Habib Koite Seeks to Heal Mali through Song

Contre Jour CJ030
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Soô is a Bambara word meaning "at home." On his latest record, Habib Koité honors his homeland of Mali with such gentleness and sunshine that one would hardly know that it's a troubled land these days (courtesy of radical Islamists). The closest Koité gets to dealing with social problems is "Khafole" and "Need You." The first song deals with the issue of female circumcision, though it's told from the point of view of a mother's pain of losing her child to a botched job. The latter, the only track in which Koité sings in English, is about an arranged marriage from the perspective of the beloved young man being cast aside for a rich suitor, but even its tone is one of resignation.

Get the idea that Habib Koité isn't about confrontation? He's practically a musical U.N. for Malians, right down to singing in four of its native tongues: Bambara, Dogon, Malinké, and Khassonké. The vocals and arrangements are smooth to the point of evoking Caribbean calypso. Most of the subject matter is equally upbeat; a favored theme is connectivity–between friends, among his countrymen, and between men and women. Songs such as "Dêmê" and "Bolo Mala" have fluid swooping harmonies the likes of which one hears during the finale of a pop music fundraiser.

The album is very pleasant, though my personal favorite tracks are those that break with the hypnotic feel of the rest of the album. On "Diarabi Niani," for instance, Koité busts out his guitar chops, which are considerable. (Koité is rightly famed for his open tunings and five-note scales.) "Téréré" is also interesting–an homage to Malian string music featuring Koité's guitar, Toumani Doubate's kora, and Basse Kouyate's calabash-bodied n'goni. If you're looking for something more raucous, check out "Balon tan," which is about playing soccer. It has a frenecticism not found elsewhere and sports some tongue-twisting vocals, all of which puts us in motion as if the game was hotly contested. There's even a rap bridge from Master Soumi.

This album isn't Koité's strongest work, but it's still a good one. Most listeners will find it diverting, but will miss the song's central messages unless consulting the liner notes (MP3 won't do!). I applaud his desire to stay positive, but I longed for more musical contrast. After all, one appreciates the sunshine most after a bit of darkness. —Rob Weir  

Here's a YouTube video of Koité performing the title track.


Whose Government are You Calling Big?

Be careful of what you ask for.
Lately I've been seeing Ronald Reagan's visage on Facebook, complete with his aphorism, "Government isn't the solution; it's the problem." Great sound bite. But that's all it is–a witty little nostrum. 

I get it. Sometimes society seems so big and remote that it makes us feel small and disempowered. If the price of oil goes up, what can you do? Ditto your taxes. This tends  to make people so cranky that they say "no" whenever they can–not necessarily because they actually disagree with what they're voting against, but because the very act of saying "no" makes them feel like they're in charge for a change.

I recall the years I spent as a high school teacher in northwestern Vermont. During those six years, local residents voted down the school budget nine times. Was it because locals hated their schools? Quite a few moaned about teachers, though in the next breath they'd sing the praises of their neighbor, a teacher. Most, in fact, were proud of their schools–a good thing, because there really wasn't anything in the town except its schools. That's where locals went to see plays, hear concerts, attend sporting events, see a movie, hold meetings, take in a lecture, and–in more than one case–attend church on Sundays while their churches were being renovated. Take away the schools and all that was left was a downscale bedroom community of trailer parks and ranch houses. Residents voted down school budgets because it was of the few things in which they got a say. They voted them down even though more residents rented than owned, which made property taxes  irrelevant to them.

That small Vermont town had lots of people who echoed Reagan, who was in office at the time. Do you like irony? I called it a "downscale" community and so it was, though "poor" is better word for it. Seven of ten local residents received some form of assistance. This came, of course, from the government–not churches, families, or private agencies–and certainly not from the wealthy that benefited from Reagan's tax cuts. Locals quoted Reagan even as his henchmen reduced their benefits (via cuts to state aid and federal welfare agencies).   

I suppose if you're getting benefits, any tax increase sounds wrong to you, so you say"no" to "Big Government." Government is big.  So big, in fact, that it contains something for everyone to hate. Let's be honest. Is there anyone who enjoys paying taxes? I'm among those who think they're necessary, but do I turn somersaults every three months for the sheer joy of paying my property taxes? Ummm… no! Could I figure out some ways in which to trim my city's budget to lower my taxes? In a New York minute. The problem is that what I'd butcher is someone else's sacred cow.

That's the real problem, isn't it? Government also contains lots of things we do like. We like it when our streets are plowed and our potholes filled. We enjoy the security of having adequate police and fire protection. (Or perhaps we long for more.) We want a place to dump our garbage and we really like clean running water. We want a place to lock up the bad guys. We don't think about sewers, but we're happy we don't have to dump chamber pots in the family midden. Paved highways? Sure–those are good.

