France

Paris Récit : Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, 15th April 2019

Paris, France. Rear of Notre Dame shot from boat moving along Seine. Rear of Notre Dame from bridge. Pigeons, people sitting on benches, camera tilts to recall front of Notre Dame. Exterior of the cathedral’s stain glass window, fades to interior shot. More of the stained glass windows from interior (they appear to glow). More exterior shots of Notre Dame from moving boat. Close ups of gargoyles. Tree lined Seine from moving boat. Fishermen in three tiny stationary boats on Seine (poles protect them). Two barges tethered together travelling along Seine.
— Description of the video

As it always seems to be the case with situations like this, I heard about the fire at Notre-Dame by chance – after seeing a tweet by an American expressing sadness at the sight of the Cathedral on fire. The French Ambassador to the United States in an interview later shared how he was surprised by his reaction – he felt like he, himself was burning. Then he was shocked to realise that he was crying.

The intensity of my own reaction also came as a surprise. I kept thinking about it that night and into the following day. I don’t feel French in any sense, though I’ve lived in Paris for more than a decade and my son has grown up here. I’m not Catholic, even if my parents were and would have identified this way until they felt alienated from the Church after the Second Vatican in the 1960s; none of their children went to Catholic schools. But I grew up in an environment that was influenced by this religious and cultural heritage. With grandparents named Byrne, Prendergast, O’Halloran and Munday how could it be otherwise.

Awkwardly, I tried to find some way of paying respect to the event and how I felt: I shared this video of bells, marking the Cathedral’s 850th anniversary on Twitter - afterwards noticing that some kind of white rights/believer person in the U.S had liked it, unfortunately.

Some time ago I remember reading someone make the comment that people (in the West) are more affected by the loss of heritage – the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 or Daesh laying waste to mosques and museums in Syria and Iraq – than the deaths of people in the same locations. This is true in terms of how journalists approach these stories too, the way they build up the shock-drama element, the sense of pathos.

Perhaps people find it easier to express sadness over the loss of “culture” the same way they are more likely to donate to crises linked to natural disasters rather than political violence. This might reflect cultural bias – or racism – but it could just as much stem from a tendency to lean towards the tragic in an almost literary sense, while seeking to be included in the narrative. Much of the despair expressed worldwide over the fire at Notre-Dame resembled this, with many adding personal recollections of their visits to Paris to their expressions of shock.

Apparently, again gleaned from a cursory look at Twitter there was a reaction to the international expressions of sympathy, with many exhibiting a “fuck France” attitude. Much the same dynamic played out after the terrorist attack at The Bataclan in 2015 - with many feeling frustrated by what they see to be the event’s over-exposure, compared with other like events in poorer parts of the world or where the people affected by it are not predominantly white.

You Retweeted Jacinta Koolmatrie‏ @JKoolmatrie Apr 16

Jacinta Koolmatrie Retweeted Rae Johnston

Can’t help but think about how silent everyone is when it comes to Indigenous heritage. It is destroyed daily but instead of being met by singing and mourning, we are met by armed police #Djabwurrung

Rae Johnston‏Verified account @raejohnston

Devastating news about Notre Dame, a genuine shame to see a beautiful, historic, spiritual place destroyed. In Australia, this happens all the time - usually for the purposes of mining, development or - in the case of the 800+ year old Djab Wurrung birthing trees - a highway.

Historians Alexandre Gady and Claude Gauvard detail in a France Culture video that the Cathedral had been threatened before: during the “terrorist phase” of the French Revolution and then later in 1871 by the Communards, who tried to torch the Cathedral, alongside other buildings in Paris, as the “capital of the reactionary bourgeoisie” (to use their phrase).

During the First World War, the Germans tried to intimidate the French population by targeting Notre-Dame in an air raid but bombed the nearby Saint-Gervais church, leading to 100 deaths. The Nazis during the Occupation didn’t dare “touch” it, being well-aware of its significance for French people.  

The French Ambassador to Washington when describing his reaction mentioned how he walked past Notre-Dame daily.  This detail reflects something of the nature of shock and how it’s experienced. After the massacre at The Bataclan I also held onto this kind of reaction (I kept thinking about how I had seen a show there just weeks before, in the same place where so many were killed).

But it also says something about the way Notre-Dame is seen by people living in Paris. It is part of the landscape, albeit an essential part – remember that all distances begin there.

I have been inside Notre-Dame only a few times. (The last visit turned me off, it was jammed with tourists, filming or taking photos on their phones. It’s always surprised me how laidback the French are about the impact of mass tourism on places of enormous cultural significance, it’s almost as if they accept the influx in certain places if other places are “spared”. Thirteen million people visited Notre-Dame each year. Place du Tertre in Montmartre, a square with low-rise buildings near Sacré-Coeur where Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo lived and Renoir had a studio is similar in this regard. Today it’s unvisitable, so crowded with people you can hardly move around, a kind of Disneyfied hell-hole with men in berets offering to draw you as a cartoon figure, spruiking their talents in multiple languages).

Notre-Dame was - is - the background to parts of my life here: a place I saw when doing other things in my day-to-day, when getting out at Saint-Michel, or buying books at Gibert Jeune. A place I walked past, and met friends nearby.

But it also has deep spiritual and emotional importance in Paris - for Parisians and French people in general - that’s hard to express. Speaking about it with my son, trying to find the words, I said that the fire bothered me more than if the Sydney Opera House had similarly been damaged. Quick as a flash, the soon to be 13 year-old replied, “That’s because you’re from Melbourne.” (Okay).

Outside the mildly humorous competition between France’s two richest men to out-donate each other, in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty

“In three days, the cathedral has been pledged €100m (£86m) from Francois-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent; €200m (£172m) from the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton fame; another €200m from L’Oreal owners the Bettencourt Meyers family, and €100 from French oil giant Total.”

… some aspects of the Notre-Dame story are particularly touching. The Fire Brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier who insisted on entering the cathedral with the firefighters - the heat of the fire reached 800C - and helped salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Fournier was also present during the aftermath of the massacre at The Bataclan in 2015, comforting the injured and praying over the dead.   

And then the work of the firefighters themselves, who symbolise Paris in a way that isn’t duplicated to the same degree, to my knowledge, elsewhere (seen jogging in groups in shorts throughout the city, selling tickets to the annual ball outside the various Town Halls). It came down to 15-30 minutes between the total building’s destruction. All focus was on ensuring that the fire didn’t reach the gothic bell towers, where one of the bells - the 13 tonne Emmanuel bell - could have sent the towers crashing down.

These videos, too, I find deeply moving, of people coming together spontaneously to sing and pray, while watching the fire. Some with tears in their eyes.  

This is the final piece of music played at Notre-Dame before the fire.    

“Night Comes On” dir. Jordana Spiro (2018; French title “Long Way Home,” 2019)

Some time ago I read a review of a film, the title escapes me now though I remember it well, which referred to the cliché of mould-encrusted bathrooms, seen in panning shots of the dirty tiles, to represent poverty. Not having money, or the time and skills to fix/remove the mould on the tiles, is represented as base, disgusting. The critic mentioned this as being a particular feature of films where poverty is “feminised.”

Aramide A Tinubu, in her Shadow and Act review on Night Comes On (or Long Way Home, to use its French title) refers to the importance of this film about two sisters and their grief for the murdered mother being written and directed by women:

“The importance of a female director and writing team in this coming-of-age film can’t be overstated here. Fishback’s body was never once put on display gratuitously and moments in Angel’s life, one marred with sexual assault and coercion aren’t used as plot points in the script. Still, it was the moments between the sisters, both the snippy banter and the softer connections where Spiro makes her mark as a director. It seems unimaginable that a male writer or director would able be to capture a 10-year-old girl’s horror at her first period and her big sister's detached but comforting reaction.”

Coming home last night after seeing the film that shared the Prix de Jury prize at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema, a festival set up in 1975, I thought the same thing. I recognised my gratitude for the fact that one particular sequence – when Angel goes to get a gun – avoided spelling out a stereotypical representation of a woman in a state of duress, where her desperation leads to humiliation and abuse. The writer/director team seemed to be aware of this, moreover, drawing attention to what was expected, for it to be interrupted. When Angel does finally get the gun from the dealer, we are shown her walking away from the car, afterwards. Nothing is shown.

Most of all, I was moved by Dominique Fishback’s performance as Angel. Subtle expressions on her face carried this film, the performance by the non-professional actor playing younger sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall) is wonderful too, but Fishback’s characterisation has such depth, it reminded me of some of the great performances from Italian neorealist cinema, where the central female character tries to gain self-worth in an environment that if not explicitly out to undermine her remains indifferent.

