Sunday, 6 September 2015

Paul Roland

Often the best in music (and other artforms) goes unappreciated. Such is the strange case of Paul Roland. He make some of the best rock music ever made, yet is not only unknown to the public, but also to the critics and most music fans.

Paul Roland was born September 6, 1959 (this should go up on his 56th birthday). He made his debut rather young as an artist in 1980 with the album The Werevolves of London. With certain hiatuses, the longest of which was in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to raise his children and write books, he has released albums ever since.

The best way I can find to describe his music is intellectual art pop. His songs are generally short, melodic and catchy, yet genuinely intellectual and artistic in the way pop music so rarely is. The music has intellectual and romanticist quality that has made him popular with Progressive rock fans, earning him an entry on the prog archives site, yet  has the directness and melodic qualities of good pop music. As he explained in an interview,  "early rock records instilled into me the idea that you should say every­thing you need to say in 3 min­utes or less and get to the point from the first few bars".  He himself describes his music as "spinning musical tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psych pop, folk & baroque strings." This gives some idea of the sheer range and variety his music has, yet he retains a distinct and very original identity.

What really sets Roland apart are his lyrics. They are very gothic and romantic, often with elements of horror, the fantastic and the macabre (though not morbid, as he likes to point out). In a 2005 interview with Nucleus Magazine, he described his lyrics this way: "As for lyrics, they tend to be historical or supernatural as I am not interested in mundane, every day modern images".  He is thus more the heir of the romantic poets of the 19th century, than any rock lyricists, who instead tend to focus on personal issues and love. A recurring theme is an idealized victorian/edwardian era, making him an important forerunner of the modern Steampunk movement (which he has written a book about). His inspirations vary, from horror and fantasy books and films to historical events and persons.

I'm not a good music critic, so I will keep this short. The only reason I wrote this is to promote an unjustly neglected music artist. If you are at all interested in hearing music with fantastical or historical imagery, you should check him out. He has made a playlist of various songs of his on youtube, that serve as a good introduction to his work here. Good introductory songs, giving an idea of his range, in no particular order, are The Edwardian Air-raid, Wyndham Hill, Nosferatu, In the Opium Den, Gabrielle, Twillight of the Gods, Buccaneers, Taliesin and The Crimes of Dr Cream. There is much more good stuff, but that should get you started.

Some other resources:

His website.

Interview database

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Wizard of the Crow is a satirical fantasy novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. It was originally written in the language of the Gikuyu people, but has been translated into English by the author himself.

It is set in the fictional African country of Aburĩria. It is ruled over by a dictator known only as The Ruler. As the novel begins, The Ruler has decided to build a tower that will reach the heavens and fulfil what humanity attempted with the Tower of Babel. The project is called "Marching to Heaven".
We also meet the well-educated beggar Kamiti, who discovers that he has magical powers. He becomes the Wizard of the Crow of the title and uses his powers to help people with their problems (which are often psychological in nature). He also meets a woman, Nyawira, who is a member of a resistance movement.

This is fundamentally a book about dictatorship, or rather an absurd satire of it. The Ruler is one of the most dislikeable figures in modern literature, viewing the people he governs merely as a way to make money or to sate his megalomaniac desires.

The portrait of dictatorship comes main from the author's experiences with the regime of Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya, who imprisoned Wa Thiong'o and eventually drove into exile.  The Ruler of the book has strong similarities with Moi. But as all good fiction, the novel has universal qualities and The Ruler could sadly stand in for many real dictators.

An important theme of the book is the complicity of Western capitalism in these kinds of dictatorships.  The Ruler's dictatorship is portrayed as more or less a puppet of the West, once used as a weapon by them in the Cold War. His purpose is essentially to keep Aburiria open to the profit-making of Western corporations.

The novel also satirizes the hollowness of most African democracies. When democracy seemingly comes to Aburiria near the end of the novel, it's a continuation of the Ruler's dictatorship in another guise. Wa Thiong'o points out how bourgeois democracy is often wholly controlled by the forces of capital, resulting in many parties with a single goal: the free reign of capital.

Another important theme is feminism. With the character of Nyawira, Wa Thiong'o paints a portrait of a strong, independent woman, the political conscience of the novel. And never have I seen a male author get so passionate and uncompromising about the issue of domestic violence.

The humour of the novel is somewhat absurd and broad. It contains everything from witty political satire to slapstick. To give an example of the latter, there is a funny scene in which a man takes over a military base armed only with a bucket of shit.

But this book is not only funny, it is also moving and beautiful. This very long novel (767 pages) gives itself time to develop it's characters. Among the humorous and satirical passages, there are also wonderfully written lyrical parts, such as descriptions of nature and an interesting magical realist sidestory involving a lake where time is frozen. The venal corruption of the dictatorship of the ruler is contrasted with the altruism and the gentle, Buddhist influenced spirituality of The Wizard of the Crow.

Wizard of the Crow is a masterpiece. It's many pages fly by due to Wa Thiong'o easy-flowing style (inspired by oral tradition, perhaps). The whole book is illuminated by the warmth and sheer joy of his storytelling.

I haven't read any other works by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, but this book alone is good enough to make him, in my opinion, one of the most important authors writing today.