Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Interview: Lee Ranaldo on Hurricane Transcriptions

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, January 2014

The key word is 'transcriptions'. After all, the storm is hardly a neglected theme in music: a selection of famous storms might include, say, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (The Pastoral), An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss or Britten's Storm Interlude from his opera Peter Grimes. Lee Ranaldo, at the forefront of experimental contemporary music and the genre imperfectly known as 'art rock' as Sonic Youth guitarist from 1981 to the band's apparent end in 2011, has created a musical response to the hugely destructive Hurricane Sandy that is more direct translation than representation; more record than expression; more sound project than any narrative of the arc of a storm, as in other traditions.

Ranaldo's Hurricane Transcriptions can be thought of as a document of a moment or moments. As Hurricane Sandy hit his New York neighbourhood on the afternoon and evening of October 29, 2012, "compulsive recorder" Ranaldo was captivated by the sounds of the wind as he sat in his Manhattan apartment, eventually donning rain gear and heading into the streets with his handheld recorder.

"I recorded it, came home, sat at the piano and played the recordings and just kind of grabbed what notes they were and wrote them down and then left it," says Ranaldo.

"A few weeks later it occurred to me it might be possible to use these wind sounds, that evoked strings. When I listened to them, especially when I was out that day, it evoked strings or choirs or a whole confluence of organists. But it was very musical – it was consonant then dissonant and moving through all these different layered textures of sound. I transcribed the sounds on my tape and the shifts they went through.

"The more I thought about it the more I could adapt it in some strange way to the ensemble – in a way it's almost like a piece of automatic writing."

Ranaldo's storm is written for 14-16 strings, and at Sydney Festival with Ensemble Offspring will include clarinet, flutes and percussion. Ranaldo himself plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar and vocals, with a conductor directing the musicians ("It really needs a dynamic conductor who almost pulls the music out of the ensemble"). The piece was commissioned by the Sydney Festival as well as the Holland Festival, where it premiered in June, and Berlin ensemble Kaleidoscope, who performed the work at the premiere.

As one of the most dramatic, devastating weather events in New York City's history, one might expect more conventional artistic renderings of Hurricane Sandy to reflect that trauma with large emotional flourishes, violence and perhaps a mournfulness. Hurricane Transcriptions is far from elegiac, however, demonstrating an objectivity that comes from Ranaldo's ear picking up on the qualities of the noises that day, rather than the storm's effect on civilisation.

"It was a transcription of a natural event," he says. "You think of that hurricane as being this crazy event but the music is not dramatic in the way one might picture a hurricane in an almost movie-like sense. It's not dramatic like that at all. It's really a transcription of all these events that were going on in the air that day. There's not a point when the storm comes crashing in or anything like that, it's what I was hearing tonally that I tried to capture."

As far as artistic precedent goes, Ranaldo points to French 20th century avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen's transcriptions of birdsong, but more resonant for him was the ancient Greek instrument, the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind and produces, as Ranaldo says, an "ethereal kind of chord". Specifically, he hails modern artists Bill and Mary Buchen's experiment in 1981 entitled Wind Bow, when the pair erected a giant Aeolian harp in Lower Manhattan, with an aluminium umbrella shape and a conical sound reflector, with strings stretched underneath. "You'd get these droning tones and chords and it was really interesting," says Ranaldo. "So I was thinking about that."

Hurricane Transcriptions comes at an interesting point in 57-year-old Ranaldo's career. Thurston Moore's divorce from Kim Gordon brought Sonic Youth to what may turn out to be a permanent dissolution in 2011, while Ranaldo's 10th solo album Last Night On Earth was released in October. That record's songs emerged from the same post-Sandy weeks as Hurricane Transcriptions, particularly the storm's immediate aftermath as Ranaldo and his friends and family endured days and nights without electricity, water or phone reception, the album's title being an indication of the impact of the ordeal.

Last Night On Earth was acclaimed as a more melodic and structured collection than is perhaps Ranaldo's reputation, and this emphasis on songwriting has in fact extended to the Hurricane Transcriptions performance.

"The other aspect to the piece in addition to the hurricane sounds is that I incorporated some songs," says Ranaldo. "I'm a guy coming out of rock music predominantly and being pushed in this direction working with a contemporary ensemble, and I thought it would be interesting to pull the contemporary ensemble into my domain a bit, and incorporate these songs that had a resonance as well, once I realised the piece was going to be based on Hurricane Sandy.

"So the piece is intercut. There are three songs and three abstract sections that cut back and forth – I wanted it to feel like what I felt that afternoon and subsequent day. I was behind my glass in the security of my home looking out at the storm, and one of the songs takes that kind of attitude. It’s a song about looking out at the world from somewhere you feel really secure. Then I was out in the storm recording, so the music goes back and forth, trying to evoke that. You're on one side of the glass and then you're on the other, out in the weather."

And with that comes a wider point that seems meaningful in these days of extreme weather dictated by climate change, combined with an ever-increasing reliance and pressure from humanity on technology and the artificial. Ranaldo's piece to a degree can be thought of as an expression of a Western, city-dwelling individual's confused experience of nature contrasting with the man-made, no more intense than when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. Hurricane Transcriptions in many ways hinges on the window glass in Ranaldo's loft, the decisive division in the work.

