by Ruairí McCann
Looking over what I have seen and heard in this mess of a release year so far, I realized that two of my favourite works of art – one a movie, another an album – are tied together by their decision to depict a particular place, or identity, with an intentional formal wooliness.
I initially thought to place them together, entwined, in a cross-comparative piece. Though given they are ultimately more alike in spirit than in métier, my final decision was to divvy them up and present an analysis of the two distinct works as two separate pieces. Hopefully this way, synapses will still fire.
The town of Krabi—located on the Andaman coast of the Southern Thai province of the same name—is a subject ripe for considering the ethics of the image, for it is one of the cornerstones of the—until recently—robust Thai tourism industry, which has heavily marketed the area’s abundance of natural beauty, ancient shrines and early hominid remains as a tropical paradise and cultural bedrock, in complementary opposition to Bangkok’s cosmopolitanism.
The idea that all the loose ends, digressions and forking paths that make up any place’s ecology, culture and history could be effectively summed up under a single encapsulation or sales pitch is – of course – a fallacy. Inevitably, peddling of this kind becomes a process of selective blindness and fabrication, which directors Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong witness in all its dubiousness. Suwichakornpong first, when as a journalist she travelled to the town to report on the production of the Leonardo Di Caprio vehicle The Beach (2000). Her instincts soon drew her away from her assignment, towards an event not suited to the remit of a puff piece, as she joined a public protest against the environmental damage that has been a severe side effect of the area’s commercialization.
In 2018, the two travelled together to present their first collaboration, an installation, at the Thailand Biennale, for whose inaugural edition the ministry of culture picked Krabi as host. This tendency of governments to align themselves with the furthest clime of their land’s timeline, in order to present their society’s genesis – which in Thailand’s case, is relatively recent and of disparate origins – as simply the heir of an ancient lineage, was not only made plain but overegged by the event’s opening ceremony. Specifically, a moment in the mayor’s speech, where he postulated that maybe Krabi, not the Horn of Africa, was the cradle of humanity.
The filmmakers’ wary response towards this hard and fast relationship to history and the blotting out of differing perspectives lies at the root of the atmospheric and structural free-float of their first feature length collaboration, Krabi, 2562 (2019). There are other factors too, from the air of negligible obligation that is both the natural ambience and calculated aura of a resort town to a shoot that was driven more by intuition than the letter of a prepared script. Most importantly though, it is a principled creative decision, to present Krabi as a multilayered collage of meanings in flux in a riposte to its formulation as a fixed, over-determined entity.
The duo then has not only forgone any single conclusion but also any strictly monoformal or narrative gambit. Instead, the guiding light is a flaneur’s propensity to wander and treat every new observation and discovery as potential grist for the mill of association. The film is a mix of documentary insights and vignettes both lightly and heavily fictionalized, that give scattered impressions of the region; its people, flora and fauna, which digress from or fold into a few dominant yet loose narrative strands.
One is moored to the perambulations of a mysterious woman (Siraphan Wattanajinda) who hires a local tour guide (Primin Puarat) to take her on a reconnaissance of various hotspots for suspiciously vague ends. Another features Suwichakornpong regular Arak Amornsupasiri as a dispassionate pretty boy and the star of a commercial shoot for which he is gussied up as a soft drink swilling cave man. The real thing soon eclipses the caricature, for while on a break he strays from the set into an encounter with an actual primordial man who is then periodically revisited, along with his mate in their cave-dwelling existence.
This blend of the Chaucerian and psychogeography has for connective tissue an approach to montage that operates both in the immediate as well as a fashion akin to Artazad Peleshian’s ‘distance montage’ method, in that images rhyme and connections are made across long stretches of runtime, rather than just either side of a cut.
Out of this approach, the filmmakers construct not strict dichotomies but communiqués between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, the ‘authentic’ and the ‘commercial’. Shots of flesh and blood animals – for instance a perching cockerel and a tethered ox – cycle with statues of animals, in which realistic detail has been replaced with simplified cuteness; beasts small and hefty rendered mere park fixtures for public consumption.
