I thought I’d start with a little story with bite, something to get your teeth into. It’s a bit of a ‘man bites dog’ story really. I often roast cashew nuts for the dinner [Doesn’t sound like a great dinner to me – Ed] [Part of the dinner – Billy]. Now I appreciate the dangers of nut allergies, made much more infuriating by all those products which don’t contain nuts but warn they are made in a factory or environment which also processes nuts. Which covers the manufacturers/processors but must make nut allergy suffers go…………..bananas (you thought I was going to say, oh, never mind). Anyway, one of the family nearly broke a tooth on a butter bean that had been packed with the cashews which I didn’t notice when roasting them. So will packets of nuts also bear an inscription that “These nuts were packaged in an environment which also processes dried beans”?
There’s an awful lot of coffee in Ethiopia
Went to see the excellent documentary, “Black Gold”, looking at the coffee industry in all its aspects. In particular we saw how Ethiopian coffee farmers, producing some of the best coffee in the world are treated; paid buttons, well pence/cents for their coffee, literally – maybe 23 US cents per kilo, so that they could not afford to send their children to school. The film did also show some of the work of a coffee cooperative, struggling to get a fairer price and to help the farmers, partly through eliminating the middlemen.
At the other end of the world, literally and figuratively, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the New York commodity market. It is so much part of what makes the world, particularly the western world, go round, and yet all the major coffee companies refused to be interviewed for the film, perhaps realising that they could not possibly justify being a rich part of a process which keeps the producers in dire poverty.
‘Fair trade’ is of course part of the answer but it can only make so much difference in an economic system which lets the rich get what they want for very little while condemning those who work far harder, in far more difficult situations, to a pittance. The real price of coffee on the world market has gone down and down for years (particularly since the end of an international price agreement in 1989), the film shows one Ethiopian farmer planting the narcotic chat instead of coffee because he and his family need to try to survive, and planting chat will get him much more money.
The injustice is well illustrated by the main figure in the documentary, Tadesse Meskela, the manager of the coffee cooperative, speaking to coffee growers and asking their knowledge of western prices for a cup of coffee. One kilo of coffee can produce 80 cups of coffee which, at US$2.90 for a café cup of coffee makes around $230 (for individual cups). The producers may only get 23 cents for that kilo. Even if you compare this with the price of a supermarket pack of coffee, the disparity is still frightening. The further injustice is shown in the documentary by the importation of western food aid to Ethiopia – something which might be totally unnecessary if farmers received a fair price, and the knock on effect of this on the Ethiopian economy. The injustice is simply staggering.
Oh, and an aside. I know that the Celtic Tiger has not been as kind to parts of the Midlands as it has to some other parts of the island, but it seems fascinating to realise that the Ethiopian unit of currency is the ‘birr’. Who would have thought that a currency with the same name as this Co Offaly town would be valued at 11 cents US? Or that Ethiopian coffee farmers would be talking of how many ‘birrs’ they could get for a kilo?
Music to my ears
I’m a bit of a ‘world music’ aficionado, ‘world music’ being a fairly loose way of describing ‘other people’s popular music’. I suppose I got into it having been keen – I still am - on more local traditional and folk music, and then moved partly beyond geographical borders and musical boundaries. A piece which sounds different and difficult can become, on listening again a few times, a firm favourite (though not necessarily! You like what you like). Not understanding lyrics can make it even more interesting and confusing at the same time (e.g. Finnish group Värttinä’s lyrics are Nordic-dark and sombre but the tone is upbeat – if you don’t speak Finnish or have a translation you would think the lyrics were much lighter in content than they are). I’m clear that I enjoy listening to it but don’t claim any especial knowledge and my spending power means I’m not a ‘fifty quid guy’ (someone who goes into the music store and spends £50 on CDs); I did however splash out on a UK-based world music magazine, Songlines, which includes a CD sampler with each issue.
The current issue (No.45) of this publication has a feature on “21 World Music Rebels”. Who would they choose? They admit it’s a fairly disparate list: “..there are many kinds of musical rebels. Most obviously there are those who have sung against a political system like Fela Kuti or Victor Jara, who paid the ultimate price in Chile in 1973. There are those who have spoken up for the rights of their own people, like Miriam Makeba in apartheid South Africa and Mari Boine, as a voice for the Sámi people. Others, like Rubén Blades or José Luis Cortés, have dressed political thoughts in seductive salsa and timba rhythms, while Cheikha Rimitti or Abida Parveen have simply flouted convention in Algeria and Pakistan. And there are those, like Astor Piazzolla, who were musical rather than political revolutionaries.” While it can be argued Victor Jara sang ‘against a political system’ it might be more accurate to say, particularly at the time of his arrest, torture and death, he sang for a political system (Allende was in power until then) and that is why the fascists targeted him.
