Non-fiction for reading for me in the past year generally fell into two main categories: straight-up history and more journalistic narrative. I’ll reserve a third post in my “reading 2009” series for books that I read that fall more into the category of what I call “books about ideas.” Ideas and ideologies are in all kinds of writing, but in that third category this is more explicitly the case.

In any event, it was unsurprising to me that much of my non-fiction reading focused on straight-up history and journalism in South Africa. South Africa is a particularly vibrant place in terms of commentary and other kinds of political and historical writing. New books are coming out all the time on a variety of relevant subjects. It’s the kind of country that is small enough that there are always gaps waiting to be filled. At the same time there is so much energy in this young democracy that keeps writers and readers pushing to fill these holes.

South African politics and current events

By no stretch of the imagination did my reading in South African politics and long-form journalism run the true gamut of what has come out in the last few years. Before I left, I devoured Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (published in the USA as Sizwe’s Test). The story follows a young man in a particularly poor, AIDS-riven area of the Eastern Cape who is deciding whether to take an AIDS test. At around the same time, a Medecins Sans Frontier doctor is trying to set up testing and care programs throughout the province. It’s an all-too-rare example of examining a problem equally from three different angles: intellectual / scientific, interpersonal, and political. And Steinberg is just a damn good writer.

Also, on HIV/AIDS was The Virus, Vitamins And Vegetables: The South African HIV/AIDS Mystery edited by Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom of the Health-E News Service. A series of essays by journalists, doctors, and activists about the ideological and bureaucratic pathologies of the Mbeki government in developing and implementing — perhaps it would be better to say not developing and not implementing — its HIV/AIDS policy.

Another book of essays on recent South African events was the University of Witwatersrand’s collection on the xenophobic attacks in 2008. A lot of good stuff, including Anton Harber’s essay on media complicity and oblivion on this issue (see my earlier discussion of this essay here). This is an issue that too often gets reduced to self-righteous preening and demagoguery when it really demands careful nuance like in Go Home Or Die Here: Violence, Xenophobia And The Reinvention Of Difference In South Africa. It also has a lot of impressive photos by Alon Skuy, a former colleague at The Times.

Jeremy Gordin’s biography of Jacob Zuma did not have particular insight, but it worked well for me as an open-minded “just the facts” approach to a compelling personality. It was especially useful to read prior to the election in April. Mainstream media in this country was a bit of a disgrace in that, only after he was elected, did many who were perfectly willing to pontificate on their fears about a Zuma presidency learn even basic facts of his rather impressive life.

South African history

Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien’s new history of Alexandra township in Johannesburg was inspiring to me as a documenter and historian. Their reliance on hard-nosed field work combined with substantive archival research is a great example for most any kind of history. They could not have written this book without involving people in the community in their field research. Their integration of such a community-based approach to history should serve as a model for further work in modern South African, as well as in other places.

I grew up with a lot of South African jazz that my father used to have in his music collection. Now that I live in South Africa, I’ve been able to explore this a lot more deeply for myself. Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics In South Africa connects a lot of the dots in SA jazz history — the early Sophiatown days, exile, rural-urban migration, democracy — and does it in her usual, welcome, no-nonsense style readers of her regular Business Day column know well.

A random assortment

I finally got around to Michela Wrong’s account of the Mobutu Sese-Seko’s fall from power in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Shows what happens when a talented journalist gets the opportunity to examine the historical big picture, pull away from the mere day-to-day, while still incorporating her own first-hand reportage.

I am somewhat embarassed that I spent any amount of time reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent Of Money. This is mainly because he has been such an incorrigible deficit hawk in his recent newspaper commentary. Still, the book is a pretty accessible financial history, with some interesting anecdotes along the way.

I finally got around to Peter Hessler’s first memoir, River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze. I have been a big fan of Hessler since reading his Oracle Bones a few years ago, and subsequently catching a lot of his articles in the New Yorker magazine. His writing is always compelling and insightful, and he sticks out among American observers of China for two reasons: (1) he is a real student of the country’s history and (2) he integrates the history into his contemporary stories with particular elegance. I’m looking forward to his new book, Country Driving, which is supposed to come out early next year.


Close to a month ago, I attended a show by Abdullah Ibrahim with his New York City-based band Ekaya at the University of Witwatersrand’s Great Hall. Ibrahim is a jazz artist who represented the sound of a time and place with compositions like “Mannenberg.” Combined with his fantastic musicianship, he is a legendary jazz player and composer, and, at the end of the day, a consummate South African artist.