One of the film’s key locations is a fertility shrine, to which the tour guide takes both the woman and later a touring American couple. This holy object, a site of veneration, is frequently followed by cuts to shots of the same beach, thronged with beachgoers. While on a wider plane of reference, it is a point of comparison, an official spiritual and cultural site, with instances of belief and heritage which are not as pre-packaged or rubber-stamped; from an interview with a hotel receptionist who claims she can see ghosts to a visit to a defunct cinema, whose decrepitude, comparable in quality and in beauty to the ruins of a hilltop monastery, is momentarily animated by the presence of a row of Thailand’s rich tradition of colorful genre movie poster art.
This soft dialectic is not only visual but verbal and sonic, for since the tour guide tees up the shrine twice, we get to see the differences in how a place or object can be framed, depending on facts and assumptions made about the person or people being addressed. This contrasts yet again with a scene where the woman asks a group of children what is the town’s best restaurant. If a tour guide was to answer the same query, they would pick a place that specializes in local delicacies but the kids collectively opt for a Korean eatery. And their chatter, full of contradictions and tangents, contrasts with a guide’s pre-prepared and strictly structured patter.
The soundtrack mixes folk, such as a vocal and percussive piece, with less region-specific ambient music. It also includes one of the most starling moments, when the scene featuring the children caps with a sudden eruption of martial tramp. That Thailand’s current political situation is only represented allusively, with an opening group recital of the national anthem and a mention of a Biennale film that was censored is, once again, partly a condition. For the censor board would chop any attempt at a direct confrontation. But it is also appropriate, given that the explosion of Thailand’s tourism sector served to cover wounds inflicted by the country’s repeated cycle of gross military intervention, which has continued into the 21st century. The industry was significantly funded by the government during the reform heavy 1980s, in part to repackage the country following the instability of 1970s; a decade that saw mass manifestations of far right violence, including the Thammasat University massacre of ‘76, whose representation is the quandary underpinning Suwichakornpong’s previous film, By The Time It Gets Dark (2016).
This connection places the film more within Suwichakornpong’s line of inquiry and grants an otherwise loose and breezy film an undercurrent of darkness.
Nazar’s debut LP Guerilla (2020), released by Hyperdub, is also concerned with the construction and exegesis of a national identity, though its scope has a considerably more personal facet.
Nazar (a moniker and his only calling card, since he has not made his birth name public) was born in 1993 in a state of displacement. As the son of Alicdes Sakala Simoes, a general in the rebel group UNITA — which occupied the oppositional and ultimately losing side of the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002) — it was deemed better if he were to live in exile rather than in extremis. So, while their father was a nomad, either fighting in Angola or raising funds abroad, Nazar and the rest of his family lived out a relatively stable but dislocated existence in Brussels. That is, until war’s end in 2002, upon which they were all reunited in Luanda. This homecoming, however long awaited, was muted. Since it was to a ‘home’ that he never knew and though he felt he fit better than he did in Belgium, it was only to a degree. There was still a lingering sense of alienation, of not belonging, that instigated a period of deep depression.
It is a condition not exclusive to Nazar nor his particular circumstances but which affects Angola on the whole. Its colonial status was reinforced after World War 2, when the Estado Novo, Portugal’s fascist regime, enacted lusotropicalism, a policy that changed its colonies’ administrative status from properties to full provinces of the metropole. Under a cloud of paternalism, this led to the mass planting of white working to middle class Portuguese into the capital of Luanda, exacerbating pre-existing racial stratification, as whites soaked up most of the working and housing opportunities within the city; pushing Africans to the suburbs, to subsist off menial work and live in makeshift communities called musseques.
Not that independence, in 1975, paved the way to sovereignty. For by definition, a civil war is the most extreme case of a nation splintering, becoming untenable as a basis for shared affinity. And in Angola’s case, there was further outside manipulation, as it became a theatre of the Cold War, with first China and then the United States financing UNITA and the Soviets backing the MPLA’s Marxist-Leninist regime.
Since the political sphere was a consistent non-starter for creating an open and stable Angolan identity, it was left to the arts, or specifically, music, to define for many, what constituted ‘angolanidade’. One such style is called kuduro. Originating in the musseques in the late 80s as a dance—whose focus on rear action is indicated by the translation ‘hard ass’ — it soon entailed a type of electronic dance music that was a pan-African concoction. Devised through the combination of techno and house with traditional rhythms and Carnival and Calypso inflected East Caribbean styles such as Zouk and Soca, the results were the relentlessly stable and danceable stomp of a high tempo, 4/4 beat over which scabrous or assertive lyrics are sung or rapped aggressively in Portuguese.
