Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Santa Clara: ¡Viva la Revolución!?

"I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves." ~ Che
Santa Clara is where Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos won the Cuban revolution. 270 km east of Havana, in the centre of the island, the university town of Santa Clara is now home to all things Che, including his monument and mausoleum.

On December 29, 1958, Che and his men ambushed an armoured train full of Fulgencio Batista's soldiers and ammunition. With his arm in a sling from a previous injury, Che had successfully broken the dictator by splitting the country's supply lines in half. On January 1, 1959, at 3 a.m., Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic with over $300 million stuffed in his suitcase.

On January 2, Fidel Castro's soldiers took over Havana and within days he and his comrades were welcomed as heroes. When Yuko and I entered Santa Clara recently, we were welcomed and pulled in all directions...Cuba is now a country where a surgeon makes barely $30 a month. It's a sad testament to the failure of a once glorious revolution, a failure that can't be blamed solely on Washington or on the Castro brothers. If Cuba was ever truly for Cubans, then Havana must ultimately bear the brunt for its people's desperate living conditions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Fortune Of Innocence: The Lilac Time

"Gonna see the river man
Gonna tell him all I can
About the plan
For lilac time"
~ Nick Drake, "River Man"
It was the day before the day before...1987. A foggy ruin of time, as the bard once sang, a year of pure psycho that unleashed the Loonie, "Black Monday" on the stock market, the third (!) re-election of Margaret Thatcher, Guns n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction and The Lilac Time's elegant debut. I'd just crawled out from the technoblast of Luv-a-Fair and Graceland that made up Vancouver's club scene and I was desperate to come down, chill out...

....with some fine English pop. Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy was in a similar mood after spending the early part of the decade in Duran Duran and pursuing his own solo career with singles like "Kiss Me"...

The time was right to put aside the eyeliner, pick up a banjo, meditate on love...and start a new band.

The Lilac Time is a bucolic slice of Albion folk rock, soulful and seductive at the same time. Standout tracks include the poptimistic "Return to Yesterday" and "Together," the gauzy "And The Ship Sails On" and the coy sexuality of "Love Becomes a Savage." A forgotten classic that evokes Nick Drake dancing out on the tiles...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Last Best West: Doukhobors Arrive

When Canada needed to settle the prairies in the first half of the 20th century, Wilfrid Laurier's Liberal government was forced to look outside its comfort zone and consider a ragtag group of Russians known as "Spirit Wrestlers," or Doukhobors.

While it was the largest mass migration in Canadian history, Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton would have preferred English or other western Europeans, but the English were abysmal farmers and the rest weren't in any rush to break ground in -30° C temperatures.

(1908 postcard showing Doukhobor women plowing fields)
So on January 23, 1899, the S.S. Lake Huron docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia with 2,140 Doukhobors on board.

My own relatives would arrive the following week on the S.S. Lake Superior and then more again six months later on the Huron.

The journey had taken a month from the Black Sea port of Batum, which was Russia at the time, now Batumi, Georgia. Other ships would arrive later, but this group headed west, settling across the prairies until eventually reaching B.C. Today I raise my bowl of borscht and celebrate 113 years in Canada!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paul-Émile Borduas: Resplendent Anarchy

“To hell with the holy-water-sprinkler and the tuque!”
The "Refus Global" (Total Refusal) manifesto, released in 1948, was a cri de coeur against "La Grande Noirceur" ("The Great Darkness") of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis' stifling reign. Spearheaded by artist Paul-Émile Borduas and Les Automatistes based in Montreal, Refus Global is now regarded as one of the very first salvos in what would eventually become known as the Quiet Revolution (Révolution Tranquille) over a decade later. The reaction was immediate and swift - within a month of its release in August 1948, Borduas lost his teaching position at l'École du Meuble.

Borduas in his Saint-Hilaire workshop, 1950
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:
"Refus global not only challenged the traditional values of Québec but also fostered an opening-up of Québec society to international thought. The manifesto advocated a strong need for liberation, if not 'resplendent anarchy,' and anticipated the coming of a 'new collective hope.'"
Borduas, Composition, 1942
While only 400 copies of the manifesto were printed, they sold out quickly.

"The reign of hydra-headed fear has ended.

In the wild hope of effacing its memory, I enumerate:
- fear of facing prejudice -- fear of public opinion -- of persecutions -- of general disapproval;
- fear of being alone, without the God and the society which isolate you anyway;
- fear of oneself -- of one's brother -- of poverty;
- fear of the established order -- or ridiculous justice;
- fear of new relationships;
- fear of the superrational;
- fear of necessities;
- fear of floodgates opening on one's faith in man -- on the society of the future;
- fear of forces able to release transforming love;
- blue fear -- red fear -- white fear; links in our shackles."

