Post-Punk Christmas

2012 has been a decent year for gay rights.  Well at least for the gay rights issue that dominates the mainstream press.  In the US, same-sex marriage was legalised in three states (Maine, Washington & Maryland) and Obama gave in-principle support to the idea.  It was also legalised in Denmark and parts of Brazil.  A clear majority of Australians support same-sex marriage but a bill allowing it was rejected by the parliament in 2012.  A similar bill did however make good progress through New Zealand’s legislature and should be adopted in 2013.

So it seems fitting to post Pansy Division’s ‘Homo Christmas’ which includes classic lines like  “Don’t be miserable like Morissey, let me do you under the Christmas tree”.  Skip it if you’re sensitive about anatomical references.

Bowie, Iggy and the Uyghurs

One of my favourite products of the collaboration between David Bowie and Iggy Pop is the song ‘China Girl’.  Both men did a version: it appears on Iggy’s The Idiot (1977) and Bowie’s Let’s Dance (1983) (hence the incongruous shots of Sydney Harbor in the video).  Both renditions are great.

You can draw any number of interpretations from the song.  Apparently Iggy wrote the lyric while pining after a friend’s Vietnamese girlfriend.  It’s not much of a leap to read it to be about opium/heroin/drugs in general.  The most obvious interpretation though is I think to take it as a commentary on western imperialism, cultural and/or political, in Asia.

The first is about the singer’s obsession with his “little China girl”.  A metaphor for orientalism (in the Edward Said, Western fetishism of the East, sense) is on offer, should you choose to take it.  The West’s historical tendency to infantilise the East and its culture is also emphasised by the tongue-in-cheek oriental style guitar (xylophone too in Iggy’s version, I think) found in the intro and outro.

After the bridge the melody changes, and with it the song’s emphasis.  Now we hear of the destructive nature of the singer’s love:

I stumbled into town

Just like a sacred cow

Visions of swastikas in my head

And plans for everyone

It’s in the white of my eyes……

and

My little China girl

You shouldn’t mess with me

I’ll ruin everything you are

I’ll give you television

I’ll give you eyes of blue

I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world

So yeah, the west corrupts innocent Asia with its modern ways, tricky technology and greed.  It could all be a bit patronising  if not for the brilliant final line: “And when I get excited, my little China girl says, oh baby just you shut your mouth”.  Patronise at your own peril: China/Asia is neither naive or innocent and can stand up for itself.

China has of course always had imperialist tendencies of its own and I don’t think it’s ever been the reluctant imperialist portrayed in ‘China Girl’.  My current country Mongolia knows all about China’s inclusive approach to geographical self-definition (but I’ll write about Mongolia later when I know more about it), as do parts of my old object of study, northeast India (namely Arunachal Pradesh).  Tibet is near the top of every right-on celebrity’s list of causes and Taiwan and the Spratly Islands continue to be live issues that arguably have the potential to trigger intercontinental war.

The plight of the Uyghurs  in far western China however gets comparatively little attention, so here’s a small introduction to that particular issue.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and of course the rest of China (including Tibet) is a vast, resource-rich area.  It is home to only about 20 million inhabitants.  The largest ethnic group in the area is the Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic group that mainly practices Islam.

Xinjiang has been part of China since 1949.  Before that there were two short-lived and Soviet-backed Islamic Republics of East Turkestan (1933-34 and 1944-49).  Since 1990 there has been an ongoing, and sometimes violent, struggle against Beijing in Xinjiang following a student riot and subsequent crackdown leading to 20 deaths that year.  The East Turkestan Islamic Movement has been the main armed group perpetrating this struggle, while the World Uygher Congress, led by US-based Rebiya Kadeer, is the more acceptable face of Uygher nationalism.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang has been granted the apparent concession of special autonomy.  Also like Tibet, Uygher culture, religion and demographic dominance of the area is under attack.  The Chinese state curbs the expression of the Islamic faith in Xinjiang and in 2009 it systematically destroyed the iconic old city of Kashgar.  Han Chinese are encouraged to invest and settle in the region.

Uyghurs are on my mind because at a visit to the National Museum of Mongolia last week I noticed they had been one of the empires to inhabit the Mongolian steppe some time in the early middle ages.  That fact struck me because I had always thought of the Uyghurs as the victims, not the perpetrators, of imperialism.  I guess all peoples have their ups and downs over history, a fact of which the Chinese are very aware.

Rock in Nepal

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Katha’ by Newaz and ‘Jogale Huncha Bheta’ by Nepathya.

I have now been living in Nepal for just over six months.  During this time I have seen only one gig.  But I have seen it many, many times.  You see Nepali bands (at least those that play in Thamel and Lakeside, the tourist areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara) stick pretty strictly to covers.  And they tend to be the same covers: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bon Jovi, Jimi Hendrix, early Bryan Adams, Guns N’ Roses and – absolutely mandatory – Hotel California by The Eagles.  It can be fun if you’re in the mood, and the players are often excellent, but it is not exactly what you would call a thriving music scene.

Rock in Pokhara

I finally got my first taste of original Nepali popular music at ‘Rock in Pokhara’ last November.  A one-day festival, the stage was shared by rock groups from Pokhara and Kathmandu.  There was some real excitement among punters over a few of the Kathmandu bands who are quite successful and had never before played in Pokhara (Nepal’s third largest city).

Headliners such as Mukti and Revival and Newaz (with an Australian alumni on vocals) are typical of the rare subcontinental band that is able to make a living from its music: they are hard.  In contrast to Southeast Asia, where the mainstream appetite favours saccharine pop, young South Asians generally like their music to be rock, and their rock to be hard.

Although the music at Rock in Pokhara was (mostly) original, it was still strongly influenced by western popular music.  The excellent weekly Nepali Times recently published an article on a new band trying to fight Nepali cultural cringe and create a fusion of traditional Nepali folk music and more contemporary sounds.  Yak Attack aren’t my cup of tea, but I do appreciate what they’re tying to do.

One of the pioneers of this sort of fusion is a band called Nepathya, formed in the early nineties.  Their song ‘Jogale Huncha Bheta’ (I have tried unsuccessfully to get the title translated; it seems to have something to do with serendipity) is without a doubt my highlight whenever it is played by the Lakeside cover bands.  It is clearly a highlight for Nepali music lovers too.

OK so I haven’t drawn out any political connections in this post.  But I have written on Nepali politics elsewhere.  So if you’re interested I suggest listening to the playlist above while reading this article I wrote last November, which endeavours to give a brief overview of the recent history of politics in Nepal, and this one from a couple of weeks ago, which provides an update and a bit of a critique of Nepal’s politicians.

World Politics Blues

This blog is for people interested in global politics and in music.  For people who can’t help humming ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale‘ whenever Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram makes the news (as they have again today, for killing at least another 15 of their Christian compatriots yesterday).

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