"Any time you set up that wall there's a dichotomy, there's the natural world and the man-made world. I understand it more intuitively than anything else – I wasn't mining in a majorly conscious way.

"That's the ultimate dichotomy of life in a way, everything is always on one side of a line or the other: black and white, good and evil, nature and humanity butting heads."

Interview: Sean Lennon & The Ghost of the Saber Tooth Tiger

Originally published ABC Arts Online, June 2014

These are perhaps the most interesting times yet in the life of Sean Ono Lennon. Finally, with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, the band he fronts with girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl (or The GOASTT, as they often go by), the 38-year-old seems to have resolved questions surrounding artistic identity, dealing with the promotion and publishing process, being in the public eye and indeed performing.

Midnight Sun, the new album from the pair, finds him relaxed, with nothing to prove and enjoying a kind of return to innocence. Ranging between a fairly accessible, camp sort of prog and light psychedelia, this is a record of colour and energy with the harnessed talents of Lennon and Kemp Muhl (a model and one half of largely uncelebrated folk duo Kemp and Eden), producing engrossing songwriting with a surreal apocalyptic theme throughout the record's enigmatic lyrics.

Midnight Sun is The GOASTT's second album, following 2010's whimsical and as its name suggests, more skeletal, Acoustic Sessions, a thrown together collection of rough takes meant to merely chronicle the project's embryonic stage before embarking on the 'real' sound they were after, which eventually manifested itself on Midnight Sun.

"I think Midnight Sun is what Acoustic Sessions songs were going to sound like if we had recorded them properly," says Lennon. "We'd always envisioned being a full rock band, but we made a bunch of tape recorder demos of those early songs when we were writing them and at the time the people who were around us, our friends and family, said we should put out a record of the acoustic versions of those songs before it got carried away.

"We though that Acoustic Sessions was going to be a footnote, or more like an EP."

In conversation, Lennon has a soft and convivial delivery (with a personal energy not unlike Sufjan Stevens) yet is passionate to the point of zealous when discussing his own music. This is perhaps because Lennon's career to this point has been marked by a certain imbalance. Prior to Acoustic Sessions, his last release was his second solo album, Friendly Fire (2006), a mournful personal work addressing an affair his former girlfriend had with one of his close friends, who died in an accident before the pair had reconciled.

That was a full eight years after his eclectic, genre-hopping solo debut, Into The Sun. In between, he was a prolific session musician, playing an expert supporting role for friends and family – for a time he was in the delightful Cibo Matto, and he has long been central to his mother Yoko Ono's music.

Lennon was, in short, unsure as how to best experience music and present himself; one gets the impression he was overly preoccupied with how people might react to the son of one of the most significant figures in popular music attempting his own career. The influence of Kemp Muhl, who he met backstage at a festival in 2006, seems to have been decisive in putting that confusion behind him.

"I feel more comfortable being myself, and I'm not as hesitant as I used to be, in fact I don't feel hesitant at all any more. I think because I was John Lennon's son I would second-guess myself, and I was afraid to upset people or something. It made me very uncomfortable and it took me 38 years to get over that.

"I felt like my state of mind was a little bit timid sometimes and I think I've gotten over that just from being around Charlotte, she helped me get over myself and influenced me in terms of an ability to be unapologetic, be bold and just do what you want to do."

One result of that is the creation of other projects, such as Mystical Weapons, an improvisatory duo Lennon formed with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier that sits alongside The GOASTT, solo work, the Yoko-fronted Plastic Ono Band, and others.

He admits to having felt "discombobulated" being pulled in so many directions, so he and Kemp Muhl established their own label, Chimera Music. "It's kind of a hub for all those things. It feels like they are all different subsects of one institution. It pulls it all together for me, as I get to produce my mum's records, put out my solo stuff, have a band… it all feels central, based in one place rather than spread out all over."

Despite all Sean Lennon's music being under that one umbrella in a publishing sense, there are of course notable distinctions between each project. Even between his solo work and The GOASTT, ostensibly close cousins because of their emphasis on songs and narrative rather than the discord and noise of Yoko's avant-garde offerings and Mystical Weapons, there are important, and deliberate, points of difference.

"When the title of a project is my name then I feel compelled to talk about my personal feelings and thoughts," says Lennon. "Those records are like a diary or a document of my life. Whereas The GOASTT is more a fantastical construction, and its definitely liberating. It's almost like an alternate personality, like when David Bowie decided to be Ziggy Stardust, and that allowed him to write about things from a different perspective. I think The GOASTT is that for me."

Long-time followers of Sean Lennon may hear in Midnight Sun's heaviness and willingness to be brash and colourful, echoes of Into The Sun. That album, now 16 years old, stands as a curious artefact with its mix of grunge, dream-pop and jazz. Lennon threw together that album in a matter of weeks, keeping spontaneity at its heart and adhering to his mother's dictum of 'first thought is best'. That playfulness and breeziness has re-emerged with The GOASTT.

"At the heart of it is this childlike imagination thing. For me all creativity has to feel childlike or else its boring, You have to have that natural spontaneous infatuation with guitars or crayons or whatever, like you have when you're a kid when you’re drawing because you love it, not because you’re overthinking it or because you have to. I do think there is a certain organic and earnest playfulness running through everything we do."