I also truly loved the brief moments of connection between the sisters – see the moment when they touch hands in the above trailer at just before one minute; or when Abby sleeps against Angel on the bus (echoing earlier scenes where Angel sleeps alongside her mother, or dreams that she is). Spiro’s skill lies in the way this scene is deeply moving (even though nothing happens) and the fact that it is given more time than the next, which while a key moment in the narrative is undeveloped. This felt authentic and real.

The film is not flawless, some of it felt a bit too “neat” – perhaps even formulaic, made-for-TV in parts – but its simplicity and the performances of the two leads, more than makes up for any of its weaknesses.

Apparently, the English-language title comes from a Leonard Cohen song of the same title from 1984:

I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow I said,
Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning
I’ll never come through this alone
She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you
My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on, it was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, go back, go back to the world

Here is an interesting MovieMaker interview from August 2018 where the director Jordana Spiro describes the writing process with Angelica Nwandu:

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Walk me through the long writing process, which I understand had many changes, from the original spark to deciding you needed a co-writer and beyond. 

Jordana Spiro (JS): The initial spark started over 10 years ago. I wanted to make a movie about a young woman who is typically cast aside and get inside of her journey and explore the beauty and also the darkness that comes with what’s going on with her.

I asked the executive director of Peace4Kids if he might recommend somebody to work with me. He heard the story I was developing, which has since taken a very different shape, and he recommended Angelica Nwandu. At the time, Angelica was writing very beautiful, visceral poetry about her experiences in the system. We met and found a real complicity in the way we wanted to express ourselves, what we wanted to say. With her on board, the script became a living, breathing thing.

MM: What did Angelica bring into the writing process with you?

JS: Initially, I didn’t know what I was looking for. Was I looking for a co-writer, or was I looking for a kind of consultant to educate me? But it became very clear, as we started working together, that I wanted to ask her to be my partner in writing. We are both drawn towards a kind of lyrical and poetic sensibility, which allowed us to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve got an idea that you can only see a part of, but when you bounce it off of another person, the idea evolves and grows into something else. We had a similar appreciation for the poetry that you find in the details. It was a rich partnership.

And an interview with the director and the film’s lead actors linked to the success at Deauville …

To read my writing on films (Barry Jenkins, Chantal Akerman and others) please go to the “cinema” tag.

"Alchemist Dug Samples in Paris Record Stores then Made an EP with Local MCs" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 23 September 2017 read the article on the AFH site

Lush, abundant, playful; these three words perfectly describe Paris L.A. Bruxelles the recent project by acclaimed producer (and MC) Alchemist. This project sees him team up with a crew of French-language rappers.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, the project is subtitled: “One Producer, Three Cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert,” as it sets up a show on September 27 at Paris’ Trabendo. All samples used for the beats were unearthed in Parisian record stores the past summer, where the Gangrene and Stepbrothers co-founder then recorded the MCs in the Red Bull Paris studios.

Now Eminem’s official DJ, Alc’ has built his reputation as one of Hip-Hop’s best over the past two decades via his collaborations with artists such as the late Prodigy from Mobb Deep, Curren$y, Roc Marciano and Action Bronson.

Unlike the cool minimalism of Alc’s production on classic cuts from Prodigy (see: “Keep It Thoro”), here the producer’s experimental spirit is given free reign. The music remains consistent, while constantly shifting gear.

For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix.

Impressive is the way Al’ shifts moods throughout his production, see for example the single “Monnaie,” the title translates as “loose change” with its rehash of 60s Latin-Jazz, in the vein of Cal Tjader, that features Paris MCs Cool Connexion. Another stand-out is the opener, “Montre Suisse” (Swiss Watch) with the vocals of the Belgian duo Caballero and Jean Jass and the scratching of DJ Eskondo.

On social media, a few of the French MCs expressed their gratitude for the chance to work with such a great. The goodwill flows both ways, it seems.

Red Bull Music Academy✔@RBMA

Cet été, The @Alchemist était à Paris pour composer les instrus de la mixtape #PARISLABXL, à découvrir sur http://win.gs/ParisLABruxelles …

70

10:41 AM - Sep 22, 2017

In a video released by Red Bull Music Academy, Alchemist shared how he appreciated the French capacity to “live life to the fullest.” A lot of the time, he said crate-digging feels like work, but here in Paris, he said, “they say, f*ck it, let’s have some wine.” Heads who tune in to Action’s F*ck That’s Delicious show regularly get to see Alchemist enjoying food, wine, and a musician’s life of exploration.