Along with Borduas, the Automatistes included such artists as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Pierre Gauvreau, and Marcel Barbeau whose work resembled New York abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Marcel Barbeau, Rosier-feuilles (Rosebush leaves), 1946
Below is an excellent NFB documentary from 1954, "Artists in Montreal" on the Automatistes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Heidegger: Dasein & Zen

"The world of 'Dasein' is a with-world" ~ Martin Heidegger
Many who have written about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger have failed to bridge a rapprochement between his thoughts and his actions. He was a notorious booster of the Nazis in his position as Rector at Freiburg University from 1933-34, helping promulgate the “blood and soil” rhetoric of the party, shutting down democratic institutions on campus and betraying colleagues. While he resigned a year later, he remained a member of the Nazi Party until the bitter end in 1945. Whether or not he was anti-Semitic appears to be moot given his support for Hitler, but he did deny that he was and for a time was romantically involved with a young Jewish woman by the name of Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
Heidegger's politics have posed a huge problem for anyone sympathetic to his philosophical views before Hitler's ascent. After World War II, he also appeared mildly anxious and attempted to recast his support for the Nazis as uncommitted, lukewarm or even coerced. But he never categorically rejected them, nor directly expressed any regret about the holocaust before his death in 1976.

(Heidegger marked with an 'X,' 1933)
Arendt was primarily responsible for saving what could be saved of Heidegger's thought and separating it from his actions. But as the record has slowly emerged, it has become harder to sustain this distinction, if it ever could have been in the first place.

(Heidegger in the Black Forest)
This is a familiar problem for admirers of those who, like Heidegger (or Ozzy), espouse vile personal views while creating moving works of art or philosophy. But an exception has been made for Heidegger's major works like Being and Time (1927), which appeared before the rise of the Nazis and went on to make a profound impact on such 20th century developments as existentialism and deconstruction.

Heidegger's concept of "Dasein" (literally "there-being") is intoxicating and the similarities to Zen Buddhism's notions of "mindfulness" are inescapable. Both suggest a totalizing interdependency of all things, both animate and inanimate objects, coalescing into a "Being-in-the-World" that is intimately rooted in the physical and spiritual realms.

(William Blake)
Finding connections between East/West is something I've been interested in for a long time. There's some scholarship that suggests a more direct relationship between Heidegger and Japan, but how deep this actually went is hard to tell.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Musical Raves & Faves: 2011

According to the American Dialect Society, "Occupy" is the 2011 Word of the Year. As the Occupy Movement began to take shape last January in Cairo's Tahrir Square, I remember hoping the West would take inspiration and follow in the footsteps of the protesters. It eventually caught on and turned out to be the single most important phenomenon to occur (and recur) throughout the year. Sadly, most of the music emanating from the West this year failed to capture the spirit of resistance and possibility embodied by the movement. It's been this way for quite a while - pop music seems more suited to sell swag than express revolt. Still, there were some gems amid all the detritus and pepper spray...

1. Destroyer - Kaputt. My favourite album this year came from a fellow Vangroovy-ite who combined sunplash saxophones with temaki cones. West coast louche served with a bottle of chilled sake.

2. PJ Harvery - Let England Shake. A long-overdue indictment on the wars Blair and Bush plunged the world into.

3. Wild Flag - Wild Flag. Pegasus as a bucking bronco. These songs leap through the morass and spit you out like a pinball in a roller derby. Patti Smith backed by the Go-Gos channeling the Pipettes.

4. Junior Boys - Junior Boys. A suave take on synthpop and throbbing beats sizzling like hot, neon crystals.

5. The Black Lips - Arabia Mountain. Garage-punk-rama-lama!

6. Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues. Music that soars, cathedral-like, towards the sun.

7. Bon Iver - Bon Iver. Androids dreaming of electric sheep. Gorgeous.

8. James Blake - James Blake. Best use of vocoder since Cher's "Believe."

9. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Cinematic eargasms.

10. Wu Lyf - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. Two chords, the truth and...something else.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Che: Dreaming The Impossible

(Che fishing with Fidel, 1960)
Che Guevara has been labeled everything from a bloodthirsty Stalinist to a humanitarian saint, but one epithet he can't be smeared with is traitor. His devotion to revolutionary struggle was so implacable that Alberto Korda's ubiquitous Guerrillero Heroico portrait has become synonymous with anything to do with "rebel chic." As a result, much of Che's legacy has been drained of its vitality by the culture industry's relentless branding prowess.

At least Cuba has managed to retain a modicum of Che's dignity intact, ironically as a result of its isolation from the rest of the world. The hero of the Cuban Revolution was an Argentine doctor. He wasn't a Stalinist or a saint. He was a man for all times; a realist who dreamed the impossible.