In the meantime, listening to Into The Sun now is to rediscover its charm and attractively light mood. Yet that record, it seems, marked the beginning of Lennon's aforementioned insecurities.

At 22, he was somewhat unaware of the weight and consequences of a Beatle's son trying his hand as a fairly confessional singer-songwriter (it also didn't help his cause that in a strange quirk of fate, Into The Sun was released in the same week in 1998 in the UK as the fifth album from his half-brother Julian Lennon, Photograph Smile, prompting an unsavoury, media-spawned critical showdown between the brothers).

"It was a really shocking experience releasing that album – I was very naïve before it came out. I didn't realise how harsh people's criticisms of me would be or what sort of microscope the public eye is. It was traumatising to take these songs that I'd just written off the cuff and innocently recorded, and then suddenly have to play them on David Letterman and at festivals with Rammstein and stuff.

"It took me a while to adjust to the reality of what recording and publishing and touring really is."

Lennon puts his evolution towards feeling more confident down to the "experience of living and getting older" but there can be little doubt that Kemp Muhl was also vital in helping him relax.

And that's to say nothing of her artistic gifts. Some 12 years Lennon's junior, her chief lesson for her partner since they started working together is, Lennon says, lyrical, moving him beyond the idea that initial ideas and thoughts should be stuck with. "She really pushed me, and now I feel that my lyrical muscles have developed so much."

And obviously, there is the personal side of things.

"She definitely changed my life. Everything I do now is a result of my meeting her and I think that would be true for her as well."

History is happening: Juice Rap News and the subversion of reported news

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, September 2014

Chuck D of Public Enemy once famously said, during the group's 80s pomp, that rap was the "CNN of the ghetto". His words were a reference to his pioneering crew's music, and that of others, being both a voice and a source of cultural context for the alienated and disadvantaged in black communities in America and beyond. This can also be interpreted as a damning indictment of mainstream news, preoccupied with both economic power and frivolity, and unconcerned with minorities and injustice and, therefore some might say, the reality of western, capitalist society. Hip-hop had to be the CNN of the ghetto, as the actual CNN and its ilk were remote and disinterested.

The team behind Melbourne-based Juice Rap News is far removed from Public Enemy in countless ways, but they too recognise that mainstream news has become an intellectually moribund, dumbed-down expression of corporate interests and conservatism, peddled in a fragmented way and reduced to fit within a soundbite culture and the demands of advertising.

Juice Rap News, a collaboration between historian and author Giordano Nanni and spoken word poet Hugo Farrant, is a series of monthly YouTube videos, each tackling a particular current affair, where the 'news' is rapped. Dripping with satire and an anarchic, gleeful sense of irreverence, the show is a comic enterprise designed to stimulate and challenge in a way the majority of news outlets cannot, through a medium that offers a unique energy and conciseness. Episodes are rarely longer than seven minutes.

"If you look at a political musician like Bob Dylan," says rapper Farrant, "the amount of information he gets across in 'Hurricane' for example takes him about eight minutes. In a rap song that would be done in three minutes and it would kick way more ass."

Nanni, of Italian origin, and Farrant, who grew up in Dorset, UK met in 2008, with the first episode appearing in October 2009. Nanni, a part-time academic at the University of Melbourne, had been pondering such a project for some time in the wake of being wowed by the potential of YouTube.

"By 2007 it was evident that the internet had lived up to and exceeded all expectations in terms of revolutionising the way we learn and share information," says Nanni. "For me, this was a process of revelations of almost biblical proportions. It became apparent that the next step was to contribute to it by taking part and creating and uploading meaningful content. I'd always wanted to do a kind of journalistic endeavour and comment on current affairs, but not in a traditional way."

"It wasn't until I met Hugo that I saw there was huge potential there because he's such a master of words and rhyme, so the idea became plausible from a practical perspective. I had a lot of ideas relating to content and it was Hugo who brought the talent in terms of form."

Farrant adds, "We have a shared love of comedy, especially with a political bent, so we bonded over people like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, the greats of conscious humour."

To say that Nanni is the project's conscience and Farrant its face and voice is probably reductive: Nanni portrays one of the show's most entertaining characters in Australian 'bogan' Ken Oathcarn, while Farrant is just as dedicated to the Rap News philosophy, and is engaged and erudite in conversation. But it's true that each partner provides certain ingredients, with Nanni generally responsible for establishing the show's mission and tone, and Farrant an accomplished wordsmith and skilful performer.
As well as Oathcarn, Juice Rap News features characters Terence Moonseed, the resident eccentric conspiracy theorist; General Baxter, the crude warmonger representing military and oil interests, and Brian Washington, a withering take on the typical news anchor of major news corporations.

The show's anchor is one Robert Foster (played by Farrant), the show's often-bemused moral centre designed to represent the 'everyman' perspective. He introduces each episode and topic, and gives an impassioned summary in conclusion in a more earnest and sincere style, which the pair refers to as 'the juice'.