It was music, and kuduro specifically, that kept Nazar’s head above water. Though when it came time to make the transition from aficionado to being a beat-maker himself, on a quest for his own voice, he came to find kuduro lacking. As an outlet of emotion it was too straightforward in that its goal was to blow off steam, while he wanted to express the complex array of emotions that he associated with his parents and the Angolan experience.
The style he has subsequently developed, which earned him his first showcase in his debut EP Enclave (2018) and now this release, he has dubbed ‘rough kuduro’. The use of that prefix makes most immediate sense with a track like Diverted or Immortal, which both sound, at varying points, to be coming apart at the seams.
Yet rather than just declaring a harshness, which is far from unilateral, it aptly describes Nazar refusing to stick religiously to the order of 4/4. Some tracks do adhere to that signature though the rhythm often changes, either by the next tune or mid-composition. He also updates the ingredients of kuduro, with the rowdy carnivalesque atmosphere diminished and the addition of two-step clatter. He also borrows from the dubstep traces and drafty open-spaces found in the work of his labelmate Burial, whom Nazar has singled out as an influence.
Like Burial, who took the sounds of rave music, from their original context, as a euphoric, communal experience, and brought them into an atomized downer of a 21st century, Nazar is also interested in reflection through expropriation, though he is less interested in summoning a specific sense of space or mood. While a sub-tropical ambience is set to the opening track – the beautiful fugue-like Retaliation – the album uses a bricolage approach, directly and psychically evoking the war and the perspectives running through it with samples of his father (often reading from his memoir), his mother and other voices, speaking in Portuguese, Ovimbundu and English, mixed in among the sounds of war.
It’s not a case of some speech being inelegantly plopped on top of the sound mix for blunt and easy politicization, for these elements are also used musically, sequenced in with the beats and synthlines which then imitate them in response.
The effect is occasionally very direct. For instance, the track Mother is a mid-point reprieve, whose opening sample of Nazar’s mother, intoning softly in Ovimbundu, followed by a tide of bright fluting synths, frames his mother as a safe harbour, a definite symbol of serenity. While a track like FIM-92 Stinger, works against the negative connotations of its title, by depicting the acquirement of arms from the rebel perspective, as a joyous occasion. A sleek, party tune which takes Ronald Reagan’s notorious remark, made in response to one of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi’s impassioned pitches for military aid, that ‘if the man wants stingers, give him stingers’ and nullifies its callousness and condescension by turning it into a triumphant mantra.
More often than not the results are as compellingly oblique as Nazar’s emotions and sense of identity are diffuse. Bunker is the epitome of this tendency. Its staggered rhythm consists of short, irregular bursts of a exclamatory vocal sample followed by a thunderous, fuzzy bassline accompanied by the sound of helicopters and wrapped around a percussion track that consists of snapping snares and samples of ammunition magazines being clicked into place. Beyond just being an immersive signifier of combat, while also handily percussive, this sequencing together of arms reloading with more conventional drum sounds has a deeply personal aspect; it is Nazar fusing together one of the most common sonic signifiers of his father’s profession, a sound that for him would have been as mundane as birdsong or the roar of traffic are for most people, with the most baseline constituent of Nazar’s own practice.
It’s an intimate gesture, countering years of separation with formal synthesis – though it does not reflect the overall mood of the track, which is glowering and distant. The latter is down to the vocals, which feature Nazar singing deadpan, in English, while pitched up to sound feminine, and then in the track’s back half he is joined by British rapper Shannen SP. The lyrics present the civil war in disturbingly concrete but still poetic and equivocal terms, as a shifting state of autonomy gained but also lost and abject, with lines like ‘…until the hunted becomes the hunter’ and ‘Gun in my hands, bullets in my chest’.
This interlacing of different meanings and registers, between the act of drawing his estranged father closer, using the sounds of war, while also depicting the same war as a destructive, uncanny, event which again pivots between empowerment and disempowerment is a strong representative of the album’s aims. That it is grappling with an identity for Nazar and others is both alien and innermost.
- MUBI: ‘A Slippage In Time: Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong on Krabi 2562‘
- The Guardian: ‘From bombs to beats: how Nazar summed up the sound of Angola‘
- A History of Thailand by Chris Baker & Pasuk Phongpaichit
- Intonations: A Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to Recent Times by Marissa J. Moorman
- The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon