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February 26 2014

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February 11 2014

A Personal Tribute to Jamaican “Interventionist” Stuart Hall

As tributes to late Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall keep coming, Jamaica-based blogger Annie Paul posts a personal and stirring acknowledgement.

Titled “A Stuart Hall-shaped hole in the universe…”, she begins by saying:

When I saw Stuart at his home in London on December 14, 2013, I knew he wouldn’t last much longer. He had been ill for years and his health had deteriorated considerably since the previous year when we celebrated his 80th birthday at Rivington Place, the art centre born of his inspiration and hard work. All the same his departure comes as a blow. It’s too early for me to come to terms with this loss, for Stuart has been a close friend and mentor since 1996 when he came to the University of the West Indies to speak at the Rex Nettleford Conference.

Paul chooses to share some of her own photographs in the post, which alone makes it extraordinary – snapshots of Hall with Paul herself; with David Scott, the editor of Small Axe magazine; a few pics of him both in England and in Jamaica. These are rare glimpses into the ordinary days of an extraordinary man. Paul says:

Stuart Hall was such an extraordinary thinker that his work ranged over a broad field of interests including visual art which was the one thing we truly bonded over. It was a preoccupation that didn’t get much coverage in other interviews which tend to focus more on his activism, his Marxism, and his political interventions.

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004 - Photo by Annie Paul

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004 – Photo by Annie Paul

She links to a post she wrote in November 2013, in which she reviews The Stuart Hall Project, the John Akomfrah film about him, which she hopes will be screened in Jamaica soon. In it, she says:

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Stuart Hall, was born and brought up here, made his career in Britain, become an intellectual powerhouse there, and is virtually unknown in the land of his birth. So true what Jesus said: A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. Ah well.

Still, she shares links about his life and work in an effort to make “young people here realize that Jamaicans excel not only in track and field and music but also in the intellectual arena…”

Another piece of memorabilia Paul shares in the post is one of her “treasures”:

…a letter Stuart wrote to the Librarian at Birmingham U so that I could gain access to their inner sanctum.

She ends with an upload of an interview she did with Hall, titled The Ironies of History:

The Ironies of History:An Interview with Stuart Hall by Annie Paul

The interview (read it, above) begins by quoting Professor Grant Farred of Duke University:

Such was Hall’s impact on the US, British, Euro pean and Australian academy via cultural studies, mainly through a range of essays he published during the 1980s, that by the 1990s he became one of the preeminent intellectuals in the world. In truth, because of the international rise of cultural studies, Hall came to be regarded as an academic star, an intellectual celebrity, and a philosophical guru: he became the incarnation of cultural studies, first in Britain and then in the United States, widely anointed as the spokes man for the politics – and the endemic politicization – of the popular, the theorist in the fore front of politicizing (all) identity.

In it, Paul discusses with Hall everything from immigration and deportation to dancehall music, black masculinity and homophobia. He talks about art, architecture and visual culture. He even talks about himself and his work:

I was an interventionist, my writing is interventionist ok? That is to say I write in order to intervene in a situation, to shift the terms in which it’s understood, to introduce a new angle, to contest how it has been understood before; it’s an embattled form of writing…a kind of intellectual interventionism.

This is a kind of politics in theory, because it’s interested in struggling thought – struggling in thought. Not interested in the production of pure truth, absolute truth, universal truth. It’s interested in the production of better ideas than the ones we used to have. So it’s a kind of struggle in thought, a struggle with thought and a struggle inside thought, struggle inside thinking to change the terms of reference with which we’re thinking. There’s also a politics of thought in the sense that it wants to make the ideas useful for some purpose; it wants to help people think more clearly about their situation or to help to advance nationalism in a more progressive direction or to help the world become a more equal and just place.

The image used in this post is by Annie Paul, used with permission.

February 10 2014

Remembering the Jamaican Cultural Theorist Stuart Hall

Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall has died at the age of 82 in England; netizens and academics all over the globe were shocked by the news, though Hall had been ailing for some time. He reportedly died of complications arising from kidney failure.

