Monday, March 30, 2009

Connecting the dots...when artists' paths cross

Phantom 54: Michael 'Flyn' Eliott

It's Shouter Baptist day here in Trinidad. Have been away from Ja since the 22nd, first in Barbados where i attended a work retreat and conference at UWI--but more on that later; since i was so close to TnT (Trinidad and Tobago) i decided to hop across for a few days to feed my 'doubles' fix and check in with close friends and collaborators whom i haven't seen in a while.

Ataklan and his friend Rabbit picked me up at the airport and of course first stop: doubles vendor at Long Circular Mall. That evening i caught up with Christopher Cozier, an artist whom i've frequently collaborated with, over a bottle of wine. I've written about his artworks in the past and we work together closely on the art aspect of Small Axe and other projects. The last two years have found each of us so busy that this was the first time in a couple of years that i was able to show him the various visual works coming out of Jamaica recently that i find exciting.

One of these is an eloquent, trenchant commentary on the situation in Zimbabwe by young Jamaican artist, Michael 'Flyn' Eliott. Flyn who recently recieved a lot of flack from the powers-that-be of the Jamaican artscene, has proved with this painting that he is capable of the kind of imaginative leaps that his customary photorealism often left one craving for. Titled 'The Trillionaire' the painting depicts a self-absorbed and abstracted Mugabe sitting amidst the ruins and debris of a burnt out building. He is seated on a patch of red velvet, drinking wine and surrounded by piles of Zimbabwe dollars. On the left is a heap of bleached out skulls. The painting is testament to the power of an image to convey what a trillion words could not.

The Trillionaire: Michael 'Flyn' Eliott

What had motivated such a departure from his usual subject matter i asked young Flyn. Well, said he, he had been in Suriname recently, visiting fellow graduates of the Edna Manley College of Visual Arts there and had come across the ruined building. While photographing it, the image of Mugabe sitting in the ruined interior suddenly came to him. Normally he would have simply reproduced the interior, brick by brick, in loving detail, but this time something had clearly jostled his imagination. Whatever the reason, i thought the resulting painting was an exciting departure and leap forward for Eliott.

Chris found 'The Trillionaire' intriguing, particularly when i mentioned that it was inspired by Eliott's recent Suriname trip. Hmmmm, said he, it seems to be dealing with the theme of genocide. The painting reminde him of the work of Surinamese artists such as Marcel Pinas. Pinas graduated from the Edna Manley School of Visual Art (located in Kingston, Jamaica) in 1999 at the top of his class. Cozier pulled up a Pinas image called 'Wakaman' from a recent exhibit of his to show me what he was getting at (As Usha Marhe informed me Wakaman is a Sranantongo (Surinamese lingua) word literally meaning 'walking man'. It expresses somebody who has cut himself loose from everything and everybody, going here and going there, with no obligations). The work, part of an installation, clearly hinted at what might have nudged Eliott's imagination and provoked the devastating image of Mugabe he subsequently produced. Pinas's work often references the destruction of the N'dyuka culture in Suriname. The N'dyuka is the Maroon community Pinas was born into, whose way of life is gradually vanishing.

Wakaman: Marcel Pinas

How interesting, i thought to myself, listening to Chris Cozier and noting the pile of skulls in Pinas's installation. This is why it's important for collaborations to take place in every sphere--between critics and commentators, between artists, between thinkers-- in different parts of the Caribbean and elsewhere. For cultural criticism is partly detective work and you can't read all the clues sitting marooned on an island. Eliott's recent work also demonstrates the invaluable element that traveling outside one's culture and linking with other artists in other places can contribute to an artist's practice. As elegiac and moving as some of Eliott's work has been in the past--for he is also lamenting the passing of a way of life, just look at the painting he recently produced of the last steam engine used in Jamaica, Phantom 54 (top of this post)--there is no question that his Suriname visit has made this talented Jamaican painter grow in ways that could not have been foretold.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Terry Lynn's anti-payola Logic

The draconian decision of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) to proscribe the broadcast of 'daggering music', subsequently extended to soca and other sexually explicit music or lyrics, dangles like the sword of Damocles over Jamaica's cultural landscape. The General Managers of local TV stations are reacting with such hysteria that a recent episode of TVJ's Entertainment Report had the titles of three of the songs on its top 10 listing crossed out with a large red sign simply saying CENSORED. Others are losing sleep over the money that will be lost from not being able to televise the gyrations of well-fed upper saint andrew-ites during the fast-approaching Jamaica carnival.