Ibrahim Maalouf (“Beirut,” Kalthoum, Diasporas and more)

I consider my mother language, my musical mother language to be Arabic music. I was born into this culture. The music I know the most is Arabic music.”

Ibrahim Maalouf

Born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1980 trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf grew up in the suburbs around Paris. Both of his parents are professional musicians: his mother is the pianist, Nadia Maalouf and his father, Nassim Maalouf is the noted trumpeter and inventor of the micro-tonal trumpet that allows musicians to play the sounds specific to Arabic music called the maqams.

Here's a video where Nassim Maalouf speaks about the instrument and another where Ibrahim Maalouf speaks about the micro-tonal trumpet and plays it with a small band. Both interviews are in French. 

“I was seven years old and I used to hear my father practising the trumpet and playing, he was playing in the living-room and my room was right on top of it, so I used to hear this very soft sound. One day I said I would like to play with you, probably to spend time with him. (...) The moments I loved was when we were playing concerts, playing baroque and Arabic music, this is how I started playing the trumpet.”

Interview with Swedish student media (2014) 

Kalthoum (Mister Ibe, 2015)

Kalthoum is a celebration of women who overturned the course of history, women whose artistic influence has had an impact reaching all the way down to our lives today. So I chose an emblematic figure, a genuine monument in the history of Arab people, and incidentally someone whose voice is the one I’ve listened to the most, ever since I was a child: Oum Kalthoum.

Pianist Frank Woeste and I took one of this Egyptian diva’s greatest songs, and we “translated” it into jazz that’s rather conventional, but hopefully it innovates in the way it mixes cultures: the song is “Alf Leila Wa Leila” (“The Thousand and One Nights”). The song was composed in 1969 by Baligh Hamidi, taking the form of a suite lasting around an hour (as often in those days), with a three-minute chorus and verses of between five and twenty-five minutes. A large part of the piece is reserved for improvisation, both in the original version and in this one, but this suite is above all a series of tableaux, and the way it’s set up was very exciting to re-transcribe.

We recorded and mixed it in New York with the same crew as for the album “Wind” in 2011, which was also a homage (to Miles Davis), so I naturally thought of “Kalthoum” as continuing that fine adventure on record, with Larry Grenadier (double bass), Clarence Penn (drums), Mark Turner (saxophone) and Frank Woeste on piano.

In the interview below for the Philharmonie de Paris Ibrahim Maalouf speaks about how Kalthoum's music united the various Arabic language communities (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist); they all adored her work. He adds this work pays his respects to women in his family, and that he achieved this through the use of complex rhythms, piano and drums.    

***

Maalouf is a major musical star in France and internationally. His website, for example, notes how he is the first jazz musician to have filled France’s largest concert stadium, Paris-Bercy. Mainstream pop/rock is central to his music; he says that Michael Jackson was of equal importance for his development as a child learning to play the trumpet as the Middle Eastern music he would listen to every night before going to sleep.

Some of the climactic rock elements in his work don’t appeal to me much, triggering (bad) memories of 70s arena-rock, Led Zeppelin and the like, but there is something profoundly affecting about much of his music. See his most famous piece ‘Beirut’- this is a particularly touching live recording - released on his 2011 album Diagnostic. The way the music falls and builds inspires optimism and hope, encouraging us to continue whatever we might face.

Much the same could be said for this piece "True Sorry" from his Illusions album released five years ago.

According to Wikipedia, at his concerts Maalouf plays music in a way that will inspire his audience to dance, but also includes meditative moments that he calls instances of "collective/ universal prayer."

Diasporas (Mister Ibe, 2007)

Maalouf's album Diasporas is a wonderful work the way it combines recordings of people speaking in public alongside the music. He started work on the album when he was quite young, aged 22 or 23 and was questioning a lot. "I was recording everything happening in my life," he says."I wanted answers, I was recording the album and working on it. I was listening to the album but felt that something was missing." What was missing were these random conversations with strangers. The track above, "Hashish" includes a recording of talk in a taxi, very deep in the background so that is almost impossible to hear. 