A newer player, not nearly on the level of Ibrahim, but highly notable nonetheless is guitarist Selaelo Selota. My friend Kulani Nkuna recently interviewed him for The Times. In the piece, Selota discusses how he has used music to search for his northern South African, Pedi roots.

In Ibrahim’s time, it was most artistically relevant to reflect the sound of the townships, the sound of an often silenced, significant part of South Africa’s culture. For contemporary artists like Selota, and even pop star Thandiswa Mazwai, it has become more important to harken back to a deeper past, incorporating rural, traditional sounds.

Somehow I think this digression from my writing about South Africa back to my beloved America is justified. Why? Because this is the most hilarious Bob Dylan story to come out in recent memory.

His old Jewish summer camp friend kept his weird poem about a dead dog from when the two haverim were three years past their bar mitzvahs (16 years old for all you goyim out there). Turns out the poem was just copied from a Hank Snow song!

Yes, the same Hank Snow who wrote that great song “I’m Moving On.” Elvis may have stolen a bunch of songs from black songwriters, but he did his best to make sure that people forgot the lesser known country singer named Hank (as opposed to Señor Hank Williams). Somehow, I imagine that Hank Snow ended up with a few more royalty checks than some of the black songwriters Elvis stole from.

Anyway, gotta love how Dylan started the stealing gig started early. From robbing an acquiantance of 300 records (according to the Scorcese documentary “No Direction Home”) to lifting some of my favorite lines on “Love and Theft” from a Japanese gangster novel to some of my not-so-favorite lines on “Modern Times” from an obscure Confederate poet to some of the all-time best old-time country lines on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” (see: Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” to hear more about how “they drink up your blood like wine”).

But seriously though, you know I love you, Bob. Your latest record is awesome. I checked multiple South African record stores daily until it finally came out here two weeks after the States. Maybe I’ll catch you with Willie Nelson in some minor league baseball stadium in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania this summer.

A man can dream, can’t he?

The advertising bill for “Princess Magogo,” an opera in Zulu composed by Mzilikazi Khumalo, one of South Africa’s premier living composers, has only one critical recommendation: the vague “internationally acclaimed.”

The longer, official write-up explains:

The world premiere of Princess Magogo was staged at the Durban Playhouse in May 2002 and attracted worldwide interest. It was broadcast live to the USA, UK and Europe by WFMT Radio and Networks Chicago. Since then it featured at the Centenary Celebration of the Ravinia Festival in Chicago (2004), Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam (2005) and Den Norske Opera in Oslo (2007). On popular demand it was taken on a national tour to the Western and Eastern Cape (2006).

I attended this production of the opera on Sunday afternoon, and I have to admit that I did not for one moment think of the previous international reception of this incredible achievement. I have little doubt that the rest of the crowd felt similarly. It was clear early on that what makes this opera special is its unique blend of storytelling, singing, traditional Zulu dancing, costumes, and stage design.

This production need not stand on its international reception. Must we be so surprised that South African art can succeed on the worldwide stage? “Princess Magogo” is a success because it is a South African work of art that combines homegrown and Western artforms seemlessly and if I go any further this post will descend into a stream of meaningless platitudes.

The performance was an incredible expression of the continuing promise of the so-called “New” South Africa. This can also be said for the crowd, which I expect was one of the most racially representative crowds to attend an opera in this country. The opera is universal in its stories of kings, queens, princes, princesses, love lost, military strife, etc. At the same time, Zulu dance sequences and even narrative segments elicited appreciative, knowing responses from the many Zulu-speaking members of the audience.

I mention this not to patronize the audience, but to emphasize the local significance of this kind of work. South Africans can be proud that it has been received well among international audiences. They should be more proud that a work with such local resonance is theirs. “International acclaim” be damned.

Now that the NPA has dropped the government’s corruption charges against Msholozi aka JZ aka Jacob Zuma, I’m nursing a fascination with the whole “Umshini Wami” phenomenon. The song is from the ANC’s days in exile, and was a song of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). “Umshini Wami” roughly translated means “bring me my machine gun,” and the song is Zuma’s near-official theme song. Crowds have sung it at ANC rallies, after his acquittal on rape charges, and the last couple of days since the NPA gave up his prosecution. I heard it for the first time when I followed a group of ANC volunteers going door to door in the Klipspruit area of Soweto.