Belatedly Cordel Green, executive director of the BCJ, is turning his attention to a more fundamental problem plaguing the broadcast and distribution of Jamaican music—payola—“the private payment offered to media personnel in return for the promotion of specific entertainment material”. According to a Sunday Herald article Green acknowledged that while broadcasting regulations play a critical role, they do not represent “the sum total of the counterweight required against those who have pushed the envelope to the extreme.”

Accordingly the BCJ is now calling on companies that are major advertisers to get involved in the process of cleaning up the airwaves.

“I say to our business leaders, do not allow the pursuit of profit and the imperatives of marketing to cause you to support a vortex of unbridled sex, violence and profanity on the public airwaves.”

“In addition to calling for the cleaning up of the lyrics, we must also demand that DJs and VJs stop the prostitution of radio and television through payola. We want those involved to stop running down popularity and money by feeding poison disguised as music.”

This is a welcome move indeed. Hopefully the BCJ will be just as uncompromising in its stand against payola as it has been in relation to ''indecent” lyrics.

While we're on the subject of of payola it's worth noting the creativity with which some music producers are approaching this widespread scourge. Take the new singer Terry Lynn whom this blog has featured more than once. The Terry Lynn story is an inspiring one that points to the new and innovative directions Jamaican music might take. Zurich-based Russell ‘phred’ Hergert, Terry Lynn’s creative partner, is head of phree music, a label that is committed to the free online distribution of music. Flying in the face of traditional concerns about copyright protection as a way to earn money Hergert's philosophy is one of expanding his singer's fan base by 'freeing' up the music (This is also Matisyahu's approach—the Jewish Reggae singer makes tracks and live concerts available free to online fans).

Thus Terry's music will be freely available at where fans will have “the option to download select tracks and mix-tapes for free, or pay if you choose.” The website urges fans to: “Feel phree and download a cappellas to create remixes (for non-commercial use please) and we’ll post what you submit back to us on Terry’s site.”

According to a report in Slamxhype:

“Refusing to dole out the payola ransom money that Jamaican media and radio so often demands, 1000 copies of Terry Lynn’s debut album Kingstonlogic 2.0 were instead manufactured and distributed for free across the country, and throughout impoverished neighborhoods. Each copy was emblazoned with an anti-payola message; “my music is about the people, for the people, it’s about change. we will not pay media a ransom to play this for people, we are instead paying for phree copies for you”.

“It’s a strategy and movement that matches Terry’s message and sound: honesty and change. Same goes for the debut in the streets from which it came. The new video is a culmination of a great deal of time and effort from everyone involved, including the community, to create something that looks and sounds unique in an uncompromising way.”

Kingstonlogic 2.0 / Directors Cut from Rickards Bros. on Vimeo.

As I reported in an earlier post Lynn's Kingston Logic video was made by The Rickards Bros. I took the opportunity to ask Peter Dean Rickards about the process involved in shooting the video. This is what he told me:

It relied heavily on the vibrancy of Kingston, its spontaneous daily occurrences and its inhabitants as opposed to any metaphor or even a storyboard. Since the song mentions so many things, we decided that the city would have to tell its own story. Consequently, we started to drive around looking for material that contained a good mixture of photographic form, excitement and of course relevance to Lynn’s lyrics.

Before long we narrowed our shooting zone down to Terry’s community of Waterhouse after realizing that the city itself was far too large and difficult to capture by driving, stopping, and driving again. At that point we decided to immerse ourselves in the community for as long as it took to attain the footage that we needed. This proved to be a good decision even though the images still had to present themselves to us as we walked and searched. It was very much a documentary-style exercise that took a total of 6 days on foot.

As we watch the impact Lynn's music has locally as well as worldwide, as her music starts to circulate, its worth noting the unconventional process her producer took in developing this singer from Waterhouse. Having encountered the young talent, phred decided to spend two to three years grooming, training and allowing her to develop her songwriting skills without any commercial pressure. It didn't take a lot of capital. As Hergert puts it:

Terry Lynn is a unique artist. She captures with her words an honest depiction of Kingston’s environment and Jamaica’s struggles the way a camera captures images with a lens. Terry lives in (read: 'born in' - her mother couldn't get to a hospital at the time) Waterhouse, Kingston JA. A brutally impoverished area of inner-city Kingston, where living by your word is often a life or death decision. Terry’s writing pulls at the root of the issues she addresses with vivid clarity, on her own sonic terms. She isn't getting paid much to make her music, other than living expenses and creative costs to record, mix, master etc. She wants to get her message out independently and free from the local music industry's repetitive sound and myopic business model. We've partnered because we think our collective skills might benefit the other.