The 2015 Red & Black Light album included a cover of Beyonce's "Run The World (Girls)" with a political video accompanying it. The opening scene, dated 2027, includes a news announcement about how the curfew that affects foreigners is being undermined by groups of women who are encouraging French-born people to mix with those of immigrant origins. The walls of the meeting-place are plastered with posters from France's far-right party, the National Front, saying "France for the French" and "No to massive (unchecked) immigration."

Terry Riley/Don Cherry Köln (February 23, 1975) w/ French film of Don Cherry, 1973

Personnel: keyboards, Terry Riley, trumpet, Don Cherry, vibraphone, Karl Berger

Recorded one month after and in the same venue as the famous Köln concert by Keith Jarrett – see my earlier article on Jarrett’s 'Endless' here – this album was first released as a limited edition of 500. As the Discogs description has it, it is ‘a legendary recording that pairs Don Cherry's heavenly trumpet stylings, Terry Riley's psychedelic/minimalist organ work and the vibes of Karl Berger ...’

More than four decades on the concert has never received an official release, possibly as one person states (in another Discogs summary) 'due to the fact that Cherry's trumpet distorts throughout.'

Within jazz, the trumpet always has a transcendent quality - cutting through, providing definition. What is so evocative here is the way Cherry’s contributions are truncated, broken in a way that reinforces the totalising effect of the dense, underwater repetition behind it. This is, at once, disorientating but also offers comfort, as if these moments are remnants of a forgotten melody (or melodies). The lack of development fascinates me.

Such music requires a different kind of listening experience. The details, the absences – the fact that Cherry’s contributions are so infrequent – become more important that the idea of completion; see here in particular ‘Descending Moonshine Dervishes,’ which invites us to make connections with Riley’s great album Persian Surgery Dervishes from 1971 (and then later was used by Riley for the title of a 1982 record)

Here is Chad DePasquale’s take on the Köln concert, published at the Listen to This website: 

In 1975, pioneering minimalist composer Terry Riley and jazz trumpet cosmonaut Don Cherry joined forces for a magnetic performance in Köln, Germany. Recorded live, but never commercially released, the concert is something of a hushed treasure, as well as the only record of a profound spiritual experience and meeting of two free form jazz titans. Riley’s swirling synth, droning and clairvoyant and prescient in its clarity, parades along with a triumphant Cherry, leaving behind trails of mystery and a sense of beauty in a larger, more universal form. Side A, the twenty-minute “Descending Moonshine Dervishes,” is a transcendent moment of improvisational experimentation and spiritual jazz. As Cherry’s physical presence slowly liquifies, “the lonesome foghorn blows” into some kind of misty dawn. His mournful trumpet immerses the listener into dense layers of playful percussion and dissonance. When Karl Berger joins the duo on vibraphone for side B, the tone becomes more hypnotic and reedy – a strange mystical noir – with the final three-and-a-half minutes of “Improvisation” exuding a vivid imagination. A lucid and rhythmic front row seat to the startling beauty of minimalist explorations and eloquent fusions of Eastern and Western ideas.

Online reviews of this concert are few and far between but follow the tone above, lush in their description (one strange diversion from the pattern being this odd, gnomic line: ‘The best album by Terry Riley & Don Cherry is Live Köln 1975 which is ranked number 13,072 in the overall greatest album chart with a total rank score of 95.’)

There is something affecting about this music, but its power lies in the way it avoids over-statement, or display (Cherry principally, but also Riley and Berger refuse to please or perform or provide dramatic moments). Perhaps it is this quality that encourages us to seek out and perhaps overuse language - adjectives, but also verbs in unusual forms - in an attempt to express how it connects with something inside us.

Coda: ‘Don Cherry’ -

Director: Jean-Noël Delamare, Nathalie Perrey, Philippe Gras (...) Don Cherry, trumpet, illustrating an André Breton poem in various Paris locations.

Fr: Un homme noir, trompettiste de free-jazz, débarque sur la terre, venu d'un autre monde. Il recherche la vérité de ce monde, mais ne sait quel chemin prendre... Il parcourt plusieurs chemins, abat des monstres, pour enfin découvrir les trois vérités : MUSIQUE, SAGESSE, AMOUR. (Eng: A black man, a free jazz trumpeter, comes to earth from another planet. He searches for the truth of this world, but doesn't know which path to take. He wanders various roads, kills monsters, and finally discovers the three truths: MUSIC, WISDOM, LOVE).