The UK Guardian's obituary described Hall as an “influential cultural theorist, campaigner and founding editor of the New Left Review”. One of the founders of British Cultural Studies, he regarded popular culture as capitalist and dominated by the ruling class. He studied media and its impact on ideology, becoming a major proponent of reception theory and expanded the scope of cultural studies to deal with race and gender. His work was particularly meaningful to black West Indian immigrant communities, as he explored ideas of cultural identity, race and ethnicity, especially as they related to the diaspora experience. Rather than viewing identity to be determined by history and culture – and therefore fixed – he saw it as fluid, ongoing and subject to change.

Facebook was overflowing with status updates that reflected the respect and admiration people had for the man and his work. Upon hearing the news of Hall's death, Rhoda Bharath said:

I can't even begin to describe how bereft I feel about Hall's passing… What a loss!

Arc Magazine posted a striking portrait of Hall by Antonio Olmos, adding:

We have just learned of the passing of Stuart Hall, champion of cultural studies and one of the Caribbean's leading intellectuals.

Our condolences are extended to those whose lives he touched with his generous work.

Rest well in peace Sir.

Arc's Facebook update directed readers to its website, where it posted about Hall's life and work in greater detail.

From Jamaica, Annie Paul referred to his death as “horrible news”, and proceeded to post a series of links and photos about his life and work as part of her mourning process, including this video of Hall speaking with C.L.R. James:

In another update, Paul admonished the Jamaican media for not picking up on the significance of his death:

Have yet to hear any announcement on local media of the passing of Stuart Hall…

Stuart Hall (R) reading a copy of The Caribbean Review of Books at at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004.  Photo by Annie Paul.

Stuart Hall (R) reading a copy of The Caribbean Review of Books at at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004. Photo by Annie Paul.

In a blog post that was published soon after the 2012 debut of John Akomfrah‘s film about Hall, “The Unfinished Conversation”, cultural studies professor Nick Mirzoeff wrote:

It’s a remarkable piece of visualizing theory and history. Shown on three screens simultaneously, the film visualizes, in a sense, what it must have been like to be Stuart Hall in his earlier career. The three screens would be showing personal photographs, filmed interviews from various periods, archive film and photography, news footage and so on. Meanwhile the sound would blend music, often jazz, with Hall’s commentary and radio interviews and other sound, such as the sea or machinery. It was a polyphony, edited so that all the sounds and images reinforced rather than disrupted each other.

There were powerfully revelatory moments throughout. It turns out–did I somewhere know this?–that Stuart has Sephardic-Jewish in his family tree. In the film, we see his mother and that lineage is visibly apparent–it’s mine, too, so I’m allowed to say this. Was there some affinity that I had felt, having worked with Hall when I was a young activist and editor on Marxism Today, and always taking his thought to be a lodestone? Perhaps.

He commented on other revelations in the film:

It turns out that Hall was part of a group that opened a radical coffee shop in Oxford in the crisis of 1956. The Soviet invasion of Hungary changed a generation away from orthodox Marxism-Leninism and cultural studies would not have happened as it did without this break. At the same time, Britain and France invaded Egypt over the nationalization of the Suez canal, their last imperial folly.

Sitting in the coffee shop called The Partisan, with its sign designed in impeccable lower-case sans serif font, Hall was interviewed about his views. Time and again, he calmly stressed that he was angry, angry over the invasions, angry over the disregard for young people in Britain, angry that

for fifteen years at least we have been without any kind of moral or political leadership.

Out of that anger came the New Left Review.

Mirzoeff continued:

Watching it now, over fifty years later, I felt intensely that we had somehow let this young man down, that it would be entirely possible for another such young man or woman to sit down today and say exactly the same thing. And it is indeed what we have been saying this past year. The spectre that entered the room was this question: will this demand still be unmet in fifty more years from now? Or was leadership perhaps the wrong thing to ask for? Reflecting back on 1956, a moment he felt “defined” him, Hall noted in terms so familiar to us:

Another history is always possible.

The film ends with this caption

For Stuart Hall. In gratitude. And respect.

My eyes filled with tears. In the crowded screening room, I was not alone.