As Lynn herself said in an interview with Plan B magazine:

My writing opened up under the freedom to express myself and my environment away from time restraints and local misconceptions. We'd work on songs, travel to record and re-record, re-work structures, free to discard what didn't feel right. He'd always surprise me with new producers, new beats, ideas and we'd just keep carving till it felt done, ready. We agreed to release nothing until we had a complete set of work. That was how we wanted it.

Hustle it bustle it juggle it smuggle it
Life is hard still got to struggle it
Walk it ride it find it hide it
Get your fortune keep it guide it
Reach it grab it hold it keep it
Brag and boast bad luck will sweep it
Live it learn it read it check it
Kingston streets is arithmetic.


Already Lynn has been hailed by mainstream media in London and New York as one of the top 10 acts to listen out for in 2009 ("the new sound of the Jamaican underground is fierce, and its female"--Time Out, London). Local businesspeople should take a leaf out of Hergert's innovative model of artiste development and start investing in the abundant raw, young talent seething in Kingston (The last time someone did this--Chris Blackwell--the product was a Bob Marley). Only yesterday music producer Mikie Bennett wondered aloud on Facebook what the music industry could have been like had it received the kind of investment cricket has received.

The new non-commercial models of music dissemination--open source music sharing for instance, are poised to transform the consumption of music. The best way to improve the local musical product is for the kind of investment to take place that other sectors such as tourism and sport have benefited from. Perhaps then there would be no need for the BCJ to intervene in local music production and distribution in the way it has.

Brawta: check out this video of a song by Sanjay and Dazzla about what they would do if they had Bill Gates' money.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Indiaspotting ... Jai ho Slumdog!

I first heard about Slumdog from the Afllicted One who had been telling me about it forever it seemed. It's India's City of God! he would exclaim in the face of my apathy, giving me a dvd of the movie which I watched sometime in January. By then it was the subject of much discussion having already bowled over audiences at film festivals such as Telluride, Toronto and Sundance, not to mention sweeping the Golden Globes. All my friends who had seen it here loved it as well.

Despite all this my first viewing of Slumdog left me with numerous misgivings that I couldn't readily articulate. I was reacting to something about it that struck me as a bit formulaic, even slick. It lacked the raw edge of Cidade de Deus which I think is one of the five best films I’ve ever seen. By the way, The Harder They Come also ranks in my top five. But then again I’m not a real film buff so my taste in movies is not as highly developed as my taste in art or literature or music. I now find myself wondering whether Perry Henzell's film, despite the universal approbation it earned, might also have left some Jamaicans less than satisfied with its depiction of life here.

Still I feel altogether more kindly towards Slumdog in the wake of the Oscar ceremonies which I thoroughly enjoyed watching while live blogging with Anna John and her friends. Anna (Twitter name Suitable Girl), whom I knew from her posts on Sepia Mutiny ('the brownest blog ever') had tweeted an invitation to all and sundry to join her in testing the new live blogging software, Cover it Live, during the Oscars. I'm still congratulating myself for deciding to join in because the live blogging turned into a “raucous party” that lasted a good four hours or so. You have to understand that normally the Oscars pass me by almost completely. But to be part of a group of voluble Indians in the diaspora watching the Oscars while contributing to a live, running commentary the year Slumdog Millionaire won 8 Oscars was quite an experience. Here’s a small selection of the comments to give you an idea…

9:38 [Comment From Abhi]
That dress is fugly

9:39 [Comment From cheesefries]
Don't. understand. the. dress.

9:39 [Comment From sfgirl]
Jessica Beil.. ugLy hair and dresss

9:39 [Comment From annie paul]
it looks like a mundu and chatta

9:39 [Comment From host Anna John]

9:39 [Comment From kal]
Anil Kapoooor is Mr. India, do not insult him..or else your effigies will be burnt

9:39 {comment From brimful]
And the Charlize Theron memorial Gift Wrap dress award goes to Biel.

9:39 [Comment From marina]
Is Jessica Biel wearing a silk diaper?

9:39 [Comment From Babu]
I want to see those kids do a bhangra on stage...their red carpet talk was great..

9:40 [comment From Margin Fades]
The earrings are awesome...I'm not so sure about the dress.

9:40 [Comment From Pooja]
Why is Jessica Biel wearing a sheet?