Mosuia Lekota, leader of the opposition COPE party, referred to it in his initial announcement of the party’s break from the ANC late last year. Regardless of his chiding of Zuma for continuing to sing the song, its popularity appears to have not abated. I went searching for some videos of the song, and this video from the key Polokwane conference in 2007 seems to tell the tale of how it all went down that fateful December. Thabo Mbeki looks a potent mix of disgusted and crestfallen. Zuma is thrilled with himself. Strangely, Lekota, standing by Mbeki’s side, appears to be enjoying the spectacle as well. Maybe he’s just laughing at it instead of with it.

Without even beginning to judge the man in terms of his worthiness for the office of president, Zuma’s credentials as a performer are strong in this mesmerizing rendition of the anthem. He seems reluctant initially to sing along with the crowd, but soon launches into the song with full energy, waving his arms around his head as though he has been totally overtaken by the tune. As I joked to a friend recently, if I could vote, I may or may not choose to vote for him, but I would definitely be first in line at the record store if he released an album.

Amid all the uproar over the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Jacob Zuma, it’s worth noting that state prosecutorial cronyism is not the unique domain of South Africa. The U.S. recently exhibited similar tendencies, and ended up with a similar result. Former Alaska senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption shortly before last November’s election. Recently, though, the charges were dropped due to claims that the federal prosecutor’s office mishandled the case. Stevens lost his re-election bid, though he very well may have lost had he not been convicted at the time. Like Zuma, the facts still seemed quite damning whether or not he was convicted in a court or not. Perhaps the main difference is that in the Stevens case, the U.S. government appears to have suppressed evidence, whereas the Zuma case was more a matter of interference in the general protocol and procedure of the prosecution. You can listen to my interview with political analyst Adam Habib about the NPA decision here.

Anyway, to those who think this is an example of South Africa “going to the dogs” or, as the more timely lament goes, “the way of Mugabe,” it’s helpful to remember that long-established democracies still encounter similar situations to that currently facing the South African legal structure. Then again, who am I to say the U.S. isn’t also going to the dogs.

Don’t tell that to my man Bob Dylan. He is characteristically — and wonderfully — out of his gourd in this new interview. He seems positively smitten with Barack Obama.

He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

Way to just come up with words that refer to almost every different region of Africa, Bob. Later he muses on Obama’s literary abilities in Dreams From My Father:

His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

Then Dylan puts on his Jewish mother hat and second-guesses Obama’s latest career choice:

In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second – selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

You can also hear the Obama-ified “I Feel A Change Coming On” at the same link as the interview.

Will.I.Am may be the new Bob Dylan, but is Dylan now positioning himself to be the new Barack Obama? According to a Norwegian online record store, the title of the singer’s much-anticipated (at least in my mind) new album will be called “I Feel A Change Coming On,” which is slated as the title to one of the songs on the album. Dylan was rather eloquent in his praise of Obama’s victory on election night last November during a concert in Minnesota (though it sounds a little more insane aka Dylanesque if you can track down the audio):

I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now.

The album, according to the site, will be released on April 27 in Europe. Given that in the U.S., albums are released on Tuesdays, that would have the album scheduled to be released on the 28th. In which case, those crafty enough to find the music by more unscrupulous methods can probably do so no later than the 21st. According to a Rolling Stone report, the album features some members of Dylan’s touring band, as well as Los Lobos’ freakishly good multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo playing accordion on every track.

Another interpretation of this album title might be that the whole thing is just a continuation of that abomination of a Pepsi ad that aired during the Super Bowl.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the subtitle of the album is something closer to Pepsi’s new “Refresh Yourself” slogan, rather than the Obama-ified, “Yes We Can.”

To follow up on the Pete Seeger video I posted below, my friend Joe Kille wrote an e-mail to a couple mutual friends and me about Seeger and his particular approach to folk music. Joe basically argued that Seeger was advocating for the homogenization of folk music by trying to standardize the folk repertoire a la Rise Up Singing. To Joe’s credit though, he was also moved by the whole “This Land Is Your Land” singalong, so he’s no party-pooper. I wanted to quote the whole e-mail, but the formatting was just insane, so here’s a taste (in order print this here, Joe wanted me to note that he did not edit this at all – hence overuse of parentheses, typos, etc):

I know it was the 60’s reformed communist dream that we could all understand each other through some uni-culture but that does a lot to whitewash peoples/music/cultures. Kind of kills the whole Lomax / Lost Sounds idea (of which some people say seeger was involved…what?)

