Last Tuesday, I caught Passion (Bab al-Makam) as part of the Austin Film Society’s Essential Cinema series on Middle Eastern films. If you have the means, get your local theater to screen it or find a copy.
Mohamed Malas’ haunting 2003 feature is set ten years ago, just before the United States invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban. It focuses on Imane (Salwa Jamil), a 30-year-old Syrian wife and mother who is transformed by her love for Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, after her husband, Adnan (Oussama Sayed Youssef), plays a tape for her. Unfortunately, Imane’s male relatives grow suspicious of how the singer’s music changes her. She becomes more independent and headstrong, most demonstrably through singing. Convinced that a singing woman is flaunting adulterous behavior, they begin to monitor and police her actions, with damning consequences.
As I tend to spoil a movie when I write about it because it’s hard to write criticism without parsing out major plot points, I’ll reveal now that Imane is ultimately silenced by an honor killing while looking after her children and niece when Adnan is away at a rally protesting U.S. occupation. It’s especially cruel that her uncle and cousins stab her to death while she and her charges are singing while cavorting around the house. I have heard that the film received some criticism for the ways in which patriarchy is represented in Arab Muslim society, suggesting the film prescribes to the ugly American racist essentialism that all Muslim men are misogynist pigs. I would hedge these comments by pointing out that these men are depicted as conflicted and deeply troubled by what they perceive their culture to expect of them as men.
Furthermore, Adnan’s gentle presence complicates this reading. He’s a kindhearted cab driver who cares very deeply for his family. Moreover, he’s delighted by how Kulthum’s music inspires his wife to sing. In bed one night, he reveals that he wasn’t especially fond of Kulthum until he heard her songs reinterpreted by Imane. He then requests that she sing for him, and goes down on her as she offers an incantation. It’s a sexy scene, particularly because the camera focuses on her face as she reacts to the pleasure she’s receiving from her lover as much as from her own voice.
What I find especially interesting about Passion is Imane’s reconciliation of the sacred with the sensual. This territory is well-traveled, whether we’re talking about the Song of Solomon or Prince’s and Tori Amos’ oeuvre. However, I’m not as aware of texts concerned with Muslim women making these connections and using their corporeality to do it. Granted, Kulthum’s music may be something of an easy entry point for many Western viewers (like me) who may not be particularly aware of Middle Eastern media culture but learned about her music from fans like Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, or NPR.
However, Kulthum’s fame (at least in some circles) also makes her a symbol for Muslim female (and possibly feminist) identification. Kulthum’s music conceptualized the spiritual realm and the secular flesh coming together in the service of Allah. She also enjoyed tremendous success in Egypt from the 1930s until her death in 1975, ostensibly serving as the voice of the Middle East. The entire nation watched her concerts on their televisions with rapt attention for decades.
There’s also something inherently queer about Imane’s identification with Kulthum. Perhaps this bond scares her male relatives the most, as there are few things terrifying to some men as an autonomous woman evolving. Imane nearly articulates the Sapphic dimensions of her love for Kulthum at one point, lolling on the floor and dazed by the power of Kulthum’s music. Entranced by the singer’s powerful voice, Imane proclaims that her music has transformed her from within. At the risk of cheapening the scene, Jamil plays this moment as if the post-coital cigarette is just out of frame. Imane may not desire Kulthum physically, but the homosocial exchange between musician and fan is undeniably charged with sexual electricity. Lest we forget that the most powerful erogenous zone is the brain. The ears and voice work with it, receiving sound and repurposing it. It’s congress however you puzzle it out.
Most importantly, Imane passes on the power of her voice to younger members of her family. While she may be left for dead by some members of her family, her niece and children take to the streets to protest her killing. Assuredly Adnan will join in once he hears the news of the tragedy. More importantly, she’s taught them Kulthum’s music, who will assuredly shape how they understand the value of raising their own voices. The promise to overthrow patriarchy’s stranglehold in this region blooms within them.
You may have seen my recent post about the space in my heart forever reserved for Lauryn Hill. I included a link to an NPR story about her. If you clicked on it, you may have noticed that Hill is one of many artists comprising NPR’s 50 Great Voices. The year-long series is about half-way through its run. Thus, there are still several artists yet to be revealed. Hopefully more hip hop artists will also appear on the list, as Hill is presently holding court alone.
The series’ selection process began with listeners offering suggestions. Kristen at Act Your Age elbowed me to submit a list, which I remember included Édith Piaf, Björk, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. From there, a panel pooled together their selections. Between these two resources, a list of nominees was formed, out of which the chosen 50 great voices emerge. Perhaps this process sounds over-involved and potentially off-putting, especially to listeners whose favorites were not chosen. However, at the risk of sound like a shill for NPR, I’ve liked most of the results so far and appreciate what this series is trying to accomplish.
