially struggled to get a record contract here [the UK] because of her [Palestinian] subject matter.” She admits that on the cover of Sprinting Gazelle “I was very careful…I did not say ‘from Palestine’. I said ‘from the motherland’. I’m walking on eggshells all the time.” Nonetheless, she asserted that “[t]here is a message that Palestinians don’t exist, so my narrative is… my existence, both personally and collectively … As a human being, as a woman, as a Palestinian.”

By now Reem Kelani’s existence and hence her narrative is so firmly established that she could probably afford to kick aside the eggshells, although admittedly the defamatory energies of the Israel lobby are inexhaustible. In the CD booklet Alan Kirwan, curator of the Nour Festival in 2012, writes that “[a]t the heart of her work is the recurring image of Palestine”, and the album’s epigraph – cited in English and Arabic – is a defiant quatrain from the jubilant traditional Palestinian song Il-Hamdillah:

                                                Praise God, that evil is no more

                                                We planted peppers in the heat

                                                Our foes said they wouldn’t turn red

                                                Praise God, our peppers grew and turned red.

This song, which euphorically closes both this album and Sprinting Gazelle, contains lyrics “collected… from field recordings of Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon and Jordan”. The  opening track on Disc I, Let us in! (Hawwilouna!), was “recorded from a group of Palestinian refugee women, originally from the village of Sha’ab near Acre” (in present-day Israel).

Read Post →

Leon_Rosselson_Where_Are_the_Barricades_Cover_Image_1024x1024

Where are the Barricades?

, , Comment Closed

Five years after his 4-CD compendium The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010  the radical English singer/songwriter Leon Rosselson has released a new album, Where are the Barricades? Rosselson turned 80 in 2014, so his announcement that “after some sixty years of songwriting… this is my final recording” is hardly shocking, but will nonetheless distress those for whom his consistent advocacy of social change and support for the underdog has long been an inspiration.

Rosselson, the son of communist Jewish immigrants to Britain, made his name contributing satirical songs to the classic 1960s BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was, and he has never abandoned a very English form of political satire. Indeed some more po-faced purists may well be aggrieved by the sheer frivolity of the first song on the album (the earliest version of which dates back to 1986):

                         Full Marks for Charlie.

                        He’s the bugbear of the bosses.

                        Workers of the world unite!

                        Charlie Marx is dynamite.

In fact the transmission of serious political comment through the medium of cheek, conveyed in a voice that in an earlier review I described as possessing a “vaguely Monty Pythonish quality (Eric Idle comes to mind!)”, is so characteristic of Rosselson that the listener’s response to his music may depend on her/his tolerance of the combination. To which I must add a further comment from that review: “When Rosselson sings, the vocal idiosyncrasies are inseparable from his intractable and endearing integrity.”

The satirical mode is conspicuous in Looters (“You smash up the shops and you get free stuff/ It’s all about the money nowadays…innit?”), Benefits (“Come all you skivers, welfare cheats...”), and the title song, Where are the Barricades? (here making its fourth recorded appearance) which effortlessly manages a direct quotation from the Communist Manifesto:

            See how the bubbles are bursting

            ‘All that’s solid melts into air’

            The stairs are beginning to rattle

            And the rats are beginning to stare.

However, Rosselson’s range is wider than this. While he has admitted to avoiding love-songs (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”), he has instead composed what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…” Active Ageing is a comical example of this, while Marital Diaries are bitter-sweet slices of married life spoken by Rosselson and Liz (Elizabeth) Mansfield. To the latter (minus Rosselson) is assigned Paris in the Rain, an “attempt at an English French-style chanson”, beautifully accompanied on piano by Fiz Shapur. Fair’s Fair, originally written for Roy Bailey (who participates in a couple of songs on this album, but not this one) is a seemingly apolitical celebration of the fun of the fair, rollercoaster, dodgems and all. Four Degrees Celsius, opening and closing with a line from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman (‘On a summer season when soft was the sun’), is an enigmatic allegory that may or may not evoke ecological apocalypse.