Live Recordings: Ibeyi (Mama Says/Better in Tune with the Infinite)

“Ibeyi” – twins, in Yoruba.

Born in Paris, sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, twenty-two years old possess that kind of virtuosic magic that is impossible to discount, or miss. Their father is the late Cuban percussionist, Anga Diaz, their mother, the Venezuelan- French singer, Maya Dagnino, who appeared in their heart-rending video for ‘Mama Says’. (To be blessed among women)

Such sweetness and strength in this rendition, I especially like the way Lisa’s vocal performance – all emphasised consonants, “gone” – is imperfect and the way the sisters close their eyes, as they sing together. How Naomi taps out the beat on the drum, on her body. The simple lyrics that are perfect, while appearing to be a little lost in translation (‘I’m afraid that she’d be hurt and .. sink’)

I appreciated this comment below the ‘Mama Says’ video from Monroe Rodriguez Singh

I love this group because they write in metaphor based on Afro-Caribbean tradition spiritual music/stories and pair it with their own lives and music. “The man is gone/And mama says/That she can’t live without him. ...There is no life without him.” In this song, at first glance it’s about the loss of their father and how their mother is dealing with that loss. Towards the end, they sing a song to Elegua and the lyrics “the man is gone, there is no life without him” bring new meaning because Elegua, is the Yoruban orisha of communication, roads. He is the bridge between the spiritual world and the material world. He is the first orisha to be saluted in any ceremony. So in essence, when he is out of the equation, there is no ceremony, no communication to the divine, no path, so there is no life without him.

During the same performance recorded at Seattle’s KEXP studios, they transformed and unearthed Jay Electronica’s ‘Better in Tune with the Infinite’ –

Here is an entire, albeit short, concert by Ibeyi filmed in Paris at Le Ring last year.

I have read a number of really lovely, interesting, evocative articles based on interviews with the Diaz sisters, take this one for example by Jazz Monroe published in The Skinny in 2015.  (There are many more). 

Thoughts on terrorism and campaigns against police violence

Unsurprisingly the most persistent question following the series of terrorist attacks in France that killed 234 people over an 18-month period up until the Bastille Day assault in Nice last year, has been, ‘Why France?’ All kinds of answers have been put forward, most often with the answer given reflecting the political perspective of the person responding.

Social oppression, racism; the country’s policy of secularism (that banned the veil and all forms of religious identification in public schools), the country’s colonial past that continues to inform, or infect, policy in former colonies in West Africa, where France is fighting Islamist forces; its involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria.

Problem with this, though, is that the above suggests that there is a logically coherent argument motivating the mostly European-born jihadists committing these crimes. Knowledge of the men’s chaotic personal lives, shifting allegiances, and often sudden conversion to the cause undermines this premise. Family ties, for example having a close family member already involved in the jihad, alongside a criminal background seem to matter more. European-based jihadist groups closely resemble gangs, where men often with a history of crime or violence are recruited to the cause that is put forward as a path to salvation and renewal.  

Still, the question remains: why France? Those organising the attacks appear to believe that France (out of all the European countries) is vulnerable to the chaos it wants to unleash through its campaign of terror; the idea being that the country’s three million Muslims might be potential recruits, if/when the French State enacts repressive policies against them, and that the country is weak because of its sentimental self-image as the bastion of human rights.

Of interest, here, is the way the jihadists chose their target based on its perceived weaknesses. This is basic psychology writ large: the conman targets the vulnerable person based on how they think that person will react, while twisting the victim’s sense of a positive self-identity (the opportunist says that he loves a woman’s ‘sweet nature’ to get her to give him more, complimenting her and flattering her ego to exploit her).

Yesterday, a white police officer – Betty Shelby – was acquitted of a manslaughter charge of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher who was shot when standing with his hands above his head in Oklahoma last September. The reactions as you would expect were furious, often focussing on the fact that the officer was a ‘white woman’. But despite all the political actions, the street marches and opinion pieces written, this is just another case where a police officer has avoided jail time (or avoided being charged, or having a case brought against them).