1. It’s not definitive. Note that this is not the “50 GREATEST Voices OF ALL TIME EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE THE END” or some such hyperbole. These are just 50 great vocalists, with the recognition that there are thousands more who are just as great.
2. It’s not particularly interested in ushering celebrated singers into another canon. Apparently Frank Sinatra is not on this list because of his considerable renown. So much the better to discover other voices time forgot. Plus I never see Jackie Wilson in consideration for any canon, and that’s a shame.
3. Its attempts at incorporating a global focus. As the “national” in NPR refers to the United States and has been recognized as one of the many things white people like, I find this quite admirable. While I don’t pretend to imagine there aren’t biases at work, I do think many of the selections are great. Another list may have Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing for the Middle East, so I’m glad Afghanistan’s Ahmad Zahir is included. I hope this interest in singers outside of a U.S. or Western European musical context remains consistent.
3A. I’m learning about so many female vocalists I’ve never heard of before who are blowing my mind. Hello, Radmilla Cody. Greetings, Asha Bhosle. How are you, Elis Regina? Hope you’re doing well, Esma Redzepova. Nice to meet you, Fairuz. You as well, Sezen Aksu. It’s nice to have you all together with artists I’m a little more familiar with, like Lydia Mendoza (who I learned about at the American Sabor exhibit), as well as old faves like Hill, Ella Fitzgerald, Sandy Denny, Umm Kulthum, and Mahalia Jackson and deserved mainstays like fellow Texan Janis Joplin.
3B. Iggy Pop is on the list, which is awesome. It’s also a personal reminder to check out that standards album he cut a while back.
4. Its emphasis on sociohistoric context, technical ability, and musicianship. Each segment contains lots of good information from scholars and experts explaining their cultural and musical significance.
4A. The archivist geek in me is thrilled to hear some evident sound restoration, as some of the original recordings may not have been in great shape. The more people are given access to music — particularly historically significant music that may have suffered archival neglect or was previously unavailable — the happier I am.
Tune in Monday evenings to hear who the next great voice will be. While I hope some of my nominees will be represented, I look forward to hearing whoever might be included. I’m also happy to keep collaborating on a list here with you readers long after the series concludes.
Earlier this week, Caitlin at Dark Room posted a couple of mixes from her college radio days on Facebook and asked for her friends to contribute some of their playlists. This seemed like an interesting project with findings worthy of disclosure here, especially since I often make casual reference to my tenure as a deejay at KVRX.
I started in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of my sophomore year. A fan of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, the urge to have my own radio show was planted during my freshman year of college. My friend Brooke had a show at KANM called “Weakdays” and knowing she could program a show inspired me to give it a go. We both liked The Dismemberment Plan, we both could read PSAs aloud, and I felt confident that I could master the switchboard too.
A few days before the semester began, I filled out an application and secured a timeslot for Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. As KVRX shares its frequency with KOOP and switched over from FM to RealAudio, I felt better knowing I had the entire first semester to iron out any kinks my show may have without being able to get picked up in someone else’s car. The Internet still felt very private at the time, even though RealAudio could get picked up in another part of the world instead of inside the condensed hub of Central Austin.
I named my show “Hang the DJ,” a reference to The Smiths’ “Panic.” As the song was a modern rock radio staple, the program title should be an indication that I was half-hearted in my attempt at becoming a fan. A year later, I’d acknowledge that I just couldn’t get into them as I was developing my show. Come spring 2003, I changed the name of my show to “Cheesecake or Fugu,” a title that came to me in the shower when I was remembering a review I’d read in high school of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman! that compared their sound to the Japanese delicacy.
Listening to tapes from that time, apart from their lo-fi charm and developing fluency with related technology, two things strike me: 1) I wasn’t yet comfortable talking into a microphone and 2) I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff anymore. Listening to a November 2002 broadcast, it’s surprising to me how many dude singer-songwriters and indie bands I played. Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Buckner? Pass. Belle and Sebastian and Okkervil River? Not against it, but wouldn’t fight someone to defend their merits. Some of these acts were indicative of the buzz they generated, as well as the mercurial nature of being of-the-moment. Remember when we were supposed to care about Ben Kweller and The Warlocks? You don’t? Me either.