I have previously described Rosselson’s anti-Zionist Song of the Olive Tree as “perhaps his most beautiful composition”, and perhaps the most powerful song on the new album is The Ballad of Rivka & Mohammed, the note on which in the CD booklet is almost an essay on Israel’s persecution of the people of Gaza.

Read Post →

thumb

Review: AntiMidas or, Bankers in Hades, The Opera

, , Comment Closed

The collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy, the unemployment and emigration that followed, the cuts in vital services and payments, the boarded-up windows, the ghost estates, the buddleia that sprouts where dreams of riches or steady employment died, not to mention the commitment made in our name, and enforced painfully in our daily lives, that speculators must be winners – all of this seems to have triggered seething anger, resentment and cynicism, but no flaming of popular resistance, no widespread demand for political or social transformation.

Late last year, it was reported that an opera about the banking meltdown was about to open in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin. Was this to be the unlikely spark that would light the flame? Would Dublin on the twelfth of December 2013 be like Brussels on the 25th of August in 1830, when (so the story goes) the patriotic fervor voiced in Daniel-Francois Auber’s opera The Mute Girl of Portici (La muette de Portici) – set in Spanish-ruled 17th-century Naples  –  so stirred certain members of the audience that they rose up spontaneously and (after a lively bust-up with more conservative elements) poured out into the streets, lit the flame of resistance, drove the Dutch out and so created independent Belgium. Sadly, this heart-warming story is a little too good to be true. The audience participation, as it were, was in fact pre-scripted by the revolutionaries and the conclusion of the opera can be read as arguing that popular revolution needs guidance from a wiser and socially superior leadership.  Nonetheless, it is very likely that some ordinary citizens unsupplied with revolutionary scripts were spontaneously moved and, rising from their seats, did join the revolution. What’s more, by leaving before the last act, it was as if they were, in the words of James H Billington, ‘in search of their own ending’.

In the cold or watery light of January 2014, it is clear that AntiMidas, or, Bankers in Hades, the opera that played for three days in December has not triggered a revolution or significant social unrest. So, if we didn’t have the excitement of incipient revolution, was there excitement of any other kind at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in December when Trinity-based Evangelia Rigaki’s opera played? Happily, there was. Let’s set aside matters of definition (who can say what is or isn’t opera today?) and focus on the pleasures that were on offer. What we witnessed was almost cartoonish – a morality tale or parable in which the incarnation of the lust for gold, AntiMidas the supremely arrogant money-maker, was hurried towards his fall by an alliance of powerful enemies to a cackling commentary from a chorus of Media.

Read Post →

AF_thumb

The Alma Fetish, a New Opera by Raymond Deane (Music) and Gavin Kostick (Words)

, , Comment Closed

The Alma Fetish is a new opera by Raymond Deane (music) and Gavin Kostick (text) which will be conducted by Fergus Sheil in the world premiere performance at the National Concert Hall on Tuesday 17th September. This is the second opera presented by Wide Open Opera after our acclaimed Tristan und Isolde last autumn. 

It’s a totally new opera, based on a bizarre true story, concerning the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka and his love affair with Alma Mahler (wife of Gustav Mahler). As Alma was mourning the death of her husband, she was swept off her feet in a passionate affair with the younger artist. It didn’t last, however, and Alma, eager to move on, suggested that Kokoschka should go and fight in World War One. Grievously wounded, he returned to Vienna and was too depressed to return to painting. An inspirational thought struck him and he commissioned a life size doll of Alma, subsequently living with the doll as a partner – eating meals – going for a ride in the carriage – even taking the doll to the opera! His mood lifts and he returns to work. Everybody credits the doll with his “recovery”. He dislikes sharing the credit, and at a party he “beheads” the doll, while raucous students dismember her, throwing limbs in every direction. In a haunting postlude, Kokoschka meets Alma in a café in Venice, twenty years later. They reminisce and move on….

Read Post →

12_cat_thumb

An Anarchist Noel Coward? The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

, , Comment Closed

Music Review: The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

And then the ‘political songwriter’ label can mislead into the belief that I’m writing songs in order to change the world… I have to point out that after fifty years of writing songs, the world’s in a worse state now than when I started, although I don’t blame myself entirely for that. – Leon Rosselson

Why is the English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson, now almost eighty years old, not a “household name”?

