lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 21 12:26:11 MDT 2002
Over the past twenty years or so, Manhattan has suffered from the kind
of social and cultural homogenization that we associate with
"globalization." If the WTC could have been seen as a symbol for that
process on a global scale, this was no less true with respect to its
impact on the island that spawned it. This complex marked the initial
stage of a trend away from traditional manufacturing and retail in
downtown Manhattan. When recent working-class immigrants could no longer
find jobs in this area, their uptown neighborhoods would also shrivel
My neighborhood was once called Germantown. On every block you could
find German or Eastern European restaurants catering to working-class
residents. Now they are all gone. The Lower East Side was once home to a
thriving Ukrainian community. If you sat in Tompkins Square Park on a
Sunday afternoon, it felt like Kiev. Today there is no room for the
Ukrainian immigrant as railroad flats in the restyled "East Village"
command $2000 per month rents rented by young MBA's. Instead of
proletarian lunch counters serving cheap ethnic food, you find the GAP
Last night I went out to Astoria, Queens to attend the opening night
concert of the annual "Music Around the Mediterranean" festival produced
by the World Music Institute and the Center for Traditional Music and
Dance. I was reminded of how cultural impoverishment goes hand-in-hand
with upward economic mobility in Manhattan as soon as I got off the
subway. This neighborhood has traditionally been composed of Greek
residents and remains so. While obviously less materially well-off than
the Upper East Side, it had its own kind of riches.
While walking toward the Bohemian Hall and Garden, where the concert was
to be held, I passed an inviting string of Greek restaurants, craft
shops and butchers. Since I have been learning how to cook Turkish
cuisine lately, I was curious to see if they had lamb shanks (a cut that
is virtually impossible to find in Manhattan's Upper East Side). A
butcher pointed proudly to his lamb shanks and assured me that they
could always be found there.
From the festival's program notes, I learned that NYC underwent a
massive Greek immigration from Turkey around the turn of the century:
"The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Turkish nationalism
led to the mass flight of communities of Greek ancestry from such places
as Smyrna (now Izmir) on the Aegean coast of Turkey and Pontos on the
Black Sea. Many of these immigrants settled in the cities of Greece, but
many others were driven by harsh economic conditions to emigrate to
America, where they settled in Chelsea, and later in Astoria and other
parts of Queens."
With the coming of the Depression, economically rooted xenophobia led to
a more restrictive immigration policy. In 1965 the Hart-Celler
Immigration Reform Act opened the door once again to a new and more
diverse wave of immigrants. Joining the Italian and Greek mainstays of
the outer borough's complex cultural mix, the last several decades have
been marked by the rapid growth of Balkan, Middle Eastern and North
African communities. "What had been a predominantly Christian Arab
settlement from Lebanon in Brooklyn was filled out by significant
numbers of Muslim Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen. Albanians, who emigrated
primarily from Montenegro and Macedonia, established significant
communities in the Bronx and Staten Island, and have played a major role
in the development and management of real estate in their communities."
Aramiré Compagna Di Musica Salentina opened Friday night's concert. This
group hails from Salento, the peninsula that forms the heel of the
Italian boot. Anticipating the mission of Radio Tarifa, the final act of
the evening, the founder and lead singer Roberto Raheli stated that this
is the part of Italy that is closest to Africa, with the clear
implication that this was not just geographical closeness.
Whenever you hear the authentic musical voice of a people as opposed to
the commercialized version, there is a shock of recognition. When I
first heard the raw and unmediated sound of Roma music, it was nothing
like the sort of schmaltz you heard from fiddle-players in certain
restaurants. With no real previous exposure to Italian folk music, I
didn't quite know what to expect from Aramiré. Suffice it to say that it
is also nothing like you've ever heard in a restaurant.
The program notes state that Raheli was "inspired by the voices of the
old people whose 'imperfect notes' and style of singing were born in the
agricultural fields of old Salento. The peasants had no instruments but
their voices, and each worker strove to sing in a unique way." This, of
course, is exactly what makes such music compelling. With the growing
homogenization of world culture imposed by the mailed fist of the Disney
Corporation, Warner Brothers, et al, 'imperfect' music of the kind
played by Aramiré is like a drink of cool water in the desert.
After a brief performance of ancient Sardinian music by Launeddas, Radio
Tarifa took the stage. It takes its name from Cape Tarifa, the
southernmost tip of Spain closest to Africa, like Salento. Fain Sanchez
Duenas, the group's musical director, explains their philosophy: "Tarifa
is a little bit borderline, a no man's land, and most of all, a balcony
over the Mediterranean."
Using a combination of instruments and styles from Spain and North
Africa--both modern and ancient-- the group joins others now seeking to
break down musical and cultural barriers between Europe and North
Africa. Led by an Egyptian Jewish singer named Ishtar, the band Alabina
also plays a mixture of flamenco and North African styles. Ishtar has
said, "When I was little and inside my grandmother's house it was all
classical Egyptian music, but once I went out that door it was pop,
jazz, funk." She now describes Alabina's music as "a plate of red
pepper, black pepper, salt and ginger, all mixed together, but in the
right quantities--the music touches the sky and all kinds of people and
cultures." (Washington Post, July 31, 1999)
While it is beyond the power of Radio Tarifa and Alabina to eliminate
the kind of racism being directed against North African immigrants
today, it is one small part of an overall effort to reverse recent trends.
According to an Australian newspaper, (The Advertiser, Feb. 4, 1997),
Duenas becomes emphatic when asked about the obvious hypocrisy that
exists as Spain continues to ignore its African and Arabic roots.
He stated, "Eighty per cent of our descendants came from the south and
the rejection of this is insidious. It's politically fired. It stems
from this terrible wall that we have between the Christian and Islamic
worlds. It's cultural suicide."
A tour of Morocco left Radio Tarifa exhilarated. "I do think that there
are a lot of people who can look to the south and see our roots with
pride and appreciate the richness it brings. An isolated, 'pure' culture
is never a fertile one."
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