To add some masala to the whole thing Anil Kapoor, the actor who played the tv show host in Slumdog, was in situ at the Oscars and taking part in the live blogging by texting comments from backstage. I even had a live and direct exchange with him when he responded to a comment I made about ‘doubles’--the Trini Indian street delicacy. Here’s an edited version of the conversation:

The Trini Doubles by Chennette

The Trini Doubles

9:50 [Comment From host Anna John]
Why aren't there brown hot pockets? With chole [channa] within? Sigh.

9:50 [Comment From annie paul]
Oh you must be talking of doubles...the trini version of chole bhaturay

9:51 [Comment From host Anna John]
No, never heard of either doubles or what FD mentioned :) This is highly useful information!

9:51 [Comment From GurMando]
you can buy every indian dish in micro-wave ready packets now

9:51 [Comment From Fuerza Dulce]
No - it's not doubles, Annie. It's desi food in a pocket.

9:52 [Comment From Anil Kapoor]
doubles are good and so is soca and chutney

9:53 [Comment From annie paul]
Anil, you've been to TnT!

9:53 [Comment From host Anna John]
Tanqueray and Tonic?

9:53 [Comment From Anil Kapoor]
yes annie

Doubles…drool…daily i rue the fact that they can't be obtained here . For those who don’t know what it is, doubles are the Trini version of something called Chole Kulchay in India, an absolutely delish combination of a soft, spongy bread eaten with spicy chickpeas or Chole. In Trinidad they put the channa between two 'baras' or kulchas which is why it's called ‘doubles’--a sort of channa sandwich.

To return to Slumdog, i think the uneasy sense it gave me was the discomfort of feeling that India had been translated for a global audience, a little too glibly and somewhat inaccurately, but really what the hell, ultimately it’s someone else's version of an Indian story and it's all good as they say here...although Salman Rushdie has come out swinging against it by saying the plot of Slumdog 'beggars belief'. It’s true and that’s one of the things I didn’t like about the film, the number of sheer coincidences the plot depended on. Slumdog Millionaire is a latter-day Beggar's Opera, a contemporary Brechtian Threepenny Opera set in Bombay, complete with maimed child beggars.

I tend to agree with Ashok Korwar who said:

Indians don’t connect with the movie because it is riddled with small mistakes, which make it look and feel inauthentic. It is a movie made for a British audience by a British film-maker, who doesn’t know enough about India. Which is fine. I personally have no problem with it. it is a perspective and all perspectives are valid as cinema..

I also agree with Raj from NY who said in a forum called The Real Roots of the 'Slumdog' Protests:

The exploitation of these slum dwellers is well documented. It is not fantasy. I have seen and heard the contempt the upper classes have for the poor and the "untouchables". Believe me, the words used to describe them are far stronger than "slumdog". Maybe Indians need to ask why so many of their romantic, escapist Bollywood movies are shot abroad for its scenery. Why did it take a British director to think of making a romance based in a slum?

Predictably the reaction from Indians in India was not as enthusiastic as that of Slumdog fans around the world (a “globalized masterpiece” etc.). There was also a generational dimension to the protests against the film that reminded me of the debate around Mira Nair’s 1988 film Salaam Bombay, the storyline of which covered much of the same material as Slumdog: Street kids, slums in Mumbai and brothels. My father found the film extremely distasteful whereas I thought it was a powerhouse. Now as then, the older generation (and I now have to include myself in this dismal category) are not inclined to view films like Slumdog with much enthusiasm.

At the same time my views are not as extreme as exsqueeze me who commented:

I find the movie extremely offensive and racist. It shows Indian culture as bankrupt and evil. There isn't a single good Indian person in that movie. What are people happy about? Do you guys really believe India is such a morally bankrupt society? How come the west likes to see only movies that show abject poverty and misery? This movie is made by a westener for a western audience so that they can feel good about themselves. Pathetic! : January 14, 2009 at 05:18 PM

I thought Manohla Dargis's description of Slumdog in The New York Times was a good one:

A gaudy, gorgeous rush of color, sound and motion, “Slumdog Millionaire,” the latest from the British shape-shifter Danny Boyle, doesn’t travel through the lower depths, it giddily bounces from one horror to the next. A modern fairy tale about a pauper angling to become a prince, this sensory blowout largely takes place amid the squalor of Mumbai, India, where lost children and dogs sift through trash so fetid you swear you can smell the discarded mango as well as its peel, or could if the film weren’t already hurtling through another picturesque gutter.

"It's a white man's imagined India," said Shyamal Sengupta, a film professor at the Whistling Woods International institute in Mumbai. "It's not quite snake charmers, but it's close. It's a poverty tour."