From an outsider’s perspective, despite all the activity – and media coverage – little seems to be changing in the US regarding police violence. There are strong community-based campaigns, calling for police to wear body cameras, for the institution of accountable civilian reviews and independent police liability insurance (see this national campaign that started in Minneapolis, Insure the Police), but people are still getting shot and police officers allowed to go free, or not even be charged.

Without sounding too extreme, I wonder, though if it might be time to think like the organisers of the European-based terrorist campaigns, not in terms of using violence, of course, but focussing more on the weaknesses/motivators of white racism that allows the cycle of police violence in the United States to continue unchecked.

For starters, to think of campaigns that could upset the dominant desire of the majority population to have a positive self-image (see the way various forms of historic forms of race-based oppression, most obvious in colonial/post-colonial contexts sought the veneer of respectability and benevolence, as they would say in Australia, the policies of protection and assimilation were ‘for their own good’). And secondly, to start thinking about money.

Could boycotts, for example, be enacted that targeted cities with high-levels of police violence – allowing for some protections, or financial support for citizens living there who might be affected? Might international campaigns be set up to ‘shame’ cities in the United States - including a ban on tourism, just like the divestment campaigns against South Africa - until they guarantee basic levels of safety to the people living there?

Everything in politics comes back to financial interests; that’s all that matters. Groups are heard because they have financial interests that intersect with those who govern. For this reason, the current activism against police violence, with its emphasis on educating the wider community and peaceful marches, seems to be too reactive – and just a little too nice.

It is true that the police officers could be motivated by racism or commit these crimes because of poor training, but it’s more than likely that they are killing people because they know that there will be no significant consequences, personal/professional … or financial. As any journalist knows, you have got to follow the money: I wonder how things might change, if a similar kind of logic was applied to the activism trying to stop police violence; to cut off the income - so to speak - that allows the current status quo to continue as is, unimpeded.  

In praise of: Chinoiseries, Pt 3, Onra (All City Records, 2017)

I was juggling doing shows and seeking something that could inspire me … I finally found it by returning to my fundamentals: rap and R&B. I listen to so much music that it’s sometimes hard to find those feelings you had when you were a teenager, when you could listen to one track and be stuck on it for what seemed like forever. I just started listening to things I listened to when I was younger and it gave me the idea to write an album coloured by these feelings. I was looking for an aesthetic.

It was more about colour. I wanted to reproduce a sort of colour, a sentiment that I had when I was a teenager listening to this music.
— Onra speaking to FACT magazine about his 2015 record 'Fundamentals'

Central to the interest of hip-hop is the fact that it exists as a simulacrum, a simulation of music - in the traditional sense as a performed art - while insisting that it must be seen to be musical on its own terms. There is something quintessentially bold about this, necessarily attractive, where the artist is saying that yes, this is music stolen and re-imagined with the artful cunning of a thief, but it speaks to/of me.

With this, though there are potential dangers. At risk of being too solipsistic, too self-referential, lacking the dynamic that comes from live performance, the music can rapidly become formulaic, cold, lacking the essential feeling that comes from the alchemy of musicians together in a room (expressing something of their selves, coming together, challenging each other); or it can become repetitive, in that the music is confined by the limits of the producer’s imagination. Or possibly even worse, hip-hop music - and instrumentals, in particular - can transform into ‘easy listening/elevator music’ that fulfills the lowered demands of listeners who seek diversion (and to be entertained) above all else. 

Paris-based producer Onra has found a solution for all of this, via his Chinoiseries series (the first album in the series was released in 2007 ; the second in 2011  and the third, final record in the series last month in March).  

In the interview featured below, Onra refers to the way Gil Scott-Heron replied that his music was Blues when asked to put it in a category, because no matter what it sounded like, this tradition provided the foundations for his work and sensibility. Onra says its the same for him with hip-hop, not only because this is what he grew up listening to, but also because of the way he makes his music (old-school: digging in the crates, finding the samples, inputting it into the MPC …)

More than this, though, Onra's music enacts respect to the origins via the way he engages with the source material: he doesn’t speak or read Mandarin, can recognise record companies – maybe – but has no idea about the broader cultural context, what it means/how it could be interpreted, so when choosing the musical elements, all he goes on is the sound. This is what gives his music its heart. 