There are few Europeans in the list, which is fair enough when you are compiling a list of world musical rebels. Manu Chao (Basque mother, Galician father, French childhood) makes it in, as does Sezen Aksu from Turkey. If you were looking closer at home I would certainly include Christy Moore and Tommy Sands in Ireland. Christy Moore has always been political since the days of opposing Carnsore nuclear plant in the ‘seventies, and has tackled a wide variety of social and political themes in his time, speaking out where others feared to tread; his political songs are too numerous to mention. The Siren’s Song is one that comes to mind in multicultural Ireland, or Cry like a man as an anthem for the ‘liberated’ man. Tommy Sands provided a voice of sanity and humanity during the Troubles in the North; songs that stand out here for me include There were roses, Daughters and sons, and Our dreams are all the same.
There are others, or songs from others which bear examination, even the Saw Doctors, many of whose songs are ‘human political’ rather than ‘political political’ is you get my meaning. Mary Coughlan’s The Maggies, Sinead O’Connor’s (There was no) Famine, Juliet Turner’s Indian Summer, Colum Sands’ Whatever you say, say nothing (that classic take on how people in a divided society communicate by not communicating) are all ones that deserve mention. I’m sure you have your favourites too, from whatever music you listen to.
Vindictiveness for Vanunu, paralysis for Palestine
The Peace People locally have been involved in campaigning for the freedom of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli whistleblower over Israel’s nuclear weapons. Now he has been sentenced to another 6 months in jail for speaking to the international media (he was not meant to by conditions of his parole). I am not the first to point out that it can be argued Vanunu did Israeli ‘security’ a favour by revealing details of their nuclear weapons capability since a ‘deterrent’ only becomes a deterrent when people know you possess it. Continuing restrictions on him, and refusing to allow him to leave, is sheer vindictiveness. If Vanunu had ‘secrets’ he wished to reveal he could have revealed them long ago, even if they are not now way out of date.
But Vanunu is only one person in the great, great tragedy enfolding in Palestine and Israel. The land grab by Israel, bolstered by ‘the wall’, is not only making space for more Israeli settlers but undermining the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. The west, going off in a huff over electoral victory by Hamas, and removing aid, has played the game of deciding who it is legitimate for Palestinans to vote for; we may or may not like the choice they made but western reaction has helped to divide Palestine (in particular the Hamas-controlled Gaza from the West Bank). Jews have the ‘right of return’ to Israel, no matter how distant the connection; millions of Palestinians (over 5 million) are stuck in exile.
To think that only a decade and a half ago Israel/Palestine, South Africa and Northern Ireland were taken as standard examples of contemporary conflict (‘compare and contrast…..), with the chances of solutions emerging often considered even. South Africa moved to democracy but not to equality. Northern Ireland moved to peace and cooperation (slowly but it looks like we are getting there, with some qualifications). The wounds in Palestine and Israel have festered and have every indication that they will get worse before they get better. Now there’s a challenge for Tony Blair to make up for another fine mess he got us into. Let us hope that it is the turn soon of Palestine and Israel to get a break for peace but the way things are going I will not be holding my breath.
Was Tuesday 5th June really the first ‘lock on’ in Irish protest history? “a team of five protesters and their support crew successfully halted Shells operation in Erris for five hours through the use of "lock-On" arm tubes. The blockade ended with the five being cut loose from each other by the fire brigade and arrested whilst a crowd of around thirty people cheered them on. Shramore is the final stop on the peat haulage route from the site of the proposed gas refinery at Bellanaboy.” See http://www.indymedia.ie/article/82900 I don’t know if it really was the first time the tactic has been used on this island. Pretty much everything else has, including a naked march by members of the White Quakers sect in the mid-nineteenth century through the streets of Dublin (my humorous comment is that, with Irish weather, if they weren’t white before they started they certainly were afterwards). And Daniel O’Connell responded to the banning of political meetings made illegal by the British government in the first half of the nineteenth century by saying “If the Government think fit to proclaim down political breakfasts….then we shall resort to a political lunch…..tea…..until suppers also be proclaimed down.” Gene Sharp in ‘The politics of Nonviolent Action’ mentioned quite a number of Irish examples of nonviolent tactics but it would make a good research project some time to make a more comprehensive listing. It would be a long one.
Ah, the summer is here and so is the rain. But then Irish summers are usually about the triumph of optimism over experience. Though things are advanced after a warm spring – I made raspberry jam before the end of June (you see, this column is not prerecorded!) which I have never done so early before. Anyway, I hope you get some time off for good behaviour [that sounds like people are given some time off to behave well rather than badly – Ed] [Behave yourself – Billy]. Summer comes but once a year, if it comes at all, and the autumn won’t be long in coming in, so make silage when the sun nearly shines [‘make hay when the sun shines’ didn’t feel quite right with a very wet June]. Hope you enjoy yer holliers, wherever you are, and C U in September, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).