Thursday, July 24, 2008



This is Madosini, a traditional Xhosa musician from the Transkei in South Africa, now based in Cape Town. She came to Brighton last night to say hello - the last time we met was years ago when the children were very little so there were the usual oohs and aaahs to celebrate their growth towards adulthood. Madosini's playing at Womad this weekend, which I can't make, but at the kitchen table after supper, she played for six of us, her voice stretching into the back garden and over the walls, seeping into the last of the light and the dark blue sky. She made sense of the word charisma.

Her visit was like a marker, in a way. It's my son's first proper camping trip alone this weekend, at Womad, with friends and after she'd gone to bed and we were sitting chatting, he said it felt like Christmas Eve. I keep returning to the same sense of awe when I think of what it's like to be a teenager, in the summer, with all that scented time ahead, long evenings and beaches. My daughter's only just finished school and she's still in wonder at the thought of weeks without uniform, packed lunches and registration.

But back to Madosini. She's known in South Africa as the queen of Xhosa music. She's the most accomplished player of the mouth harp and jew's harp, which she was taught by her mother. She also plays the instrument so associated with capoeira, the berimbau, but it originated in southern Africa and there is called the uhadi. Her music's part of an important tradition, linked to ceremony and everyday life and she's sought out for performances and collaborations. She's currently working with some classical violinists but at Womad is performing solo.

Her work's available on the net but Madosini's yet to become rich from it. She's been ripped off and exploited shamelessly at times. Now she's supporting her seven grandchildren, alone.

She's a generous woman. As we listened last night, it was like a gift from her village, moments that more than made up for not being able to make the trek along the M4. Madosini's music has a depth and emotional integrity that's truly rare. She's apparently a great story-teller and I could imagine how she'd so easily sweep an audience away. A solo album, Power to the Women, is on Melt 2000 Blue Room. You can find her on YouTube too.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of the everyday. What Madosini does is start there - with tunes to send a child to sleep, rhythms to wind down to at the end of the day, simple refrains that everyone can repeat. She draws power from the everyday, she makes it special and for that reason I think, she is so important. She has the insight and experience of life to know that it is how we live from moment to moment that determines who we are. She also has the confidence to stay with those traditions and not be deflected. Like Neruda in many ways, in his odes for ordinary things, in his repeated celebration of love and his final questions - that pepper everyone's days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008



I walked to the Jack and Jill windmills on Sunday with my daughter. The views from the Downs path leading from Ditchling Beacon are wide and heartening. We walked through a flock of sheep and herd of cows with their calves. At times the sky was a spectacular deep grey but we weren't rained on. Earlier, I'd dug up potatoes and picked more broad beans, my favourite vegetable. The early raspberries haven't come to much but the later ones are looking promising. There are already ripe blackberries, which surprised me and another odd feature of this summer is how advanced the Bramley apples look.

But I've been infinitely more bothered by reports of the video showing Omar Khadr sobbing under interrogation at Guantanamo Bay. As I listened to the Radio 4 news on the way back from my mum's yesterday, to an interview with one of his lawyers and some of the audio from the interrogation, I thought about my own kids, about all I've read by great writers on incarceration, state violence, political dirty tricks and I wondered how this child could have been locked up so young and abused in this way. The lawyer's descriptions of the pre-interrogation treatment (described so callously as the frequent flyer programme) are unlikely to ever leave my mind.

How can Guantanamo exist anyway? I happily boycotted South African goods during apartheid because of state-perpetrated violence. Are we asleep now?

In Brighton, police are allowed to break up groups of teenagers in a park under a little publicised by-law covering more than two people gathering together. It is not applied to large groups of mothers and toddlers who meet there for picnics. It is not applied to informal football matches. It is not even applied to street drinkers. But it is applied to young people.

We are in danger of demonising teenagers to such an extent that they are dehumanised and we forget they are children, still. Have we lost our imaginations to such a degree that we cannot remember how it was to be 14, 15, 16? At 53, sometimes, I struggle to take myself back there...particularly when my own teenagers are being intransigent or irritating. But I can still remember the extremes of those years - the elation, the almost indescribable sense of being alive, and the self-doubt, the fears.

Children should not be locked up. Full stop. And with equal certainty, Guantanamo prison should not exist. We must challenge lazy politicians, we must make connections, we must be vigilant. It is time to do some homework on our rights. Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak was published by the University of Iowa press last year.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Virgin of Flames is a novel by Chris Abani set in Los Angeles about a mural artist. On the back cover Walter Mosely suggests Abani has rewritten the American story. Its descriptions are original and vivid and as the title suggests, Abani uses the running metaphor of Catholicism and devotion as a backdrop in a number of ways. This novel puts humanity into the city the way Whitman does but there's a nod to the Girl with a Pearl Earring, I reckon, in its concentration on the artist - lots of details on how Black (the hero) makes his colours....

Black engages me, too, because he incorporates lines of poetry in one of his murals. I first encountered Abani when I picked up his collection of poems, Kalakuta Republic a few years ago and was knocked out by it. The collection is based on his experience as a political prisoner in Nigeria between 1985 and 1991 and isn't easy reading, but essential for anyone concerned about freedom of expression and the consequences of forgetting its importance.

What was a coincidence, though, was watching Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law last night and delighting in its leisurely, witty and humane world view, in Tom Waits, of course, and the way Whitman and Frost, those American giants, were knitted into the narrative. It took my teenage kids, used to snappy, action driven narrative and colour, a while to get into it, but they were entranced too.

Abani aside, I've been thinking about African writing again. I was reminded of Amos Tutuola by a friend and how much I love his slant on narrative, but I've lent his books and I don't think I have anything of his left on my shelves. But I read Andre Brink, for the first time thanks to my local library and plan a return to Nawaal el Sadaawi from Egypt, the wonderful poet Jack Mapanje and Ellen Kuzwayo.

It isn't easy being a writer. For most of us it's fitted in between earning a living and for women, looking after children. For writers in so many other parts of the world, add into that mix, censorship, political violence, domestic violence and few opportunities to be published. Many writers serve their apprenticeships over long, long years without recognition or support. I'm indebted to one of the publishers in this country, Saqi, for introducing me to that collection of Chris Abani's. Buy it. And from Algeria, another important voice is that of Soleiman Adel Guemar, whose collection, State of Emergency, is published by Arc. He'll be at the Kings Lynn Festival in September.