Mean Imelda Blues

Here Lies Love will play off-Broadway next year.  Written by David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Fatboy Slim, the musical is a take on the life of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of The Philippines.  The songs, drawn from the 2010 concept album of the same name, generally reflect Imelda’s penchant for clubbing.  Vocals are clearly intended for the stage and are delivered by the likes of Florence Welch (Florence and the Machine), Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Steve Earle, Cyndi Lauper, Filipino jazz singer Charmaine Clamor, Sharon Jones, Kate Pierson (the B-52s) and others.

It is a far cry from my cup of tea.  But the idea is interesting, and it gives me a pretext for writing about the Philippines.  Given I don’t like David Byrne’s songs, I’ll go with Elvis Presley’s ‘Mean Woman Blues’ to accompany this post.  I think it’s quite fitting, as long as you take mean to be nasty or callous, not tight with money (which she definitely is not).

Famous for being a beauty queen and for her gargantuan shoe collection, in many respects Imelda Marcos is a grotesque figure.  Although many have drawn parallels between Imelda and Eva Peron (aka Evita), Imelda’s origins were far from humble.  In fact her father was a law professor from a prominent, wealthy family.  Imelda’s mother died when she was nine years old.  After finishing an education degree in Tacloban she moved to Manila where she worked in music stores and gave singing performances.  She married Ferdinand Marcos in 1953.  He was elected President 12 years later.

On 23 September 1972 Marcos declared martial law in response to violence led by the New People’s Army, an alliance between Communists young and old in the forms of the Communist Party of the Philippines (a group of young Communists who had split from the more established Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) in 1968) and the Huks – the Hukbalahap, a peasant army set up by the PKP, initially to resist Japanese occupation.  The US supported the martial law declaration, keen for stability on their military bases.

During the protracted period of martial law Ferdinand suspended the country’s constitution, removed the two-party system and allowed only his own party to operate.  He installed Imelda in a number of important government positions, including as a Minister and a Special Envoy.  In the latter capacity she visited China, the Soviet Union, Cuba and a number of states in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  She later justified the exorbitant costs she racked up during this period – in which she was said to indulge in five million dollar shopping trips to New York and Rome, among other larger than life extravagances – by pointing to diplomatic successes.  For instance she was involved in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement – brokered by then Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi – which lay the groundwork for (as yet still elusive) peace in the country’s Islamic south.  

In February 1986 Ferdinand faced increasing pressure and called a snap election.  The election was contested by Corazon Aquino, widow of  Benigno Aquino, Marcos’ main political rival until he was assassinated in 1983 (and Mother of current President Bengino Aquino III).  The election’s aftermath was messy.  Marcos refused to accept Aquino’s victory.  An attempted military coup failed.  Then on February 24 a number of Manila police and air force members defected.  Ronald Reagan withdrew US support.  Ferdinand and Imelda fled to Hawaii and Aquino was sworn in as President of a provisional government.

Ferdinand died in exile in 1989.  Imelda was acquitted of racketeering and fraud charges in the US in 1990.  She still faces charges in the Philippines and the source of the Marcos’ vast wealth remains under investigation.  Imelda has been engaged in Filipino politics since 1992 when she finished fifth in the Presidential race.  She was elected to Congress in 1995, serving until her term expired in 1998.  In 2010 she was again elected to the Filipino House of Representatives (in a seat previously held by her son Ferdinand Jr) vowing to clear her late husband’s name.

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Peter Garrett: Best of Both Worlds?

Note: there is probably nothing new in this post for Australian readers.

In my last post I hailed M.I.A. for the relative subtlety of her political message which was embedded in, but did not overpower, its medium.  Not all overtly political music is necessarily cringe-worthy though.  Case in point: the grand-daddies of hyper-political music in Australia, Midnight Oil.

Formed in Sydney in 1976, Midnight Oil hit the big time with their 1983 album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1.  At least three of the songs from that album alone are etched on the Australian psyche: the anti-war anthem ‘Short Memory’, the subversive challenge to the bipartisan pillar of Australian foreign policy that was  ‘US Forces’ (the album was also the band’s first American release) and the pièce de résistance: ‘Power and the Passion’.

Despite the strength of their messages, the music is rarely drowned out.  Neither is it hand-clappy protest music.  It is harsh, direct and engaging.  The music moreover more than matches the content for radicalism.  ‘Power and the Passion’ is a perfect example.  How many other top ten hits contain both a drum solo and a brass outro?

