Music

Extra Golden: Thank You Very Quickly

More than a charming throwback, this is a power statement made all the more remarkable when one considers the political and geographic obstacles the band continues to overcome.


Extra Golden

Thank You Very Quickly

Label: Thrill Jockey
UK Release Date: 2009-03-09
US Release Date: 2009-03-10
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Ian Eagleson wasn't the first Western musician to trek to Africa, but he might be the Western musician who took his visit the most seriously. It was far from a mere jaunt aimed at adding a little extra musical flavor to his band Golden's recordings. Eagleson traveled as part of his doctoral research into the music of East Africa. In 2000, while in Kenya for that research, he began documenting the popular, guitar-heavy form of dance music known as benga. While in Africa, he was assisted by Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari, members of a Kenyan band called Orchestra Extra Solar Africa.

Eagleson returned to East Africa in 2004, bringing a portable studio and bandmate Alex Minoff (more famously of Weird War) with him. The two Chicago-based garage rockers decided to record with Jagwasi and Omari. Extra Golden was born.

Jagwasi died before the result of their initial sessions – Ok-Oyot System – were released. The tragedy ensured that Eagleson, Minoff and Omari redoubled their efforts to keep the music alive. They recruited Opiyo Bilongo to help record 2007's Hera Ma Nono. Extra Golden made their first global tour last year, before working on Thank You Very Quickly, their third album.

From their history of playing tiny clubs in Washington and Chicago, Eagleson and Minoff have always held that tight quarters lead to tight grooves. And so Thank You Very Quickly was recorded in a single day. The group set up in the hallway and laundry room of Eagleson's parents' house and recorded half a dozen danceable anthems, all just over the five minutes mark, that were written in the wake of political, social and economic upheaval in Kenya. The album may have been recorded in Chicago, but Nairobi remains the band's focus. Despite their recent global tour, Kenya is clearly Extra Golden's musical and spiritual home.

"Piny Yore Yore" is inspired by the songs Kenyan children are often heard singing. The title track expresses heartfelt thanks to all the group's fans who made donations to keep Extra Golden's families safe and well amidst Kenya's post-election violence of early 2008. In the song, Eagleson explains their plight simply and succinctly, "so many people split up, driven from home, under cover of the night / no food, no money, just left all alone to choose between their life and a fight." Despite the somber lyrics that detail in two languages the tragedy of the political situation in Kenya, it's still an ass-shaking dancefloor behemoth.

"Fantasies Of The Orient" is the album's most jaunty moment, a track with a real spring in its step, where Eagleson imagines, "a life in the jungle just to see like monkeys do" and decides that you don't need to be a monkey swinging through the jungle to be happy. On "Ukimwi", Onyango Wuod Omari, usually employed solely on drums, steps out to the front for the first time and delivers a passionate plea to destroy AIDS. Even this, however, is played in a cheerful, joyous manner.

As with the previous two albums, this isn't an attempt at playing true benga music. Eagleson and Minoff's Blues Explosion affectations never stray too far from the surface, but there's a very strong African feel throughout. While the songs are about the difficulties of life, the music contains the lightness and joy that is common to so much African music. The album's length, the organic guitar tones and live-sounding drums all recall the pre-digital age. But this is more than a charming throwback. It's a power statement made all the more remarkable when one considers the political and geographic obstacles the band continues to overcome.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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