Some stuff I’ve had the pleasure to peruse lately:

Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea: The Monastery of St. Antony was established upon the site St. Antony, the venerable Father of Monasticism, lived upon his withdrawl to the Inner Desert; both his tomb and the cave he inhabited are preserved there. Very early in its history a little oddly domed church was built, which still stands at the core of the monastery complex- which has survived all manner of travails down through the centuries. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the monks commissioned wall paintings, which over time were heavily obscured by smoke and grit buildup, and some less than artful overpaints. Recently, however, a team of art conservationists, working in sync with the monastery, restored these wall paintings. Part of the project included the publication of this book, which is a real jewel (though out of my price range at present; I merely checked it out of a library). Besides the numerous photos of and commentary on the incredible iconography, the book also details the history of the monastery, includes an essay on the role of icons in Orthodox life by one of the monks at St. Antony’s, and an essay on the role of the monastery in contemporary Coptic Orthodox life in Egypt. The writers approach the monastery and its icons not as mere artifacts to be looked at but as part of an onging tradition of spiritual life, for both the monks themselves and the wider Coptic Church.

Turtles Can Fly: This film by Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi had been recommended to me some time ago; I only lately got around to purchasing and viewing it. Set in a village on the Iraq-Turkey border in Kurdistan, the film opens with a visually stunning- and quite comic- scene of Kurdish villagers hoisting aloft TV antennas, trying to get information on the impending war between the US and Iraq. In the midst of this scramble for news is an orphaned refugee boy nicknamed Satellite, after his knack for manipulating information technology. The story revolves primarily around his experience within a war torn society on the verge of yet another conflict. Thus the narrative view is that of a child and his fellow refugee companions (many of whom he has organized into brigades to collect and sell land mines). It would be easy enough for such a film to falter in sentimentalism, but Ghobadi carefully avoids both sentimentalizing and propogandizing. Instead, the pervasive impact of war is, in turns, brutally and hauntingly portrayed- though actual combat scenes only enter in flashbacks. Despite a very limited budget and less than optimal conditions- it is the first film made in Iraq after Hussein’s overthrow by the US- the cinematography is excellent, and the story’s development and movement works very well, with only a few detours and misplaced pieces. In all, Turtles Can Fly is a superb, emotionally challenging and rewarding work.

Amassakoul: Southern Saharan folk music meets Mississippi blues. The second album by the group Tinariwen, hailing from the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali, the group- composed of musicians from the traditionally nomadic Touareg people- roll out some simply incredible music, that is at once set in the traditional music of the Touareg and the electric guitar riffs of the blues. Chorus repitions and a smattering of traditional instruments join some pretty rousing electric guitar work in what comes out as a very nearly seamless ‘fusion’ of styles and influences. The musicians that make up Tinariwen spent some time in training camps run by Khadafi, then fought in a rebellion against the government of Mali, before settling for peace and playing music full time. They were eventually discovered by a French band and through a series of events ended up on the world stage. Great stuff- my favorite album right now.

I have to mention in closing a somewhat similar group, Afrissippi, which I got to see perform live a few months back in Hattiesburg. Taking a similar tack of style fusion, the band formed after Guelel Kumba moved from his native Senegal to North Mississippi, met some area musicians, and started playing with them. The result is a blend of West African trad and North Mississippi hill-country blues. Some really fine and surprisingly beautiful, even sublime music.

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