The show's guiding ideology, as often expressed by Foster, is directed by two main priorities, according to Nanni. The first is a desire to put news in historical, holistic context and acknowledge the binding forces that draw seemingly disparate events together, as well as the potential consequences surrounding today's most contentious issues, according to historical precedent.

"'History is happening' is the show's tagline," Nanni says. "Robert Foster seeks to raise our consciousness about our present moment in order to remind us that we are making history right now."

"How valuable would it be if the news, instead of telling us all these seemingly disjointed soundbites of information about climate change, some protest or some distant war, was more far-reaching historically, giving us a more universal outlook on the human project, joining all these dots together and reminding us where we are heading. Because we can plot where we're heading based on our historical track record."

The other vital component in the show's philosophy is one close to Nanni's heart. As the author of two books, The Colonisation of Time: Ritual and Resistance in the British Empire, and Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, he ensures the show is strong on indigenous issues and colonialism, both in Australia ("the frontlines of the colonial project") and beyond. "A lot of the issues that affect this country cannot be understood without taking it back to when the First Fleet arrived.

"But extending that is the idea of what it means to be indigenous, and at some point so-called non-indigenous people need to reclaim some sense of indigeneity if we want to avoid acting like aliens on this planet. We are behaving like aliens rather than natives, doing the kinds of things to this planet we picture aliens doing to foreign planets: ravaging, destroying and trashing them before moving on to a new planet – as we are already planning to do."

Though every episode contains excoriating lampooning and lambasting of a variety of figures and institutions, some are more spectacular than others. Memorably, Farrant provides an extraordinary turn as Hillary Clinton in episode six, on the subject of 'Cablegate', while Nanni's performance as Oathcarn in episode 11, about Australia Day, sees him lead a performance of the wickedly not-so-absurd song, 'Australia Yeah C***'.

But one episode that aired in 2013 attracted mainstream, international attention for Juice Rap News. Prior to the Australian federal election, a video appeared that depicted Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott as mad despots in a violent Game Of Thrones-style grab for power. Not only that, with Julian Assange running for the Victorian Senate with the Wikileaks Party, Nanni and Farrant managed to persuade him to don a singlet and wig, and perform a re-written version of John Farnham's 'You’re The Voice'. The appearance came about by Nanni visiting Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and undertaking a 13-hour shoot that went on until 3am, in the back of the embassy in a room with a green screen set up for Assange's interviews. "He's a perfect Rap News candidate: he's a serious guy with a serious mission, but give him a chance to poke fun at himself and show his human side and he'll pull it off really well," says Nanni.

The video's breathtaking audacity is still striking a year on, but Assange's cameo was not received well by some major media outlets. One in particular in Australia mistook Assange's performance, which was widely reproduced without the context of the rest of the episode, as a campaign video for his Senate run, and took special offence at how Abbott was depicted (in Speedos, and declaring some less than complimentary impressions of the Australian public, to put it mildly).

"All we'd done was exaggerate certain misogynist comments," says Farrant, "which he's well-known for making in his political career, in fact you could say our portrayal was rather complimentary, since we gave Tony the requisite intelligence to construct a joke and sound funny. But we were accused of putting out misogynist content, which was a bit of a cheap shot since we were satirising the misogyny of the man himself."

"Its being reported as a campaign video got picked up in Latin America, and it got re-reported there in the Spanish language press, which led to the Ecuadorian government sending a chastising letter to Julian telling him to stop using Ecuadorian property to insult Australian politicians in campaign videos."

Another groundbreaking episode for the pair came in April of this year when, after a long period of gathering experience, information and courage, Juice Rap News covered the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nanni and Farrant enlisted Palestinian rap group DAM to provide a remarkable contribution, as well as American author and intellectual Norman Finkelstein. Nanni and Farrant deliberately weighted the episode towards Palestinian sympathies, in response to the perceived saturation of pro-Israel coverage in the mainstream media. Episode 24 also features many of the show's most cutting satirical lines, including, "Palestinian suicide homes are ramming themselves into peaceful Israeli bulldozers, " as spoken by anchor Brian Washington.

"Everyone is hearing the Israel lobby-approved version of this conflict in the nightly news," says Nanni, "so we weren't going to waste time giving it more air time. Our episode might appear one-sided, but the dominant narrative is so one-sided already, that we felt it was our role to mirror it.

"We didn’t touch the Israel-Palestine conflict for a number of years because we first wanted to establish ourselves and work out a way of pulling it off well. The last thing we wanted to do was muck it up and make things worse by not doing justice to this sensitive and little-understood topic. I really wanted this episode to be bulletproof, and was happy with how it turned out. "

It should be said that while Farrant and Nanni are responsible for the vast majority of Juice Rap News' writing and production, a loyal team is crucial to the project's output, with helpers based in Australia and overseas assisting with design, animation, props, voiceovers, acting, make-up and of course the music and beats themselves. Juice Rap News has also been translated into more than 25 languages by a group of volunteer translators around the world, leading Farrant to claim, "I believe Robert Foster is one of the most translated rappers in the history of the genre."

The next stage in their evolution is to reproduce the show live. After a successful performance at Woodford Folk Festival in 2012/13, Juice Rap News has three scheduled performances for early next year in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, where Farrant and Nanni will be joined by other illustrious Melbourne rappers Mantra and Grey Ghost.

