Speaking of Brussels — Belgium has had no government for over a year! Everything seems fine in Brussels, arguably Europe’s most spatially dissonant city. It’s a surreal place.
Tomorrow, Wednesday August 31th, I’ll DJ at ‘une petite fÃªte entre amis’ put on by La8. Info. The next day I’ll make an appearance on Radio Panik 105.4 FM, not sure when, watch the Twitter for that. (Radio Panik is one of a handful of open-eared European radio stations that rebroadcast my WFMU radio show.)
Apologies for the late notice, but the Mudd Up Book Clubb will meet two weeks from today on September 8th, in Tangier Morocco. We’ll be talking about Juan Goytisolo’s Exiled from Almost Everywhere (original title: Exiliado de AquÃ y de AllÃ¡). Goytisolo is a complicated figure — the Spaniard has lived in Marrakesh for decades, and his biography and attitude are often more interesting than his actual books. But this new one, published after five years of silence, is surprisingly nimble and enjoyable.
The basic plot: a man is blown up in a terrorist attack and finds himself in the afterlife, which is a kind of mad internet cafe. Religious extremism, media spectacles (Debord makes an appearance), the realness of exile (which Goytisolo suffered at the hands of fascist Spain) and the surface-skimming fluidity of online identity, it’s all here. The weird, perversely funny romp of Exiled provides an excellent introduction to the works of this writer. Goytisolo’s career-long literary critique on the cornerstones of Spanish Identity is formidable indeed. (His books were banned in Spain until Franco died in 1975.) I’m not going to pretend that this is an easy or immediately pleasurable read, but it is worth talking about! Plus it’s short. (The October Book Clubb selection will be slightly less far-out, and nonfiction…)
Exiled From Almost Everywhere is perhaps the best work of Goytisolo’s later period. The author, who in his 20s, wrote realistic novels that described the vulgar horrors of Franco’s Spain, from which he was exiled, later began to develop a freer, less traditional, more ironic and humorous voice. Nowhere is this style more accomplished than in this novel, beautifully translated into English by Peter Bush. (Even Bush’s title is a clever rendering of the original Spanish, literally “The Exile From Here and There”.)
For more info on the Book Clubb: The idea is simple: every six weeks or so we gather somewhere for informal talk centered around a good muddy book, then go eat delicious food. Weâ€™ll have a live Ustream or Skype feed so Cousin Internet and Miss Larry Antitroll can join in — but if you want to tele-participate, you should sign-up for the low-activity Mudd Up Book Clubb Mailing List.
I’ve been relaxing these past few days. My time was vaguely starting to resemble that freelancer’s rarity: a vacation. Whatever it was, it’s over. TOUR TIME! Several European dates and some special events in Morocco. But first – Last night was a fun radio show (if I don’t play the entirety of Reich’s “Come Out” bookended by juke trax, who will?)
Today’s party in a Copenhagen park marks the start of the Denmark leg of the tour, where I’ll be playing dates with Mutamassik and giving a free “master class” with Mad Professor.
So strange to watch people’s responses to civic unrest — I don’t lean essentialist, but I can safely say that growing up as a black male in the US (or the UK, or many places) gives you a relationship to things like cops, public security, and visibility that contradicts nearly all the mainstream media narratives around you…
And there’s a rich thematic vein running through black literature from its very start (slave narratives) where acts of violence are a necessary precondition to personal liberation. To go from being defined as property to achieving one’s own humanity requires all sorts of “violence” – semantic and physical and psychic and social. And these aren’t so easily separated. For more on this, the final Covey scene in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is a great place to begin.
Of course, lofting a brick through the window of a locally owned mom & pop shop means you are Part of the Problem and a wanker to boot (Here’s an impassioned video clip from last night ‘Truly extraordinary speech by fearless West Indian woman in face of Hackney and London riot’.)
And lofting a brick through the window of a FootLocker or a multinational bank basically means you’re giving more thankless labor to whatever underpaid person does janitor work there — but, also, perhaps, with that breaking something in you changes, your relationship to Captain Hegemony/abstracted corporate power/The Man/dreary chain stores/civil disobedience/personal responsibility. Maybe you have to start with a less-than-articulate act of changing your city before more eloquent thoughts or actions can be formed. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re just busting things up.
One useful strategy is to remember the enormous differences between this week’s widespread top-down economic violence (US debt idiocy, Eurozone crisis, etc) whose perpetrators are so shadowy and slippery and difficult to envision or grasp versus the EZ news spectacle of photogenic ‘riot porn’ violence that also happens to be obsessed with the bodies of those doing it (not so much the causes).
At times like these, I see a lot of value in actions that help make the former as tangible as the latter.
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The above photo shows London reggae shop Dub Vendor. They’re fine — although you can see above that the building next to it is in bad shape indeed. (Sonido Martines sent me the image, from El Pais). Let’s rewind 20 years. Here’s some high quality UK dub-reportage that I picked up in Brooklyn awhile back: Raymond Naptali and Roy Rankin’s Brixton Incident. It’s a gem of a song. Front line youth, squat living as better than the Council flats, “no work for the unemployed”, timeless reverberations from another London “riot caused by the cops”.