But what about all those welfare freeloaders who ought to fend for themselves? Define welfare. Is Social Security welfare? Guaranteed student loans? Subsidies for the family farm? Insured bank deposits? Consumer protection agencies? Research grants? Clean air laws? Is providing Medicaid for the disabled and Medicare for the elderly welfare? How about the VA and veterans' benefits? (Isn't joining the military a 'lifestyle' choice?) Did you know that the poor receive a mere 2% of the federal budget? Want to know my source for that tidbit? Chuck Colson–and they don't come more conservative than he. Check out these charts and you'll quickly see that the middle class is the ultimate welfare recipient in America: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/18/who-receives-benefits-from-the-federal-government-in-six-charts/

Of course, we don't see it that way. Maybe that's because we're too busy mouthing cheap sound bites to notice. Maybe it's because when we say we hate government what we really mean is that we hate what other people get. Or maybe it's just because–like my former Vermont neighbors–we've not thought it through.


The Great Beauty a Masterpiece

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Medussa Films, Not Rated, 142 mins. (In Italian with subtitles)
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Winner of the 2013 Oscar and the Golden Globe Awards as Best Foreign Film, The Great Beauty isn’t just a great film–it’s a masterpiece. Paolo Sorrentino films the city of Rome as a garden of sybaritic delights with such lurid tones and decadence that his style has been compared to Baz Luhrman and Pedro Almodávar. A much better comparison would be to Italy’s great auteur Federico Fellini–think a pastiche of La Dolce Vita and Roma, with a bit of Dante’s Inferno tossed in.

The Great Beauty is a slow film that demands perseverance. Its lush exteriors are equal parts alluring and boring, which is really the point of the film. We experience Rome from the perspective of its main character, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). It opens on the grounds of a posh home where assorted friends, hangers on, and social climbers have gathered to celebrate Jep’s 65th birthday. They’re happier about the occasion than Jep, upon whose face is etched the horrifying reality of his own mortality and the ennui from having spent decades of his life enduring hedonistic evenings of booze, drugs, loud music, contrived merriment, and casual sex exactly like this one. Jep is a successful journalist, critic, bon vivant, and socialite who has hobnobbed with so many self-styled beautiful people that no party is complete without him. He has it all–wealth, reputation, connections, power–but what does it all mean? He’s feeling contemplative, but also sad, tired, and creatively spent. (Jep also authored a seminal novel, but never found inspiration to write a second one.) Where is the great beauty that animates the living and makes sense of life? The more the music pounds and the dance lights swirl, the more Jep longs for the simple and quiet. 

We follow Jep from party to party, event to event, and gallery to gallery, but he is happiest when his melancholia is undercut by those even more world weary than he–Jep’s no-nonsense maid; his acerbic editor, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a dwarf whose lives and dishes out disappointment; Romano (Carlo Verone), a failed script writer and the closest thing Jep has to a real friend; and Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the don’t-give-a-damn stripper daughter of an acquaintance.  It’s tempting to see Romano and Ramona as Jep’s animus/anima archetypes, with Romano a projection of his aged sense of incompleteness, and Ramona the remembrance of newness and realness. Jeb befriends Ramona, not because he desires her body, but because she is an authentic presence amidst a whirl of phonies. In a nod to Dante, he becomes her Virgil, guiding her through Rome’s rings of violence, heresy (embodied by a materialistic cardinal), wrath, greed, gluttony, and lust, but also through Inferno’s upper level: limbo. There are gorgeous shots of Jep escorting Ramona through the Vatican Museum by candlelight, sharing poems and meals with her, strolling through crypts, dining with an ancient Mother Theresa-like nun, and other such moments in which the Great Beauty can be glimpsed, if only for a moment. We hope that, somehow, Ramona can transform herself into Beatrice and lead Jeb to Paradiso, but that’s probably not in the cards.
Servillo and Ferilli are magnificent in The Great Beauty, often communicating with one another in silences deeper than words. Servillo wears a Mona Lisa smile throughout the film. Is he melancholic? Wistful? Amused? Sardonic? Sad? Does he really long for quiet, or just need recovery time between bouts of hedonism? Does he even have the capacity to change?

Not since Fellini has Rome looked so exciting or so horrifying. I get the Luhrman analogies whenever excess is on screen–especially the saturated colors, the stark contrasts, and the no-holds-barred vices, but Luhrman uses surrealism as a prelude to hijinks, whilst Sorrentino uses it more reflectively and (ultimately) reflexively. Luhrman is all about the surfaces, whereas Sorrentino probes carefully guarded interiors at their most vulnerable points of entry. The Great Beauty a complex film that can’t be gobbled like popcorn; it must be savored slowly like a rare wine. It will try your patience, but by the time it's finished you, like Jep, may wonder why you were in such a hurry to rush off to what Phil Ochs called the next thrill parade.

Rob Weir