The natural home for Juice Rap News remains the internet, however. And to adapt a phrase from arguably one of the godfathers of political hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution may not be televised, but its seeds may yet be found on YouTube.

For more information about Juice Rap News and to watch episodes, visit https://thejuicemedia.com/.

Indigenous cultures collide through LITERARY COMMONS!

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, November 2014

In September 2013, the Indigenous writer and poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, was walking back to her hotel one night during a translation workshop in Kolkata, India, accompanied by Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty, facilitator of Eckermann's visit, prominent scholar and critic and the driving force behind the 2014/15 LITERARY COMMONS! project.

The pair walked past a familiar urban Indian scene: people sleeping in the street and on the steps of buildings (not necessarily homeless people, according to Chakraborty, more people who come from villages to work in the city temporarily and do not have accommodation there). The reaction from the Australian poet was a profound one.

"Ali said to me, 'I wish I could see Aboriginal people be able to sleep on the footpath in Brisbane'," says Chakraborty, a lecturer at University of Western Sydney (UWS). "It was a very astonishing comment for me, because I had never looked at people sleeping on the footpath from that perspective. For her it was freedom, the prospect of Indigenous people being able to sleep uninterrupted in a metropolitan landscape."

This merely scratches the surface of an unprecedented literary exchange between Indigenous Australians and Indians. Chakraborty has embarked on an ambitious and heartfelt journey in uniting Aboriginal writing with, specifically, Dalit writing in India, in a quest to discover synergies, exchange ideas and introduce such writing to new audiences.

LITERARY COMMONS! sees Chakraborty taking 12 Indigenous writers to India to attend literary festivals and university conferences, with the first, a trip to Bangalore Literary Festival and Mysore University with writers Brenton McKenna, Maria Munkara, Jeanine Leane and Dylan Coleman, having successfully taken place in September. In December, Cathy Craigie, Anita Heiss, Jared Thomas, Ellen van Neerven and Nicole Watson will attend the Goa Arts and Literature Festival and Madras University, while in January, Alexis Wright, Lionel Fogarty and Eckermann will feature at the famous Jaipur Literature Festival, the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival and Jadavpur University.

The idea stems from Chakraborty's academic interests and personal background. After several years at the University of Delhi, she spent 10 years at the University of Alberta in Canada before arriving at UWS in 2008. Her first dabbling in establishing a link between Australian and Indian writing came in 2012 when she organised the Australia India Literatures International Forum in Sydney, bringing several Indian writers to Australia.

"I found there were a lot of similarities between First Nations writing in Canada, Australia and India," says Chakraborty. "In 2012 my aim was to create an Australian audience for regional languages from India. I did not invite a single writer writing in the mainstream English literature scene in India.

"I wanted to see what synergies cropped up between those writers and multicultural writers in Australia, and I found that the deepest connections were made between Dalit writers and Indigenous writers. 2012 was the germination of the idea that there is something happening, and it can take us into a long-term, deep-impact literary exchange."

The word 'Dalit' means downtrodden, and represents an underclass of people in India known widely as 'untouchables'. Traditionally, they are the fourth rung of Hinduism's caste structure, where they are termed 'Sudras'. Their social responsibilities include cleaning toilets, cremating the dead, dealing with sewage and other menial tasks. According to Chakraborty, "discrimination against Dalits is deep and ingrained in all kinds of everyday living", and stories of attacks on Dalits and indeed murders are reported in Indian media regularly. Staggeringly, Dalits number over 200 million people in India, around 17 per cent of the country's population. It should be said, though, that times have changed to a certain degree: the late former Indian president KR Narayanan was a Dalit.

Dalit literature can be traced back to the 11th century, however the modern 'Dalit literary renaissance', gathered momentum in the 1960s, inspired by a lack of their recognition in governance in the wake of Indian independence in 1947, the Black Panther movement in the USA and of course centuries of abuse and persecution. And it is in the form and content of this relatively recent literary movement that common ground with the Indigenous writing of Australia can be found.

"Many of the first generation of Dalit writers were writing autobiographies, and this has a lot in common with what we have seen in Indigenous writing in the past 30 years - it doesn't follow the exact format of the Western autobiographical genre and is more popularly known as 'life writing'.

"Dalit writing is about seeking an identity that gives them dignity, a social space and a right to speak out in the world they inhabit, and I think that is similar to what has happened in Indigenous Australian writing."

Naturally, innovation has led to both literatures evolving away from life writing – Chakraborty notes that poetry became vital for both, due to its "immediate connection" with politics as well as the fact oral literature is so important in both domains. Now, novels, novellas, short stories, detective fiction, speculative fiction and more are crucial to both Dalit and Indigenous writing.

The greatest shared quality however, and one that LITERARY COMMONS! aims to nurture and explore, is something that transcends literary form and mediums: the sheer vibrancy and colour with which these cultures subvert and redefine their circumstances, voice and history. In Bangalore, author Dylan Coleman remarked, "Despite generations of trauma, our writing is about liberation", which Chakraborty interprets as the emancipation of individual expression, rather than a breaking of political or social shackles.