Seeger travelled the country singing other people’s songs. His contributions to the folk cannon are notable (turn, turn, turn; where have all the flowers gone?; if I had a hammer) but lack any real teeth. Pete Seeger (more than dylan) made a career aping Guthrie’s legacy. Where Guthrie was singing specifics, Seeger is singing generalities.

Maybe I’m a prematurely crusty old man, but I think that the idea that any song can be song by a huge group of people can only go so far (despite the fact that This Land Is Your Land should be our national anthem). As irritating as it is when they do it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops do it best when they sing other people’s songs, which is to give an exhaustive measure of where you can hear the original (or earliest recorded) version of the song and from what musical tradition it came. Even then, they wind up putting their own spin on the songs they sing (even if just instrumentation wise) and recognize it. If you’ve ever read Pete Seegers Folk Singer guide you get the impressions that he’s laying out the way that people should perform by themselves and with a group and that’s it. As a country, we don’t need directions for how to perform music. It will just happen by itself. As Big Bill Broonzy said (when asked if what he was singing was considered a folk song) “It must be, I’ve never heard a horse sing it.”

First off, I’m obviously with him on the awesomeness of the inclusion of the “lost” verse of “This Land Is Your Land” at the inaugural concert. His major point, besides dissing Seeger’s lame voice and playing (and I’m with him on that) is that he is basically advocating for a standardization/homogenization of folk music, something that is almost inherently heterogeneous. I agree that folk music is in many ways a spontaneous, improvised experience rooted in distinct cultural traditions. In a country like the United States where many different traditions and folk musics eventually became intertwined to the point where we can legitimately talk of American folk music that includes blues, old time, zydeco, corridos, etc. This is especially true since many of these divisions were created by record executives who were maybe not directly of the cultures from where these folk traditions came.

Seeger was similar to these executives in terms of his relative outsider status, but engaged in similar manipulation of what “folk” really meant. I do think that almost anybody talking about this engages in some kind of manipulation of what is basically a not-entirely-definable term, so to say that Seeger manipulated its meaning is not necessarily a bad or evil thing. So even if Seeger is maybe aesthetically lame, the fact that he popularized much of this music was an important contribution, especially since he did not actually succeed in his drive to standardize what he saw as a folk canon of sorts.

Also, it’s worth considering the alternative. Many different parties are constantly trying to define what America means. Both of us might agree that a search for a clean and tidy national definition is a stupid, pointless quest to begin with. That in and of itself might explain your problem with Seeger. He’s trying to define the indefinable. But if there are going to be others defining it by “I’m Proud To Be An American” and all other kinds of vaguely objectionable drivel that is often part of the conversation when it comes to American music, it’s nice to know that someone fought for a definition of this country that could include not only “This Land Is Your Land,” but a host of other blues and old-time standards. These are songs that were presented in a particularly lame, and perhaps harmful (with regards to Seeger’s overeager attempts to standardize a folk canon), but can at least provide an opening for many Americans to explore the real folk traditions of this country. I know that growing up in the house of South African immigrants, Seeger was a way for my parents to introduce me to the music of a country who folkways they only kind of understood themselves.

And anyway, without Seeger, that singalong at the Lincoln Memorial could’ve been “God Bless America” instead of Guthrie’s response.

If you heard the performance by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the Obama inaugural concert that just finished, they sang the verse about private property that at another time would have gotten everybody involved right onto the top of the blacklist!

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property,

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing

This land was made for you and me

It’s been a long time coming!

—- Update —-

I’ve now found the video:

— Update #2 —-

The link I posted to a video was taken down, but thanks to commenter Alline Anderson for posting a new link.

(Just in the interest of consolidating everything in one place, this and the next post are actually almost a week old, but new here.)

Originally published on WHYY’s Sixth Square blog:

Give yourself a couple of days to digest your Thanksgiving feast, and then stave off the work week after a four day holiday by treating yourself to El Guincho at the Barbary on Sunday evening. The Spanish artist is a cross between an unusually eclectic DJ and general party provocateur. It took a long time for his international debut album, Alegranza! (which means “happiness” in Spanish), to get released in the US, but it finally made it here this fall after burning up Europe all summer…

Read the rest here.

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