A few days ago I came across the first mention of Auto-Tune I’ve seen in fiction: Lauren Beukes’ 2010 novel, Zoo City. It’s weird noir, set in contemporary Johannesburg, featuring an ex-junkie protagonist named Zinzi December and her magic sloth. The unconvential pair is caught in a web of intrigue involving murder, 419 email scams, and a missing kwaito/afropop teen star. In short, it sounds like a book specifically engineered for my peer group… There’s even a corresponding soundtrack album “of kwaito and electronica… painstakingly put together by African Dopeâ€™s Honeyb to evoke the feel of Lauren Beukesâ€™ new novel.” Each page drips with local references (including a passing mention of Spoek Mathambo); this book must read quite differently to those familiar with Jo’burg and the pop culture landscapes of South Africa.
A member of the Mudd Up Book Clubb recommended it to me. Zoo City is a fast read, cynical and sassy, reminiscent of a streetwise Charles Stross, and it makes me think of that masterpiece of weird-noir-with-animals, Jonathan Lethem’s incredible Gun, With Occasional Music.
(The difference between Zoo City‘s two covers is striking: from stark animals-and-architecture as typeface to cartoon Lauryn Hill. Guess which one the American stores carry?)
I love noir books and film, from Raymond Chandler’s Angeleno classics to Beukes’ darkly magicked (yet respectful) take on it.
Noir is urban exploration as literary form. It evolves around a main character — neither cop nor robber but a bit of both — who gets paid to search the city for fast answers, reading characters who function as stand-ins for entire ways-of-being in the tough metropolis. Noir offers allegories of social and spatial interpretation in which truth takes backseat to power.
Cities force us to confront (or, as the case may be, to pointedly ignore) an enormous amount of socio-economic distance contained within a relatively small geographic space. Noir acknowledges that violence is one of the few events that can crosshatch all the various barriers raised; and that you must be a quasi-outsider (private investigator, former cop, ex-junkie, and so on) in order to successfully communicate across the city’s compressed and always potentially violent differences. It’s not easy, in other words, to climb outside your circles in the urban jungle.
Noir protagonists speak in wisecracks, and usually get physically punished for doing so. Zinzi December is constantly, hilariously mouthing-off. And as all real wise-asses know, humor is the only way to speak through certain taboos (calling Richard Pryor!). Noir protagonists’ world-weary approach to truth comes from that place of joking. They size-up people and, by extension, the city itself, scrutinizing every conversation not for its truthfulness (PIs expect to be lied to) but rather by how what is being said reflects the interests of the speaker. Truth as power struggle rather than fact.
It’s no coincidence that many noir plots end with the person ‘getting to the bottom of the story’ by uncovering complex power-plays that led to the crime, at the same time as they learn that that story can’t be made public, that those particular truths can’t be spoken, that something larger keeps them silent. Thinking back, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly effectively internalized this noir premise — that truth or truthfulness is both sought-after and ultimately corrupted — by steeping the main character in drug-induced psychosis and paranoia; Lethem and Beukes each profit from Dick’s substance D deliriums.
Here’s an excerpt from Zoo City, riffing on the noir megathemes of class & access and the ways in which moving through a city is understanding it:
Traffic in Joburg is like the democratic process. Every time you think it’s going to get moving and take you somewhere, you hit another jam. There used to be shortcuts you could take through the suburbs, but they’ve closed them off, illegally: gated communities fortified like privatised citadels. Not so much keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle-class paranoia in. . .
and another, about entering a club:
…He ushers me towards the velvet ropes that have seen better days, and a short, wiry bouncer who is wearing a t-shirt that reads TRY IT MOTHERFUCKER.
“She’s with me,” Gio says and, although the bouncer is not happy to see Sloth, he gives us the tiniest of head tilts to indicate, yeah, sure, whatever.
The Biko Bar is to Steve Biko as crappy t-shirt design is to Che Guevara. His portrait stares down from various cheeky interpretations. A hand-painted barber-shop sign with a line-up of Bikos in profile modelling different hairstyles and headgear; a chiskop, a mullet, a makarapa mining helmet. Steve stares out with that trademark mix of determination and wistful heroism from the centre of a PAC-style Africa made of bold rays of sunlight. Steve, with a lion’s mane, is the focal point of a crest of struggle symbols, power fists, soccer balls, and a cursive “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” My academic dad would have hated it. Reduced by irony and iconography to a brand.
“I see they sell t-shirts,” I say. “Do the kids’ sizes come pre-soaked with acid?”
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Zoo City is the first book I’ve read where the author tweeted at me whilst I was reading it! Lauren was letting me know about the soundtrack, embedded here and thoroughly buyable. Also: the Kindle/eBook edition of Zoo City is currently available for $1. VERY AFFORDABLE.
Â¡Ã“rale! Tribal Guarachero – “Aztec Rave from the Future” – keeps on rising.
A quick review: There was my Fader feature on Tribal Guarachero in Monterrey from last year, now viewable online. Then came a National Geographic article suggesting that certain stone buildings in the Americas were Pre-Columbian ritual spaces for heightened sound reception and communal celebration — aka rave caves. My post on these Ancient Mayan Subwoofers contains a handful of tribal MP3s which very intentionally invoke Aztec and Maya pasts (as do the t-shirts and posters of Erick & Sheeqo).
Erick Rincon and Sheeqo Beat in Erickâ€™s studio. photo by John Francis Peters for The Fader
Next, VBS hopped into the game with a great little piece on the new music from Monterrey birthing a pointy boot craze in north Mexico and beyond.
The big picture in all these stories is the stunning creativity and vitality of Mexican youth culture — other aspects of which Daniel Hernandez chronicles in his recent book Down and Delirious in Mexico City. Here’s my previous post about the book, and here is his guest appearance on Mudd Up radio.