"I think indigenous writing is about the triumph of imagination," she says. "If you think of somebody like Alexis Wright and her books Carpentaria and The Swan Book, they are about this leap of faith that words can make possible. You might live in absolutely entrenched situations, yet it is the human imagination that allows you to soar beyond those conditions.

"A lot of indigenous writing is no longer limited to a just a narration of what has happened to people. For example, indigenous writers are using humour to subvert established norms and codes.

"What I'm hoping is that in these exchanges between Dalit and Indigenous writers, imagination can soar in different kinds of ways."

LITERARY COMMONS! is therefore a celebration of imagination and survival before it is a mourning over colonisation, oppression and injustice, though it must be admitted that the spectre of these things looms large over the project.

Dr Chakraborty says she has received certain questions as to why Australian Indigenous culture should be compared to 'untouchables', a label that is "not at all salubrious". The answer, she says, is that there may be plenty they can learn from each other that may lead to a "global indigenous culture", and while to some it may appear unproductive for Aboriginal culture to be aligned with a people that has been victimised and maltreated for centuries, it is undeniable they share comparable scars.

"A common scar would be the scar of colonisation, but in the case of Indigenous people it would be the colonisation by British settlers, and in the case of Dalits the colonisation by upper-caste Hindus. Hinduism has colonised Dalits in their everyday lives, in their social intercourse and how they might speak out or even be in public. I think both groups have a story to tell about what it feels like to live under the yoke of another person's perception of you as an animal, as inhuman, as property.

"The scar is about what colonisation does to the psyche of a people. It might not be the same coloniser, but the experience of colonisation is similar for both of them."

Other challenges for LITERARY COMMONS! include that of funding, particularly in regards to a proposal to bring a selection of Dalit writers to Australia in 2015, as well as media coverage. Despite healthy exposure on radio, online and through NITV, penetrating Australia's literary mainstream has been an eye-opening struggle for Chakraborty. "I've found that in the mainstream media, the spaces for literature are extremely limited in Australia, and this is a significant hurdle for a project like this. I think Australian people are very intelligent and we shouldn't necessarily think this is something they wouldn't be interested in reading about."

Nevertheless, LITERARY COMMONS! has a great deal of momentum thanks to the Bangalore trip, as the next leg of the project in Goa approaches. In terms of what the results of the program may be, its curator Chakraborty takes translations of texts from and into Indian languages as a given, with the overall objective somewhat grander than the mere proliferation of texts.

"What I would love most is for contemporary Dalit writing to benefit from the cutting-edge innovations of Indigenous Australian writing, and for Australian literature in general to learn from the Indian model of literary traditions in so many languages.

"Given the reality of dying indigenous languages, it would be great for Australia to take a leaf out of the Indian book and learn from the model of multiplicity and diversity it offers, and perhaps contribute to the preservation and regeneration of indigenous languages."

Other outcomes may rest on serendipity and the intuitive reactions of Australian writers to India's literature and culture, such as Ali Cobby Eckermann's elegant musings. LITERARY COMMONS! is nothing if not open to whatever may manifest itself as a result of Dr Chakraborty's vision.

More information about LITERARY COMMONS! can be found at http://www.literarycommons.com

A filmmaker's quest to honour Gene Clark, the Byrd who flew alone

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, April 2014

"I think he is legitimately at least the equal to Gram Parsons, and should be better remembered as the father of Americana."

Those are the words of Gene Clark's former manager Saul Davis in the opening moments of British directors Paul and Jack Kendall's elegiac music documentary The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark. It seems ungraceful to position the two men in opposition, yet Davis's point is stark and compelling: Gene Clark, founding member of The Byrds and creator of some of the most sumptuous music ever recorded in the country-rock canon, saw the recognition his work deserved pass him by. Critical consensus today, it is fair to say, deems Parsons, also once a Byrd, as the genre's pioneer and most soulful voice.

Clark's story is unique even among the great 'lost' talents of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Unlike the likes of Parsons, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix and others, he did not die young (he died in 1991 at the age of 46 as a result of a bleeding ulcer, according to the coroner), yet today Clark's body of work has the aura of an artist whose light burned only briefly, and whose music has developed something of a cult following as a result.

As fan and member of the Coal Porters Sid Griffin says of Clark's career in the documentary, "He continually missed ships leaving the harbour". He was never able to mobilise himself to meaningfully synchronise with the movements and fashions of his day, due to his struggles with alcohol and drugs, an aversion to playing the promotion game and a chronic fear of flying (one of the reasons he parted ways with The Byrds in early 1966). He once floored record label monolith David Geffen in a Los Angeles bar. He did not, one might say, care for the business side of music.

A songwriter and singer of some profound depth, Clark's "earth music", as Taj Mahal puts it on screen, hit its peak on two magnificent solo albums No Other and White Light. His album with renowned banjo player Doug Dillard (The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, 1968) is another astonishing collection, while in The Byrds he wrote none other than 'I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better' and co-wrote perhaps their most iconic track, 'Eight Miles High'. A thread through the documentary is the fact Clark was untrained in the technical arts of music and perhaps more bafflingly, achieved a singular mystery in his lyrics without reading books.