The band’s other great album Diesel and Dust (1987) followed a six-week tour of remote Australia.  The album went platinum in the United States and seven-times platinum in Australia.  It contains the now iconic ‘Beds Are Burning’.  You don’t need me to offer an interpretation.

But Midnight Oil are not only interesting for this blog because their music was political.  Lead singer Peter Garrett is (at least from an Australian perspective) the musician politician.  He joined the left-er of Australia’s two major parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 2004, two years after Midnight Oil disbanded.  He was elected to the lower house that year and has been an MP ever since.

Garrett has always been a larger than life character, all limbs, bald head and that unique and much-ridiculed dance style.  In 1984 Garrett ran for the Senate as the lead on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket.  He polled respectably but failed to gain a seat because the ALP directed its preferences elsewhere.

Labor won government in 2007 and Garrett was rewarded with a Ministry and his dream portfolios of the environment and arts.  In early 2010 he was made the fall-guy (probably unfairly) for a failed home insulation subsidy scheme and stripped of parts of the environment portfolio.  Following the most recent election he was moved to the education portfolio and made a member of the Cabinet.

Garrett has been pretty upfront about the fact that he has had to moderate his views to be a viable member of the ALP.  He has been mocked by the other side of politics, parodied in the media and disowned by many fans.  You only have to look at the comments on some of these YouTube clips to see the deep dismay of many at what is perceived as one of the most dramatic instances of ‘selling out’ ever.  With the recent successes of the Green Party at the federal level – they are a junior partner in the current ruling coalition and hold the balance of power in the upper house – I wonder if he regrets the scale of his compromise back in 2004.  On current polls Labor will be dumped at the next federal election to be held some time before the end of 2013.

In 2009 the Oils reformed to play a concert to raise money for victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires.  Before that televised stadium gig they played two warm up shows in Canberra.  I caught the second.  Apart from the novelty of seeing a Minister dancing maniacally, they were really, really good.  Garrett was clearly enjoying himself (see below clip) and commented on how much better it was than his day job.  The crowd was ecstatic (although crowds are always good in Canberra – we’re just so grateful when someone includes us!)  Thankfully they did not self-censor: ‘US Forces’ was a particular highlight.

Youssou N’Dour: musician, media mogul, Presidential candidate?

Soundtrack for this post: ‘7 Seconds‘ by Youssou N’Dour feat. Neneh Cherry and Medina by Youssou N’Dour.

Presidential elections will be held in Senegal on February 26.  The country’s constitutional court recently ruled that current President Abdoulaye Wade is eligible to run for a third term despite the constitution’s two-term cap.  The court judged the constitutional measure does not apply to Wade as it was introduced in 2001, after his ascension to the Presidency in 2000.

The same court ruled that musician Youssou N’Dour is not eligible to run for Presidential office due to an insufficient number of signatures (10,000 are required; 4,000 of N’Dour’s 12,000 were deemed invalid).  Last year N’Dour – a powerful figure in Senegal in his own right – started a political movement called Fekke ma ci Boole (variously translated as ‘I am a witness, so I will react’ and ‘I am involved’).  Previously a Wade supporter, N’Dour turned against the President reportedly due to locking horns with the government in his role as media mogul.

The announcement of the court’s decision two weeks ago was met with violent protests that lasted days and resulted in four deaths.

Wade’s son Karim is said to figure prominently in the President’s vision for the future leadership of Senegal.  This has angered many in Senegal, particularly young people who were not around during the jubilation of Wade’s election in 2000 and instead see him as tainted by corruption.  Yet this dissatisfaction has to date failed to coalesce around a particular leader.  N’Dour may or may not have had that rallying power, but the point is he may have – none of the 13 candidates that are competing with Wade appear to even have the potential to harness popular dissatisfaction with the status quo.

N’Dour is one of the most recognised West African musicians of the last three decades.  He is credited with pioneering mbalax music, a fusion of African beats and Western, Latin and Caribbean influences.  He and his music have long been politically engaged.  In 1988 he co-headlined the ‘Amnesty International Human Rights Now!’ tour and played at Nelson Mandela’s birthday concert.  He has explored a number of genres, including reggae and Sufi music.  Although his political activism has often been Africa-wide, his 2010 album Dakar-Kingston signaled an increased concentration on his homeland.

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