In the entertaining, informative and argumentative liner notes accompanying this 2011 set of four CDs he repeatedly muses on how, in his own words, he “failed to become rich and famous”. Concerning the celebrated title song, World Turned Upside Down, he writes: “Some people think it’s a folk song. Or that it was written by Billy Bragg. Which is, I suppose, fame of a sort.”

Success, he tells us, “should have happened in the 1960s… There was the folk boom, the singer-songwriter boom.” At the same time, however, “my songwriting style didn’t fit comfortably into the folk bag. Or any other bag, if it comes to that.” And anyway, “the alternative culture was big business, the musicians were bought into superstardom by lucrative record contracts, …the message ‘liberate your minds’ turned out to be both politically safe and eminently saleable… The guerrillas had simply, without their even realising it, been incorporated into the regular army of the enemy.” His songs The Ugly Ones (“the fetishizing of the beautiful people”) and Flower Power = Bread (from the fateful year 1968) savaged ‘60s values, thus ensuring that Rosselson would not be thus incorporated but also, perhaps, that stardom on 1960s terms would elude him.

Another factor that may have militated against Rosselson’s popular success is the self-confessed absence of love-songs from his output (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”). Instead, he has specialised in what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…”, here represented by Do You Remember?, Invisible Married Breakfast Blues (inspired by Brel and Prévert), Let Your Hair Hang Down, and the wonderful Not Quite, But Nearly. Jacques Brel’s example taught Rosselson that “[y]ou could write songs by pretending to be someone else, by adopting a persona.” Here the feminist principle that “the personal is political, the political personal” provided the rationale, but perhaps in an age when “letting it all hang out” was the order of the day this approach was too oblique.

Read Post →

18-12-2012 21-14-10thumb

A Musical Celebration of Subversion

, , Comment Closed

In 2009 the British National Party took to promoting English folk music on its website. One particularly favoured song was Steve Knightley’s Roots:

When the Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts
It's in their blood, below their belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
They're never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
They need roots…

Although Knightley was dismayed by this “betrayal” and “violation” of his “invention”, he should have realised that such imagery is in perfect harmony with the discourse of fascism. In 1934 the Nazi musicologist Fritz Stein maintained that “as long as it remained undiluted and true to its German roots, folk music was an essential means of gaining respect abroad.” Furthermore, the juxtaposition of “they” and “we” in Knightley’s verse, although purportedly privileging the “Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts [sic]”, is in fact a careless gesture of exclusion.

One consequence of the BNP’s opportunistic advocacy of English folk music was the foundation of Folk Against Fascism (FAF). Describing itself as “neither left-of-centre nor right-of-centre”, this organisation (which appears to be moribund at present) claimed to be “simply a coalition of people who care passionately about British folk culture and don’t want to see it turned into something it’s not: a marketing tool for extremist politics.”

Both of these well-meaning responses leave something to be desired, and that something has now been provided by the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow , “a collective of singers and songwriters: Frankie Armstrong, Roy Bailey, Robb Johnson, Reem Kelani, Sandra Kerr, Grace Petrie, Leon Rosselson, Janet Russell, Peggy Seeger, Jim Woodland plus one socialist magician, Ian Saville.” With no feeble nod to being “neither right nor left”, this collective claims to be “part of the resistance to a capitalism that functions only on behalf of the wealthy, that aims to shrink the public sphere and privatise public services,… and that is destructive to the planet.”

Many of the 30 tracks of the collective’s new double album, Celebrating Subversion, deal forcefully with such specifically British issues as Thatcherism, Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s views on “the benefits lifestyle”, the dismantling of the National Health Service, the occupation of St Paul’s, the sinking of the Titanic (as metaphor for “the practical outcomes of capitalism”), looting during the 2011 London riots, British arms exports, the Peterloo Massacre, and the suffragette Emily Davison, martyred just a century ago.

Read Post →