Music

James Hunter: ...Believe What I Say

James Hunter fell under our noses earlier this year with his impressive old school R&B debut album. But wait! His debut album was in 1996?!? I must get with the program.


James Hunter

...Believe What I Say

Label: Hep Cat
US Release Date: 2006-08-29
UK Release Date: 2006-06-05
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Sometimes music critics can be terribly slow on the uptake. Oftentimes we scratch various parts of our anatomy, finger through various music magazines and then discover "the next big thing" -- or "the next IT", if you will. Most of the time these "newcomers" then go on a promotional blitz backed by the money of record labels that have found that special talent. Only after asking a question regarding "overnight success" do you realize said artist or group have been plying their trade for a decade or close to a decade.

James Hunter made inroads in North America this year with People Gonna Talk, a soulful, fun and appealing blend of soul, old-school rock and a pinch of swing. But more than a few people were amazed to find out that he actually released an album in 1996 entitled . . . Believe What I Say, a full 10 years before we, the anatomy scratching music hacks, clued in. But clued in we have become, and this record is easily as solid and precious as the new one he just put out. The album, which features a guest spot by Van Morrison on not one but two tracks, jumps out of the gate with the swaggering and lovely "Two Can Play", which will induce headshakes, finger snaps or both. Think of a cross between Sam Cooke and Bobby Darin and you would get the gist of this bubbly, bouncy and well-crafted horn-tinged nugget. The fact that he does it so gosh-darn easily is even more remarkable, as he tosses in some subtle but effective guitar licks.

From there, Hunter ups the boogie ante with the gorgeous "Way Down Inside", which could have made him a part of some Motown revue. With all of the appropriate shrieks and squeals at all the right times, Hunter could be mistaken as hamming things up, but he never does. The middle portion isn't a guitar driven bridge but a rollicking drum solo by Jonathan Lee. Perhaps the quality of the album originates from the fact that Hunter can slow things down without becoming as schmaltzy as Matt Dusk or some other non-Harry Connick contemporary crooner. This is evident during the stellar, down-beat and jazzy "The Very Thought Of You". Taking things down several notches allows Hunter to deliver the goods from start to finish.

Throughout the album, Hunter rarely falters from this high quality plateau. "It Ain't Funny" has that slight tinge of a Latin feel while Damian Hand and Dave Lagnado accompany him on tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone, respectfully. And this leads into the toe-tapping, old-school and fantastic "Turn On Your Love Light" that is a hip, hep and happening number thanks to Hunter being helped out by Van Morrison. To hear them give-and-take during the song is well-worth repeated replays. It's so strong that it almost makes another keeper like "Let Me Know" fall by the wayside.

Regardless of what Hunter touches, it always seems to turn up smelling like roses, or gold, or something else pleasing. He saves one of his finest performances for the tender, soulful, mid-tempo "I'll Walk Away", which shines in the same vein as Sam Cooke's "Cupid". And it fades in as easily as it fades out, making it another standout here. Unfortunately, when he tries covering "Hallelujah! I Love Her So" later on, it comes off sounding not quite as pleasing as one would hope, but rather as a run-of-the-mill version that goes nowhere in a hurry. The title track is a mild improvement but doesn't quite have the jump of earlier numbers. Fortunately, the horn-laced "Out Of Sight" gets things back on track, and in a hurry. Hunter seems right at home in this number while Hand and Lagnado then give some crisp guitar riffs and licks.

The homestretch proves that James Hunter is from a lost time and era, but he has found his niche with an extremely fine album. Just look at how he nails "Don't Step On It", in a manner that should induce hip-shaking from all ages. Need more proof? Well, Van Morrison and Hunter round things out with "Ain't Nothing You Can Do". And here the duo take a nice, lovable stroll through the track. I wish I heard this album ten years ago, but I'm glad I got it now!

8

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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.

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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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