09 July 2014

Microbroadcasting vs. the Media Monopoly

People around the world are becoming disgusted with the state of the airwaves. Despite threats of fines and violence, pirate radio activists are turning out and turning on their own stations in defiance of government broadcast regulators. Thousands of Taiwanese police blitzed 14 unauthorized radio outlets, many of which returned to the air following the raid. Twelve people were killed in a raid on a pro-democratic pirate station in Haiti, but the soldiers failed to seize the transmitter. A pirate station broadcasting from a traffic island in Mexico City was also shut down by a phalanx of police. Microbroadcasters in Canada and the U.S. haven't yet been subject to such brutality, but the battle to exercise their claimed right to the public airwaves is no less fierce. The movement's North American epicenter is the San Francisco Bay area where unlicensed FM stations offer a non-commercial alternative. It is also home to the movement's unofficial spokesperson, Stephen Dunifer.

25 June 2014

Politics and Femininity in 'The Chess Players'

Like most great Indian myth-makers of the last two hundred years, Satyajit Ray is at his most creative when dealing with problems of women and femininity. There can be no better way of acknowledging his 'presence' in the contemporary Indian consciousness than by recognising the social criticisms his construction of womanhood offers. I shall try to give some flavour of this presence by partly re-reviewing a film of his which is apparently concerned only with men and with a 'manly' pursuit, politics. This film, 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' ('The Chess Players'), is based on a famous short story by Munshi Premchand and is Ray's only full-length Hindi film, directed at what may be called a pan-Indian audience. That it failed to reach its intended audience is of course well known. We do no know how far the failure was due to the film itself and how far to the structure of the Indian film industry, but that is not a specially relevant question in this context. For my concern in this re-review is to show that there is not only a politics of statecraft but also a politics of culture, and that all great artists have to deal with the second kind of politics, even when overtly refusing to challenge its basic axioms.

09 June 2014

A Celebratory Event in Muslim Culture

The mawlid is a celebratory event and genre to be found in Muslim lands from the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Indonesia and the southern islands of the Philippines. Many spellings and pronunciations have been given to the title of this religious literary form and its various embellishments--mevlit, mevlut, maulud, malid, milad, molid, mulid and moulid being but a partial listing. These terms and the varying phenomena to which they are applied have been utilized in non-Arabic-speaking as well as Arabic-speaking regions of the Muslim world. All variants are colloquializations of the Arabic word, mawlid, which for purposes of consistency will be used throughout this article. The term mawlid has carried many different meanings. Derived from the Arabic root verb wulida ('to be born'), mawlid means 'the event of birth' or 'the place of birth.' In these literal senses, it applies to any birth. More specifically, however, it has denoted the birth, the birthday or the birthplace of Muhammad the Prophet of Islam, and with this meaning it is also rendered as mawlid al-nabi, i.e., 'Birthday of the Prophet.'

26 May 2014

Traditional Music of Southern Laos

Between the time when French musicologist Jacques Brunet recorded the music of Southern Laos in the early 1970s and the re-issue of these recordings on CD in 1992, Laos (by that time having become the People's Democratic Republic of Laos) had experienced war trauma, the flight of great numbers of people, isolation, and the beginning of healing. During the Vietnam war the United States dropped unimaginable quantities of bombs throughout the south (along the so-called 'Ho Chi Minh Trail') and in much of the northeast. In some provinces, virtually every town and sizable village were destroyed. Economic and social development were also stopped or rolled back. Provinces which once had running water and electricity, at least in the main town, ceased to have either. Where tourists formerly visited (e.g., Vat Phu near Champassak), there were only abandoned restaurants and a little-used hotel. In 1991 modern tourist hotels remained under construction just as they had been when workers walked off the job in 1975. Travel within Laos by both Lao and non-Lao was strictly regulated by the government; consequently, few were able to visit formerly familiar sites such as Luang Phabang, Vat Phu, or the Bolovens Plateau. Therefore, this set of recordings has a strange air of nostalgia, especially since it had been re-issued with the same notes used in the original Phillips recording of 1973.

12 May 2014

Mass Media and the Emergence of Salsa

The music which came to be called salsa developed out of Cuban dance genres--especially the son, 'guaracha' and 'rumba'--which had evolved into a cohesive set of commercial popular styles by the 1920s. By the 1940ss, these genres, as promoted by RCA Victor (which monopolized the record industry in Cuba) enjoyed considerable international appeal, and Latino communities in New York had come to play an important role in the evolution of Cuban music. Puerto Ricans had so eagerly adopted Cuban music for decades (especially since the introduction of radio in 1922) that they had come to regard such genres as the 'son' and 'guaracha' more or less as their own (generally at the expense of indigenous genres like 'plena' and 'bomba'). Meanwhile, since the 1920s, New York City had become the scene of a lively dialectic blending and competition of diverse grassroots Latin American musics and commercialized version thereof. Many Cuban musicians had come to base themselves in New York City, where, together with Puerto Rican bandleaders like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, they established New York as a center for the music that would eventually come to be labelled 'salsa' by the record industry.

