Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Rubén Blades and Bee Rowlatt

The Hay Festival gets off to a slow start

Thursday 27 January 2011

Rubén Blades
The first conference I attended was with Panamanian singer, film star, and now Minister of Tourism Rubén Blades, interviewed by former Cambio Magazine director Roberto Pombo.

Blades, known for both his salsa and his ballads, describes his work as a singer as "an act of self-defense," an attempt to describe and validate the world from which he comes. His perspective in his song-writing is eminently urban, describing the culture of the streets.

Blades did not set out to be a singer; he has a degree in law. The fact that he was singing in bars to earn pocket money was something of a point of contention between him and the dean of the law school, who called him into his office and demanded that Blades make up his mind about whether he was going to be a lawyer or a singer, I suppose on the grounds that singing in bars is unseemly for a member of the legal practice.

His music has always been described as having a political edge, although he declines to be classed with the protest singers and the nueva trova movement. He distances himself from them on the grounds that they protest but do not propose alternatives. With his political interests, it is not altogether out of place that he would currently find himself serving as Panama's minister of tourism. It was disappointing that he did not talk about this job, what he sees as his objectives, and what he feels that his personal history and philosophy contribute to the role of furthering the interests of his country. He did mention that he would rather have been justice minister; with his legal background, and having a fascination for the workings of the penitentiary system and the underlying question of how to "reform" someone who hasn't been "formed" in the first place.

He had some interesting anecdotes about contacting La Fania (subsequently La Fania Allstars) and working in the band's mailroom at the start of his musical career. Through La Fania he had to opportunity to work with salsa heavyweights such as Johny Pacheco, Richie Rey, Bobby Cruz, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoie, Che Feliciano, names that, if you are any kind of salsa fan, should send shivers down your spine. He was always a writer, and it was by writing songs for some of the other band members that he got a foot in the door.

At this point in his life Blades continues to write and perform music. He is currently recording 15 (!) albums for different projects, having recently returned from a session of recording tangos in Prague. He also continues to remain active in film.

All things considered, it is difficult to see how he has time for politics. In terms of his political aspirations, he shakes his head at the politicians who are trying "to recreate the paradigms of the 19th century" (I'm not quite sure what he means by that). He says that contemporary politics need more coherence between ideas, plans, and actions. He also stresses a need for more "spirituality."

The interview was a bit all over the place, without any sort of logical progression or development. It conveyed diverse experiences and interests, but there was no sense of evolution. I guess that is why Rubén Blades is tourism minister and not a literary author.

Bee Rowlatt – Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad
From the title of this conference, one might infer that Bee Rowlatt was somehow involved in teaching or discussing Jane Austen in Baghdad; she wasn't and she didn't.

Rowlatt was working for the BBC World Service Radio in January 2005 when US and British troops invaded Iraq. Her assignment: Start calling Baghdad and find English-speaking Iraqis in the country who would be willing to talk to the BBC about what was going on. Not easy. After a bit of searching, she ended up in contact with May Witwit, a professor of 19th Century Literature at the University of Baghdad. This turned into an ongoing email correspondence, and Rowlatt was eventually able to help Witwit and her husband escape from Iraq.

The first half hour of the Hay Festival conference consisted of Rowlatt reading excerpts from the book by the same name that was published of their email correspondence. Then she took questions from the audience.

The conference title had very little to do with the content of the talk. Furthermore, first person biographical narrative is ultimately of very little interest unless it is used to address larger issues, for example: the treatment of women under Saddam Hussein's government, the lives of women under fundamentalist Islamic rule in general, international justification for the war in Iraq, the difficulties and the role of the media in providing coverage of this sort of incident. Too bad these were not addressed.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel were eye-openers for me. A question that springs to my mind is whether this genre of literature that talks about women's lives under fundamentalist Islamic regimes will serve to deepen the gulf or close the breach of cultural differences.

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad is not going to answer these questions. Or anything else that you perhaps might have wondered about the relevance of talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad. It is the story of a friendship and an escape, but that is all it is.

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