Book Review: The Trial of Robert Mugabe by Chielo Zona Eze

Author: Chielo Zona Eze
Title: The Trial of Robert Mugabe
Publication Info: Okri Books Inc (2009)
ISBN: 0615278116


Nigerian author Chielo Zona Eze pulls no punches in this fictional account of the brutal Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.  Set in heaven, Mugabe is put before a jury of pan-African luminaries and victims of his oppression and terror come forth to tell his tales.  There stories vary from Zimbabweans forced to find work in South Africa where they are killed for being outsiders, women raped, tortured and killed in prison camps, and even a soldier who dies of AIDS from participating in these rapes and torture.  The testimonies are graphic and yet there are also acknowledgments of gratitude for Mugabe himself suffering imprisonment under the British and eventually liberating Zimbabwe from colonial rule.  The horror is all the greater that Mugabe recreates the terror he lived through on his subjects.

This book is a definite tribute to human rights and those who persevere in protecting them.  Authors Yvonne Vera and Dambudzo Marechera are specifically singled out but there are also more subtle allusions to Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  This novel is not going to cheer you up but it offers important insight into the state of the world.

Favorite Passages:

Guku is born of the spirit of ressentiment, in which case a person develops a gukunized personality.  The logic of a gukunized personality runs thus:  I am a victim, therefore I can’t be blamed for any wrong, therefore I am right.  A gukunized mindset finds nothing wrong in killing or harming other people because he already justifies this on the grounds of his having been harmed earlier. – p. 33.

Should I tell you that retribution, sir, is antithetical to civilization; that it has no place in civil society?  Should I tell you, sir, that the greatness of a leader is no measure on the degree of his anger toward other people, it is not based on what he hated and destroyed, but on what he has built?  It is based on how fare he has enhanced the lives of his people. – p. 150

Recommended books: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga,  Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Snakepit by Moses Isegawa, The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera, and House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera.

Book Review: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll by Elijah Wald

Author: Elijah Wald
Title: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll
Publication Info: New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
ISBN:  9780195341546


Someone in the marketing department goofed by letting a book with such and incendiary title out on the market because a) it’s not really true that the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll (not exactly) and b) that’s not what this book was about.  I probably would not have picked this book up if I hadn’t previously read Wald’s excellent study of the myth and reality of blues music Escaping the Delta. Wald’s premise for this book is to reevaluate the history of popular music in the 20th century in the United States from how music was enjoyed at the time not from looking backward.

Wald believes the music history is written by the critics and their tastes are widely divergent from the tastes of the general public.  What the critics think was good music may not be necessarily what people were listening to at the time (actually look at any old Billboard top 40 list and this is readily apparent).  Even what has come down on records is not always what people were listening to as in the early days of recording it was more likely to record the unusual pieces while the popular music was heard in dancehalls and on the radio.

Wald takes us back to the 1890’s when most music was made in the home and the sheet music industry was king.  This paradigm remained well into the recorded music era and when people went to hear music performed they wanted to hear the songs the loved and the band playing them was immaterial.  They certainly had no interest in hearing songs just like the ones on the band’s record.  A good band had to know all the latest songs and even genres were irrelevant so they’d better be ready to play ragtime, blues, marching songs, jazz, pop, folk, hillbilly music or ethnic songs.  Even classical orchestras padded out their performances with popular songs of the day.  I imagine that in our great-grandparents time that the typical band was more like a wedding band or a pops orchestra.  As late as the 1960’s a popular song would be immediately covered by any artist who wished to remain current and successful.

The most important thing to popular audiences is that they they could dance.  Wald comments that while most of the critics who wrote the history of popular music were men, the driving force behind music that actually was popular was women who wanted to dance.  In addition to the man-woman dynamic, Wald traces the side-by-side evolution of black & white music.  When the two intertwine as when black & white artists play each other’s songs the greatest innovations occured and this usually happened when the artists were trying to make people dance.

One of Wald’s frequently cited examples of this division is the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was one of the top bands of the 1920’s.  Retroactively panned as schmaltzy by the critics, Paul Whiteman was actually looked on as a influence by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and set the standard for his time.  Whiteman even commissioned George Gershwin to compose “Rhapsody In Blue” and performed it with his orchestra, getting accolades for raising Jazz to art music.

And thus this how the Beatles “destroyed” rock ‘n’ roll.  By becoming a studio band and recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they made rock into art music. Wald shows that in the mid-60s black & white styles were merging, but after the Beatles, Rock went off into the album-based arty styles while black music was the still-danceable soul, funk & r&b (try to think of the last time you danced to rock music).  The book ends in the 1970’s and since that time Wald believes that there’s been little innovation in popular music even if there has been some good music produced.

I really enjoyed this book and was fascinated by the changes in music wrought by technology, demographic shifts, and various trendsetters.  It also explained why so many of the old-time crooners and pop singers covered rock ‘n’ roll songs even though it sounds embarrassing to listen to them.  I thought Wald overstated the woman/man and black/white divides at time, but mostly had a good perspective on the “popular” versus “art” views on music.  I do wonder what he thinks of the increasing globalization of music in the past 30 or so years.  People around the world are listening to American music and world music is influencing American popular songs with some of the best work in recent decades coming from this fusion.  Perhaps we need to look beyond America and the black & white music styles we have here to see where music is heading next.

Favorite Passages:

“Far more of us dance than go to watch professional dancers, especially when we’re young, and very few of us, even when we are taking lessongs, give any thought to becoming professionals ourselves.

Playing music used to be like that.  People sang as children and often learned to play an instrument, and many continued to play at least occasionally throughout their lives.  What made a song popular was not that a concert artist was using it to wow sedentary crowds,  but that hundreds of thousands of people were playing and singing it.” – p. 18

“Between records and radio, by the 1930s the whole idea of a dance orchestra had changed.  The results would be what is generally known as the Big Band era, but this was less a shift in the bands’ music or their function than a matter of the public becoming aware of them as individual entities.  Dance, restaurant, and theater orchestras had always provided the country’s popular music, but, like cooks or set designers they had remained largely in the background. People went to dances to dance, to restaurants to eat, and to theaters to see acts with strong visual appeal, and the musicians were just employees who provided accompaniments.” – p. 96

Recommended books: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Protest Singer by Alec Wilkinson

Author: Alec Wilkinson
Title: The Protest Singer : an intimate portrait of Pete Seeger
Publication Info:  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
ISBN: 9780307269959


This is a short and easy read that summarizes Seeger’s life & career succinctly but still captures why he’s in important.  Seeger himself who never wants much attention focused on him wanted a book that someone could read in one sitting.  Much of the book is based on interviews between Wilkinson and Seeger and takes on a conversational tone.  The book jumps around between events in Seeger’s life similar to the way that one memory can prompt another only tangentially related.  It’s also good for seeing what Seeger finds memorable and important from his own past.  While are more thorough books on Seeger out there, I recommend that anyone interested in learning about this remarkable man start with this book and then check out his albums and a concert if possible.  Then start to make your own music.

Favorite Passages:

After consulting with his lawyer, Seeger said, “I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known.  I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.  I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am  not interested in who listened to them.” – p. 81

Recommended books: Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing? by David King Dunaway, and Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie.
Rating: ****