On Twitter, condolences streamed in from all corners of the globe:

Some Twitter users shared the aspects of Hall's work that affected them the most:

Others suggested what they felt were the most appropriate ways in which to honour his memory:

Some just admitted that the world – and its intellectual space – felt emptier without him:

Gerry Hassan acknowledged Hall's astute analytical powers:

One Twitter user, Sean Fernyhough, quoted director John Akomfah:

Akomfah's latest documentary about Hall, The Stuart Hall Project, can be viewed here. A shorter clip is here.

@cfidelmorris acknowledged the great impact of jazz music in Hall's life – specifically the music of Miles Davis:

Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff summed up the general feeling with this tweet:

The photograph of Stuart Hall used in this post was taken by Annie Paul; uploaded by Nicholas Laughlin and used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license. Visit Nicholas Laughlin's flickr photostream.

February 07 2014

Pakistani Superhero Ms. Marvel

It's a comic book. And yet, while I did a lot of laughing [it's got a lot of funny moments] I also couldn't stop the tears. Because I was so happy to see a version of myself reflected before me, not sensationalized or stereotyped.

Blogger Aisha Saeed posts a review of the Pakistani American comic hero Ms. Marvel, who was featured in the latest book of Marvel Comics.

Caribbean: Discrimination is Discrimination

Groundation Grenada has partnered with Trinidad-based artist Joshua Lu “to create a visual campaign to draw analogies between sexual orientation/gender identity discrimination and other forms of discrimination.” Check out the first few installations in the campaign, here.

February 05 2014

Forget What You Know About Visiting Kosovo

A trip to Kosovo nowadays would convince anyone that this country, far from its sometimes negative reputation, has indeed a lot to offer. According to the World Bank data, more than 70 percent of Kosovo's population is under 35 years old, which surely explains the fact that on the flight this Global Voices author made to the country's capital Prishtina, half of the passengers were under 10 years old. This makes for quite the start to an unusual holidays!

Kosovo youth, while having to deal with terrible unemployment rates of 55.3 percent, manage to energize the country and push the rough memories of war further and further away. US blogger Adventurous Kate comments how first-time visitors feel:

It’s my first time in Kosovo, and I don’t know what to expect. Just the mention of “Kosovo” in America brings to mind an image of war, of death, of ethnic cleansing, of bombs. Even though this took place more than a decade ago, I’m wondering just what kinds of scars the country will bear.

Far off from the scars, what strikes the freshly arrived visitor most are Prishtina's incredible cafés. Everyone should experience the taste of a perfect macchiato on a sunny and well-designed terrace, looking over the frenetic errands of passersby. It certainly is not a legend that the coffee there sometimes tastes even better than an Italian one – we apologize to our Italian friends for this, but it must be said!

Enjoying a latte macchiato at the Shipja e Vjetër café in Prishtina

Enjoying a latte macchiato at the Shipja e Vjetër café in Prishtina

The Dit' e Nat' café celebrating the Irish poet Yeats

The Dit’ e Nat’ café celebrating the Irish poet Yeats

Although it might be true that Prishtina's architecture, mostly grey and anarchic buildings, is not its main attraction, the city is buoyant in its attitude and style. Its walls are full of graffiti and other forms of street art; the soul of the city appears on them an open book to visitors.

“I love colors” and “I love flowers” appear very frequently on the walls of the city, mostly in the saddest parts.

The claims not to forget the leaders of the Kosovo independance are visible here and there.

Urban art urging people not to forget the leaders of Kosovo's independence are visible here and there.

Creative details are available on every corner.

Creative details are available on every corner in Kosovo.

Kosovo's people seem to look more towards the future than stay stuck in the past praising war heroes or pacifist icons of Kosovo's battle for independence from Serbia, like Ibrahim Rugova. Kosovo, now the newest nation in Europe, was historically a part of Serbia and previously Yugoslavia. The 1998-99 Kosovo War was fought between the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up by Serbia and Montenegro at the time, and the Kosovo rebel group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), with military air support from NATO, after 10 years of non-violent resistance from the civil society of Kosovo.