21 April 2014

The New Time Religion of Advertising

One of North America's foremost media theorists, Sut Jhally is professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and founder and director of the Media Education Foundation. He has written numerous books and articles on advertising, social communications and cultural politics. In the following interview with Kalle Lasn and Nicholas Racz, conducted in the Vancouver offices of 'Adbusters' magazine in 1993, professor Jhally suggests that modern advertising has become a cultural force resembling a religion. He implicates this 'new time religion' in the culture of consumerism threatening to bring about environmental collapse on a planetary scale. The way out of this mess, he suggests, is to mount a 'reformation' in attitudes toward ourselves.

08 April 2014

The Linguistic Mediation of Film Subtitles

The challenge of film translation took on special complexity with the advent of sound. Major film industries experimented with diverse approaches; initially, dubbing, subtitles and native language translators were tried. In 1929, MGM embarked on an expensive programme to replicate all its feature films in three different linguistic versions and in 1930, Paramount established a studio near Paris to create foreign films in five languages. The British, French, and German industries, meanwhile, followed Hollywood's lead in multiple versions, albeit on a smaller scale, as noted by Douglas Gomery ('Economic Struggle and Hollywood Imperialism; Europe Converts to Sound,' Yale French Studies, Cinema/Sound, no. 60, 1980). In Czechoslovakia, Josef Slechta invented a 'sound camera' which sharply reduced dependence on German and American sound equipment. Eastern European audiences flocked to the movie theatres to hear local stars speak and sing in their native language. In Latin America, similarly, local industries were encouraged by the arrival of sound.

20 March 2014

Under the Skin of the City

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's 'Under the Skin of the City' animates an essential question of political filmmaking: how to balance fidelity to social reality with the often more compelling and convincing dictates of dramatic fiction. In the opening scene of the film Tuba, a late-middle-aged woman, stares with bewilderment into the lens of a documentary crew's camera and is unable to answer their questions about an upcoming election. She and her fellow gray-haired, shawl-covered factory workers are too involved in the problems of their everyday lives to be concerned. She says that she hopes the politicians will address these issues. Her coworkers' voices join hers, creating a cacophony that seems to chase the image away as the screen fades to black. We continue to hear their voices while the opening titles roll. When the image returns, it is in the midst of a fictional world, or at least a world where the camera does not acknowledge its own presence.

06 March 2014

Black African Cinema and the Legacy Colonialism

The failure to build a black African film industry during the 1970s and into the 1980s--despite the valiant efforts of individual film-makers and a number of governments--is hardly surprising in view of the fact that modern industry of any kind in Africa dates only from World War II when, as John Iliffe points out in 'The Emergence of African Capitalism' (London, Macmillan, 1983, pp. 64-65), 'several circumstances came together to change the old pattern of exported raw materials and imported manufactures': colonial governments seeking to diversify their economies, local European settlers aiming for greater autonomy and foreign firms seeking commercial advantages. As late as 1950 in Nigeria, which was later to become something of an economic giant in black African terms, Iliffe notes (p. 65) that the manufacturing sectors still provided 'only 0.45 per cent of GNP, (the smallest proportion of any country producing statistics).' To the problem of late capitalism was added that of foreigner control: since the initial industrialisation occurred under colonial rule, early industrial enterprises tended to be owned by foreign capital. All Third World film industries have been created by indigenous capital attracted by the profits to be derived from catering to the entertainment needs of the new audience composed of those drawn into the cash economy by urban industrialisation and the rural exodus.

19 February 2014

Two Ethnographic Films on Muslim Music

Ethnomusicologist John Baily researched, directed and edited two films during a two-year Leverhulme Film Training Fellowship at The National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the United Kingdom. 'Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician's Life in Peshwar, Pakistan' was made in 1985 (with photography by Wayne Derrick), and 'Lessons from Gulam: Asian Music in Bradford' in 1986 (with photography by Andy Jillings). In each film Baily worked with a student cameraman who was in his last year of studies. The films are very much in the documentary style of the NFTS, forged by its director, Colin Young. The film making process is acknowledged in the films rather than hidden, and the (short) commentaries are spoken by the film maker in the first person. While editing the films, Baily was able to benefit from feedback by other film makers at the NFTS during regular weekly screening of the work in progress.