Nowhere here is that awkward sense of an outsider transplanting one musical tradition into a fundamentally different context (take the recent fashion to take ‘African rhythms’ and layer them over a mainstream pop-song, or use them to offer up the foundations, no African people present, aside from a few photogenic dancers in the video maybe). Onra’s music holds its own universe inside it that feels personal. This stems from the fact that he doesn't relate to the music, or sounds, in an intellectual sense: he doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t know it, he responds to it: this work is driven by instinct.

I don’t speak Chinese, or read it, so I’ve got no idea what I’m buying. I spent hours to find the samples for Chinoiseries no 1 with a taxi driver; it’s thanks to him that I could find the vinyl records for my first album. For the second I went everywhere in Asia, to China, Vietnam, Thailand where I found a lot more. For the second, it was even better, I went to Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, The Philippines. I even found some records in France, in a ‘brocante’ (trash & treasure) in Paris.
— Original interview with French magazine, La Vague Parallèle, trans by the author

Chinoiseries has a double meaning in French; first referring to a ‘decorative style in Western art, furniture, architecture (that became popular) in the 18th century and (was) characterised by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques. See, for example, this painting by François Boucher, ‘The Chinese Garden’ from 1742

But it also has another meaning (admittedly one that I have never heard living here in Paris) that has a pejorative element and refers to ‘complications’ – as in a chinoiserie could refer to red-tape (I found this a bit-off definition online for the word, which must be a mis-translation from the French: ‘I hope that this Chinese incident will not put you in an awkward position with your superiors, dear François').

This idea of complications, of irregularity was seen to be part of the original aesthetic of the Chinoiserie in the past, especially in garden design (and spurned for this reason by some as ‘…a retreat from reason and taste and a descent into a morally ambiguous world based on hedonism, sensation and values perceived to be feminine,' according to one critic mentioned in Wik.)

LVP: Speaking about imperfections, the crackling, dusty sound on the vinyl, was that added or is it authentic?

Onra: That’s real. The vinyl records were dirty and I left them like that, it didn’t bother me and I don’t hear it anymore, but I never amplified it. There’s nothing fake (fake, in the original English in the interview) here. The records are from 1960-1970, after 1990 there were no more vinyl records in China; so it’s Soul, Rhumba, Cha-cha-cha, things that were influenced by traditional Chinese music, or music from Latin America, or covers of European songs, say pop music, that were well-known. There are no modern effects.
— Original interview with French magazine, La Vague Parallèle, trans by the author

There are so many phenomenal tracks on Chinoiseries, part 3 (‘Zoodiac’ with its intense noisy, paranoiac vibe that retains an almost punk feel - it reminded me of the kind of sampling/cut-up aesthetic of bands like Crass and groups of their ilk - ditto for ‘Voices in my head’; or the mood-driven work, such as ‘Hold my hand’ or ‘A distant dream’ – the disco-embellishment of the slowed-down exposed beat that goes nowhere, fading in and out, on ‘Pearl Song’).

Again echoing its old-school roots, Chinoiseries, part 3 is a record that demands to be listened to as a coherent piece of work, as the impact of the tracks is not individual but cumulative; it's really special.

***

What is your most prized or favourite Jay Dee record that you were able to collect over the years?

For a long time, it was Jay-Dee remixes EP, that came out in ’96 on House Shoes’ label. That one was very important for me because he send it to me personally. It was his last copy on his own label. So, he sent it to me in exchange of another batch, which was a very rare Jay-Dee beat tape from ’98. I think he may had put it out himself, as a second bootleg of one of his most famous beat tapes from ’98: Vol. 2 Vintage Jay-Dee Instrumentals. I had 3 copies of it, now I have 4 of them. So, I sent him one of my own and he sent me back the House Shoes EP. It’s a green vinyl, a super special one which was very cool. But this year I was lucky to find a Slum Village Fantastic Volume 1 on cassette, that’s the original format it was released on! They made 500 copies and were released in Detroit only. I found that shit on E-bay, I don’t know how many times I searched for it, maybe a hundred times. There has never been a copy around, and on this one day I found one, it was $ 250, -! But I just needed it and clicked on the ‘buy it now’ button immediately. It’s the ultimate shit, like nothing can beat that!
— Interview with LosBangeles

Bio: Onra (Arnaud Bernard) was born in 1981 in Germany to French parents, although his father has Vietnamese ancestry moved to France at the age of three and shortly after, lived between France and Côte d’Ivoire, where his mother was based for over twenty years. He discovered a passion for music at the age of ten and started making music at the age of nineteen.