The documentary is a true passion project for long-time Clark lover, Paul Kendall and his sons Jack and Dan. Thanks to exhaustive trips to the United States, they managed to track down nigh on everyone who mattered, and surviving, in the Gene Clark story. Thus in the film we get heartfelt contributions from one-time Byrds Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, producer Larry Marks, No Other bassist Lee Sklar, singing partner Carla Olson, former wife Carlie and sons Kai and Kelly as well as admirers Griffin and Taj Mahal.

"There were undoubtedly some emotional moments during the interviews," says Paul Kendall, "particularly with people who probably hadn't had much opportunity to express or explore their feelings on the subject before – but I never detected any hint of anger or resentment.

"It wasn't the overriding feeling, but sadness was obviously present in all cases – sadness that he'd never managed to find lasting contentment or stability in his life, and that his work didn't achieve the full recognition it deserved. Along with that sadness, there was a lot of bewilderment about his mercurial temperament and his self-destructive demons. But there was also real affection for him as a man, and pride at being associated with him."

Kendall had interviewed Clark in 1977 for Zigzag magazine, and having remained a ardent fan, was moved to put the wheels in motion for the film after reading John Einarson's biography Mr Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds' Gene Clark. From the start the project was completely independent and funded by the filmmakers, motivated by nothing but an obsession with Clark's back catalogue.

"Under normal circumstances, you'd probably put together a proposal and look for funding from a broadcaster or a larger production company. In our case, we felt that would be wasted time. Even if we could have got interest in the idea of a Gene Clark documentary, we certainly wouldn't have been the obvious choice of people to do it: no track record, no credentials, no obvious resources."

The key figures were Clark's sons. They had been approached on multiple occasions by "well-known filmmakers" but no films had come to fruition. It took the Kendalls showing the Clarks their initial interviews with Barry McGuire, from Clark's first singing group of note the New Christy Minstrels, and another former Byrd and bass player for Clark, John York, to convince the sceptical brothers of the film's potential worth. With the approval of the estate, everything else fell into place.

Naturally, in trying to fit Clark's enigmatic life story into under two hours presented Kendall with a series of excruciating editorial decisions: he admits leaving out details and songs that went strongly against his instincts. In addition, Kendall and his sons were keen for the film to be a celebration of Clark the artist than anything else.  That meant not looking too closely at the more painful aspects of his life: the drug and alcohol abuse, the erratic, sometime aggressive behaviour and ruptured friendships.

"Everyone in the film has their own perspective," says Kendall, "and in some cases their own agenda. But I think the story and the picture that emerge are as accurate as we could make them.

"There are certain aspects of his life – and the aftermath of his life – that are somewhat murky. But we made an early decision not to delve into that too much. Many of the key players in those aspects are no longer with us to tell their side of the story, and we didn't want to get distracted away from Gene's music, which was always going to be the primary focus of the film."

Gene Clark's sound ripples poetically and sensitively through the film, from New Christy Minstrels songs right through to 1987's So Rebellious A Lover with Carla Olson. But the quality of the music alone is not enough to sustain such a documentary. Therefore we are left with the curious trajectory of Clark's life as a narrative, which is compelling in its marriage of melancholy and beauty.

"For me, two things above all [stand out about Clark's biography]: the complexity of his character and the contradictions in it, and the mystery of how a man who was musically untutored and unread, for the most part, could produce work of such melodic beauty and poetic lyricism. He didn't seem to understand that himself. I think the fact that his gift was god-given, and therefore beyond his control, was a constant source of turmoil for him.

"Perhaps oddly, the person he most reminds me of, as a character, is the footballer George Best – another man who encompassed both an inherent shyness and a love of success, or rather, some of its benefits, and for whom extraordinary talent seemed to be both a blessing and a curse."

The Byrd That Flew Alone: The Tragedy and Triumph of Gene Clark is available in Australia through Greville Records or from FourSunsProduction.com

In the shadow of empire: Chigozie Obioma and writing Nigeria

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, September 2015

Anyone checking the odds for the Man Booker Prize shortlist in the week leading up to the announcement of the final six novels on September 15, would have found Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen rather languishing as an outsider among the 13 long-listed works.

Many literary commentators, however, felt momentum was stirring around the Nigerian’s debut, and so it proved as the novel duly made the final six. This honour, which comes to Obioma when he is not yet 30 years old, positions him as among Africa’s most dynamic young literary voices, with The Fishermen lauded in critical circles in Europe and the United States, even if it did meet with some coolness from Africa itself, where the unfortunate suggestion of tokenism in relation to the Booker has emerged.

Obioma’s appearance in Australia in August for the Byron Bay Writers Festival came shortly after he had been named on the Booker long-list, news which he seemed to greet with smiling bewilderment, and which also ensured that one of the nation’s biggest regional writers’ festivals enjoyed an extra frisson of excitement over the nascent author’s presence. “I’m just looking forward to whatever comes, and enjoying the fun,” Obioma said at the festival.

Obioma was born and grew up in the southwestern Nigerian city of Akure in a large family, a fact that heavily informed the theme of brotherhood in his novel. He eventually left to study in Cyprus, his journey through academia resulting in his recent appointment as a professor of literature at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, via a stint living in Turkey. He confesses to missing Nigeria constantly and visits regularly, but his absence from his homeland has been essential to his fiction. “I think [being away] has shaped my perspective in a way it wouldn’t have been had I remained in Nigeria. As much as I miss home, there’s something about that view that I think I’d lose if I went back to Nigeria and became immersed in the society there.”