Although portraits of Ibrahim Rugova, the first president of newly independent Kosovo, as well as of the leaders of the armed resistance are visible here and there, the general impression to the newcomer is that today's actors of Kosovo are building up their own models. Witnessing the elections in Kosovo from Prishtina in November 2013, Darmon Richter comments:

Newspaper stories about riot police and violent assaults in polling stations do nothing to give a sense of modern-day Kosovo, save for the few pockets of the country where race rivalry is still rife. In the city of Pristina, people crave recognition of their independence… but all in all, it's about as normal a city as you'll find anywhere in the Balkans.

In fact, with a reported 60% voting turnout nationwide, democracy almost seems to be working better here than it does in the UK.

In the center of Prishtina, Rugova is still there, but the colors are washed out.

In the center of Prishtina, street art bearing Kosovo's first President Ibrahim Rugova's image is still there, but the colors are washed out.

Somehow, Prishtina could appear as a “mini-Istanbul” in the sense that it is sitting quite balanced between a post-Ottoman and a Western European culture. Kim's travel blog, from an American and Korean perspective, underlines the surprising cosmopolitan atmosphere of the “city of love”:

After visiting Pristina, I truly understood why people had been calling Kosovo a fast developing and energetic country. You could see the new buildings coming up everywhere, and could see foreigners traveling (majorly European) around the city and there were many exciting restaurants available besides just Balkan foods (…). Although I did not see any Asian people at all, one of my friends informed me that he had seen four Japanese people touring around the city. I wish I was there to witness the ASIANS walking around the city, that would have been hilarious. We probably had exchanged strange looks thinking “what the hell are you doing here…?” haha

What comes out of it is, just like in the Turkish city of wonders, a fascinating mixture of traditional silver art craft shops, highly modern new cafés, a multitude of bakeries, some old mosques being rebuilt, and some churches left to rot. In the center you can see some incredible buildings like the Prishtina University library, which appears almost as an unidentified object in the middle of the communist architecture that inhabits the rest of the area. Kim's travel blog also mentions this building:

You could see many historical buildings around the city, and you could tell Kosovars were very proud of them. University of Pristina, the best one in Kosovo, was structured nicely. Also right next to the university, there is Pristina National Library, which was quite impressive and weirdly designed. My friend who currently works at University of Pristina had explained to me what the structure and the design was based on, but … of course this chicken head had forgotten about it. Maybe I will google and Wikipedia it later.

The magazine Kosovo 2.0, available in English, Albanian and Serbian, is the new brand of this educated, multilingual and very open, worldly society. Covering politics, arts, fashion, social debates, women and gender issues, Kosovar topics and global subjects, the magazine is available in print as well as online. Kosovo 2.0 also offers a selection of the latest sounds produced locally, mostly electro genres, which are available online : http://www.kosovotwopointzero.com/player. Enjoy the musical ride!

The flashy colors of a new way of life can not be ignored on the Pristhina walls.

The flashy colors of a new way of life can not be ignored on the Pristhina walls.

Prishtina is full of surprises for visitors from any origin. But as Kosovo is young, it is growing and changing very quickly. So do not lose any more time and, if you can, hop on the next plane or car and take a moment to discover this promising city and its joyful contradictions. If you are quick enough, there might still be a piece of cake there for you!

Tasty and creamy! Almost too much but not quite.

Tasty and creamy! Almost too much, but not quite.

All photographs in this post are by author Marie Bohner.

Youth Orchestra ‘Jafraa’ a Bright Spot in War-Torn Syria

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Jafraa Band. Source: Jafraa Facebook page. Used under CC BY 2.0

Shakespeare once said, “If music be the food of love, play on.” But what if this “food of love” risks the player's life? This is case for the young musicians who make up the Jafraa orchestra at the Palestinian returnees camp in Homs, Syria.

Led by music teacher and children's coach Amer Shanati, the band counts 45 to 55 children from ages seven to 17 years. Though music is often described as the language of the world, it pays a heavy price in war-torn Syria to survive. Most of their “relatively expensive” instruments are either borrowed or donated due to the poverty of the residents of the camp. Their music is a welcome distraction from the noise of bombardment and fighting that takes place outside besieged Homs.