Of course, that these broadcasts seem foreign to me now is largely the point. During the first six months at KVRX, I hadn’t locked into what I liked yet. I was trying to fit in, catching up to just how much music I now had at my disposal. In all candor, the first six months at KVRX were terrifying to me. The office itself was scary, as it was usually peopled with oft-bespectacled dudes huddled together and volleying well-considered, often incendiary opinions about obscure music. It was full-on High Fidelity. Several of these guys would later become my friends. But at the time I was 19 and not ready to share that I had just heard of the Mountain Goats. So I kept quiet.
Incidentally, KVRX was something of a meet market that seemed particularly inclined toward heterosexual activity. Lots of hook-ups, some of which resulted in marriages or at least amicable splits. It makes sense, as obsessive, esoteric types tend to gravitate toward one another. Young girls can be especially vulnerable and I was no exception. I dated two deejays during my first year at KVRX. Looking back on that time with a more nuanced understanding of feminist politics, I feel weird and more than a little embarrassed about the gendered power dynamics of romantic pursuit. But I also found my partner there, who I formed a relationship with on more egalitarian terms.
I’d like to think that dating fellow deejays had less to do with setting me apart than the talent I developed during my time at KVRX: writing reviews. As deejays needed to log four hours of volunteer time each month in order to keep their shows, drafting reviews for new releases was a great opportunity, especially since the station would receive hundreds of new albums each month. A review for one full-length album translated into a volunteer hour. I averaged about three reviews a week, thus gaining awareness of several artists as well as the output of the labels they were signed to. Through this, I fell in love with artists like Broadcast and Electrelane. As a journalism major, this acclimated me to a constant writing schedule. Through reviews, I developed my musical preferences and found my voice as a writer. And people started noticing my reviews, even occasionally printing them in The Call Letter, KVRX’s ‘zine.
But nothing got me better acquainted with music than putting together a weekly show. And while many deejays had specialty shows where they focused on particular genres like death metal, hardcore, or the blues, my show was decidedly free-form. At KVRX, free-form shows abided by the following requirements: each hour of free-form programming had to feature artists from five genres, two Texas artists, and five selections from the new bin, where the most recent reviewed offerings were kept. In addition, KVRX maintains a strict “none of the hits” policy. During my time, that meant that any artist who received even moderate success on any mainstream music network or radio station within the past ten years could not be played. Some deejays found these sanctions to be restrictive, but having these limitations motivated me to dig deeper and listen more broadly.
I also learned how I wanted my show to be perceived conceptually. I made sure the music was continuous, even going so far as to select instrumentals to talk over while I ran through my playlist, which I’d update after a three-song set. I also tried to vary songs from genre to genre, pairing Tom Zé’s “To” with Deerhoof’s “Milkman.”
I was also fond of layering songs into one another, overlapping the final moments of Sack and Blumm’s “Baby Bass Buss” with the intro to Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” I made sure that song selection went with the time of day, which once I got on FM was always in the evenings, particularly during safe harbor so I could play hip hop and Gravy Train!!!!. I also tried to bridge the content of my show with promos, tags, and the programs that bookended mine. Before I got to Raymond Williams in graduate school, I was familiar with the concept of flow.
I also became aware of my voice as an on-air talent. Though some deejays mumble or try to take focus away from themselves, hearing my voice bandy words about (often to myself) made me cognizant of articulation, elocution, and tone. There was also a performative quality to presenting an on-air persona as I intoned an idealized version of my natural speaking voice. It also skeeved me out when some dudes would call in to inform me of the supposed sexiness of my voice. I got really good at telling strangers to fuck off and hanging up on people mid-conversation. Unfortunately, these instances were fairly common amongst my female peers and some endured more serious harassment.
BTW, kudos to the dude callers who were supportive and respectful. Thanks to the nice lady callers as well.
Oddly enough, this awareness did not lead me toward doing a female-only show. I dabbled in it occasionally. I did a women’s issue news program one summer with a girl named Kelly I met when we were cast in The Vagina Monologues. I briefly took over a friend’s female-only show when she quit during her first semester in the UT American Studies master’s program. At the time, I found doing a female-only show limiting. Now I think I’d have to do a free-form female-only show. Why not pair Umm Kulthum with Dessa?
I started graduate school in fall 2006. I thought about returning to KVRX after about a year off from undergrad. But I felt like it was another group of kids’ turn. Also, I simply didn’t have the time to devote to a weekly show and its related responsibilities. When I applied to PhD programs, the schools’ radio stations were a determining factor and will continue to be when I reapply.
In the meantime, a podcast series is appealing to me, especially after I started listening to Veronica Ortuño‘s “Cease to Exist“. Rest assured that when I do start another radio program, all broadcasts will be well archived so I can dig ’em up and tune in again.