On the other hand, “Get Real, India”, said Neelesh Mishra of The Hindustan Times (and I completely agree):

Let me get this straight: We are not agitated because slumdwellers exist, living their crushingly poor lives. We are not agitated that an Indian man, a senior diplomat, wrote their well-told tale. We are agitated because a White man put them on screen.

One of the film’s most vocal critics, TP Srinivasan, claimed that it was “As bad or worse for India than the Mumbai attacks.” In contrast his son, Sree Srinivasan of Sajaforum (South Asian Journalists Association), the Columbia journalism professor who hosted a post-Oscars conversation about Slumdog on Blogtalkradio immediately after the ceremonies ended, agreed with the many pro-Slumdog sentiments expressed by 2nd generation Indians in the diaspora. As one caller put it, Slumdog presents post-liberalization India, the attitude that we can do whatever we want to, a proactive spirit in keeping with the new India that has emerged after casting off the socialist shackles of Indira Gandhi, Nehru etc.

Magazine Cover (Mar 06, 2009)

Some people, like Sramana Mitra, thought that Slumdog might win the foreign language film category, a sentiment which seems faintly amusing now .

The film, of course, is in English, with a combination British and Indian production team and mostly unknown actors…It was hugely satisfying to see the film on many accounts for me, not the least of which is that it uses all the “business” ingredients that I have been writing about in the Vision India 2020 series: low budget, English language, Indian context, great screenplay, great editing, and Indian-international combination production teams.

Well, here we have a great product that will likely make a legitimate run for the Foreign Language Academy Award this year. !!!

The roots of the Slumdog controversy swirled around the ethics of storytelling and as one critic put it: “The process of telling someone's story without exploiting it, with integrity and respect, particularly when you're using subjects who don't have a voice of their own.”

Like most controversies there is a back story to all this. The truth is that film director, Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame, never expected the film to become such a success. The original distributors said the movie was going nowhere, as a result of which the producers were considering going straight to dvd. Then Fox Searchlight was contracted to distribute the film, it was most enthusiastically recieved at the Toronto Film Festival and the rest is now history. Incidentally it was also thought that there would be little interest in the Oscars this year because of Slumdog's domination of the nominations. How wrong these predictions turned out to be!

Despite the negative critiques lobbed at it Slumdog Millionaire can claim several successes. For one thing with people like MIA and British-based actor Dev Patel in it, the film harnessed the Indian diaspora while bridging Bollywood and Hollywood innovatively. As one commentator pointed out just having big Bollywood celebrities such as Anil Kapoor and AR Rahman in the film would have doubled its costs. Yet their presence in it greatly enhanced this unprecedented collaboration. For Indians the sight of the much beloved AR Rahman performing his signature song “Jai Ho” on the Oscars stage with John Legend was an incredible experience. When Rahman spoke in Tamil after accepting the Oscar it was the icing on the cake for all of us: God is great. All the glory goes to God he said in undiluted Tamil. Incidentally the politics of Tamil, a South Indian language, is highly fraught, with Tamilians being the most uncompromising chauvinists where their language is concerned. Tamil speakers will not even deign to speak Hindi so to hear it on the ‘world stage’ as it were was an extraordinary moment.

Finally one of the best outcomes of Slumdog is the attention focused on slums like Dharavi. This film, like the novels The White Tiger and A Thousand Splendid Suns spotlights the problem of poverty which is why it has been dismissed as ‘poverty porn’. Their success brings to mind the biggest ever anti-poverty movement called the “Make Poverty History campaign” which I first heard about from Kumi Naidoo. Danny Boyle can hardly be faulted considering that the film that propelled him to international attention, Trainspotting, was also a film about urban decay and squalour in the midst of wealth. What is telling is that while many middle and upper class Indians were offended by Slumdog Millionaire the Oscars were avidly watched in Dharavi and other slums where the poverty-stricken inhabitants got a chance to see themselves represented on the so-called world stage. As an anonymous commentator said:

Boyle has done a great job in telling the story about Dharavi to the other side of the world and a big favor to India cinema, music & Indian people - long after what Satyajit Ray had accomplished in the same department almost half century ago. Senior Bachchan may find it as a grumbling point, but this movie is a reminder to the likes of Amitabh Bacchan (including Khans, Kumars etc.) that they missed the boat to produce such creative work for Indian cinema/people when they all remained busy in playing Monopoly on money/power in Bollywood, just to promote their own interests for almost four decades! It should serve a wake-up call to all of them to come out of woodwork and do some thing real now.

Nuff said.