Jafraa is 100 per cent dependent on social media to broadcast their performances as Syria lacks any kind of public musical activities since the government prohibited musical productions at the provincial and state levels. Shanati mainly uses Jafraa.Music on YouTube and Jafraa.homs on Facebook to post the band's work and to show the world that beyond the horror in Syria, there are still talented people who deserve not to be forgotten in the chaos. 

In the few emails that I exchanged with Shanati, he expressed his enthusiasm and pride for Jafraa, which performs “committed art”, a term that in Syria means the music of classic singers and musicians who enriched the Arab world's musical culture for generations, like Mohamed Abdel WahabFairuzUmm Kulthum, and Wadih El Safi, among many others. These young players are making magnificent efforts to underscore their talent by playing the 1969 classic song by Um Kulthum “Alf Leila wa Leila” (One Thousand and One Nights):

Shanati introduces the band on Facebook page as follows [ar]:

فرقة_جفرا_للفن_الملتزم فرقة موسيقية غير تابعة أو مموّلة من أي جهة حكومية أو مؤسسة من مؤسسات المجتمع المدني أو جمعية
أو مشروع على اختلاف انتماءاتهم..
فرقة جفرا أُسّستْ منذ عام 2007 بجهودٍ ذاتية متواضعة لتغني اللحن والفن الأصيل
تتألف من مجموعة كبيرة من الأطفال و الشباب يقوم الأستاذ “عـــــامر شناتي” بتدريبهم في غرفة صغيرة في مخيم العائدين/حمص/سوريا.

ولكل من هؤلاء الأطفال حلمه في الحياة العملية سيجتهد ويدرس لتحقيقه , ولكن ستبقى جفرا هي ركنهم الدافئ والخاص يحلقّون مـن خلاله في فضاء اللحن الأصيل والكلمة الملتزمة لينثروا عبرهما معاني الحب والسلام والجمال لكل من حولهم ..

وعليه تقبل فرقة جفرا للفن الملتزم فقط تبرعات و إحياء حفلات برعاية أشخاص أو مؤسسات لغايات إنسانية و ثقافية أخلاقية بحته
دون أي شــــــــروط تُفرض على الفرقة …

The Jafraa band of “committed art” is an orchestra which is not affiliated nor funded by any party, civil community institution, association or any other project.

The Jafraa band was established in 2007 with modest intentions to perform melodies and original art. It consists of a large group of children and young people led by Amer Shanati, a music teacher who trains them in a small room in the returnees camp in Homs, Syria.

Each of these children has a dream for his future; however, Jafraa will remain their warm and private corner from which they fly into space, with melody and committed music to spread the meaning of love, peace and beauty around them.

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Jafraa Band. Source: Jafraa Facebook page. Used under CC BY 2.0

The Jafraa band accepts only donations and concerts sponsored by people or institutions for humanitarian and cultural purposes, purely without any conditions imposed on the band.

The band takes its name from a famous poem about a pretty young Palestinian girl named Jafraa (or Jafra) who captured a poet's heart. Despite uncertainty around the story, generations considered Jafraa an icon of beauty and love in the Palestinian culture from which Shanati and many of his little heroes are descended. 

Answering a few questions about how Jafraa is operating, Shanati responded modestly:

I use social media to ease the delivery of the voice of children to the world where is no media coverage exist in our neighborhood. Our followers reactions are significant, give us hope and we feel happy to know that they are waiting every new video we upload.

Nevertheless financial aid is very tiny, but it is important, even though I know the reason of material lack and extreme poverty. We are still looking for more funds so that we can own our musical and audio equipment and become more independent with a spacious room to accommodate a larger number of children. We are suffering from the slow Internet connections and power outages which complicate our communications and hamper our future plans; however, we aim to continue despite the difficulties.

Our work is a message to show that we insist on living our lives, although it seems impossible, and despite the restricted potential for growth we need to show to the world our talents to help us grow instead of being defeated.

I dream of developing this band to a higher level of fine musicians and of finding more talent to help the children overcome the recent crisis that has affected them psychologically.

Back to Shakespeare's quote: “If music be the food of love, play on / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting / The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

It's doubtful that he was talking about physical death. I wish all talent of the world better circumstances than those of the little Syrians in the Jafraa band, who give hope, a tiny light at the end of Syria's dark bloody tunnel.

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