Originally a short story, The Fishermen was published in Australia in February. Set in Akure in the nineties, the novel’s premise is undoubtedly compelling: whilst fishing at a river, four brothers encounter a local madman, Abulu, who prophesises that one sibling will be killed by another. The plot that unfolds invokes myth and hints at magical realism and is sad, whilst asking questions of Nigerian identity, familial ties and psychological fortitude. 

The narrative is told from the perspective of a grown-up Benjamin, the fourth brother, while it is the eldest brother, Ikenna, who the prophecy most affects. However, it is the character of Abulu that is perhaps key to an understanding of The Fishermen. Abulu, a soothsaying mentally ill vagrant who commits shocking acts of sexual deviance and onanism, is employed by Obioma for reasons beyond merely driving the plot. Abulu represents a disturbing nationwide trend in Nigeria of dispossessed mentally ill people being “unclaimed”, roaming the street, feeding where they can and sleeping rough. The creation of Abulu was partly designed to draw attention to their plight.

“It used to bother me as a child,” says Obioma. “There were times when there were many of these people in Akure, and sometimes you’d even grow relationships with them. As children we’d be playing soccer and would see one pass and we would say ‘dance for us’ – we felt this was an adult that we could command and make requests of. We would play with them and mock them, but then you wake up one morning and see one of them dead in the road.”

Obioma has established, with some friends, a website – and potentially a campaign – to draw attention to and help ‘Abulus’ across Nigeria.

Obioma’s other, more complex, intention for Abulu reflects another essential theme of The Fishermen: that of colonialism and its lingering legacy in the author’s homeland. The story is an explicit allegory for Western influence on Nigeria, which, he says, “came in from the outside and altered the unity and civilisation of things”. Obioma cites American historian Will Durant’s oft-quoted words, “A civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”. So as the British Empire infiltrated Nigerian culture and society to transform it from its insides out, Abulu’s portent of tragedy for the young brothers works in similarly destructive ways for this family.

“I wanted an external force that could come in from the outside and sow a seed within a structure so that the destruction begins from within, and in the book that seed is of course the prophecy.”

A further layer in this, Obioma says, is that in other Nigerian literature, most notably Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), perceived madness is aligned with colonial forces. Obioma says, “Anything that comes in and disrupts what is happening is labelled a madman in African culture. In Achebe’s book, the white man was foreseen as crazy, but at the end of the day they were successful in overpowering the tribes.

“The symbol for the West was the madman, who has entered our house, claiming the single truth of the universe.” Abulu’s impact on the brothers represents, in essence, the encroachment of Western imperialism on Africa, complete with its far-reaching and long-term consequences.

Though the book’s socio-political priorities are overt, The Fishermen is also a novel about childhood, family and, importantly, recollection and memory. The story is told by an adult Benjamin remembering his youth, with all the unreliable, ambiguous literary qualities that come with that. Yet it is also a paean to Obioma’s own nineties childhood, with its madmen, brothers and fishing, and it is into the vat of memory that he has plunged for his material and inspiration, rather than any more academic or journalistic form of research. This inexactness and freedom to embellish and exaggerate personal experience, is partly what defines Obioma’s style.

“I have come to prefer relying on hindsight, or just what I imagine something was, more than a complete snapshot of things,” he says. “Recollection works in strange ways, and it’s good to have it malleable, so I can fill in the blanks. All you need is the tip of the iceberg and you can draw a massive portrait from that.”

“I still think fiction is an untrammelled zone, you can do whatever you want with it, even if you want to write historical fiction.”

As a Nigerian author writing about colonialism, it is arguably inevitable that comparisons with the late Achebe, who for many shaped and defined Africa’s literary identity, will arise at some stage. The New York Times review of The Fishermen went as far as to dub Obioma as Achebe’s direct heir. It is an unfortunate yoke for him to carry – though deeply respectful of Achebe and flattered by the comparison, Obioma’s more seminal influences include other Nigerians such as Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and younger writers Chimananda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila.

In the critical response to The Fishermen, the spectre of Achebe shows no signs of going away, however. The New York Times’ pronouncement, Obioma says, has aligned him with Achebe to the point that “nobody wants to listen to what I have to say”, while he also points out important differences between The Fishermen and Achebe’s most celebrated work, Things Fall Apart.

“Although we both tackle the effect of colonialism on Africa and Nigeria, Achebe did not have the mythic dimension that my book has, and his setting is very different – mine is set in contemporary Nigeria and his was historical.”

Achebe never won the Man Booker Prize for one of his novels, though he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, for a body of work, in 2007. The only Nigerian to date to take the Man Booker Prize was Ben Okri in 1991 for The Famished Road. The 2015 prize is announced on October 13, and though the odds on his winning will probably be long once again, Obioma will surely focus on simply enjoying the swell that propels his novel toward further acclaim and a wider readership. It is conceivable that The Fishermen’s journey could surprise even its author yet.     

The Fishermen is available through Scribe Publications.