Jean: On

Jean is a talented vocalist, arranger, composer, and producer who just might remind you how much you like washing dishes and wishing for world peace.



Label: Sony BMG
First date: 2006-04-25
US Release Date: 2006-05-16
UK Release Date: Available as import

You've heard the saying, "Music is the universal language", right? Well, I used to think it was just something musicians were expected to say, like the beauty contestants in the movie Miss Congeniality who were coached into mentioning world peace. Don't worry, I won't be quoting the lyrics to "We Are the World". But it's true what they say. Music really is universal. But only the good stuff.

I suspect this understanding always lurked in the back of my mind. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the "music is universal" message truly struck me as I listened to Jean's part-Spanish, part-English album, On. I realized an important fact: I'm not fluent in Spanish. Not even close. My attempt at a conversation would look like this (with some assistance from a high school Spanish textbook):

Other person: ¡Hola, Quentin! ¿Cómo estás? [Hello, Quentin. How are you?]

Me: Bien, gracias. ¿Y tú? [Good, thank you. And you?]

Other person: Muy bien. [Very Well]

Me (after a long pause, running out of vocabulary): Um…Me gusta lavar platos. [Um…I like to wash dishes].

Given the above fiasco, can you imagine me listening to an album of Spanish tunes? Aside from Madonna's "La Isla Bonita", Nice & Smooth's Spanish remix of "Hip Hop Junkies", and my Santana albums, I don't own any Spanish recordings (and I know that Madonna one is a stretch). Although the album itself isn't perfect, Jean's release has convinced me it's time to upgrade.

Jean's album contains three English songs ("Get There", "Spanish Holiday", and "Girls") alongside his Spanish songs ("Duele", "Juegas Con Fuego", "No Te Puedo Alcanzar", "Vamo'a Chocar", "Dulce Café", "Cruel", and "Ves"). After giving this disc plenty of rotations, I can safely say the following: (1) Jean never sings, "Me gusta lavar platos", and (2) Jean is a talented vocalist, arranger, composer, and producer. Of the album's ten original songs (the album contains two versions of the song "Get There"), Jean either wrote or co-wrote nine of them. Although he's not particularly interested in a wide range of topics, it's still an impressive feat in the pop world. As for the language barrier, Jean's voice and vocal arrangements are excellent -- it wouldn't matter if his songs were in English, Spanish, or Klingon.

As soon as you hear the guitar riff in "Duele" that opens the album, you know something intriguing is on the way. Jean's skills are apparent from his first note, quiet and subdued, and as the song progresses, he finds his full force and range. You don't have to be fluent in Spanish to know "Duele" captures feelings of pain and regret. And while the liner notes are helpful enough to include song lyrics, Jean's voice explains everything with each breath and inflection. Vocal influences abound in Jean's vocal styling -- you might say he's a cross between Chico DeBarge, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. At the same time, he personalizes his sound through his tone and arrangement, if not through subject matter.

Two songs, "Spanish Holiday" and "Dulce Café", demonstrate Jean's strength in covering familiar musical territory while customizing these sounds to his vision. First, "Spanish Holiday", a hip-hop-infused invitation for some lucky lady to join Jean's view of romance. Assisted by rhymes from rapper Epidemic, Jean relies heavily on island imagery, complete with coladas to sip, cool water, and soft sand. In fact, the sand is so good he asks his honey to treat it like a bed. The cool part about the song is how smoothly he transitions between Spanish and English, darting back and forth between languages as if to illustrate a sense of traveling and movement.

Lyrically, "Spanish Holiday" is faintly reminiscent of R. Kelly's remix of "Fiesta", Mary J. Blige's "Seven Days", and Cherrelle's "Saturday Love". The latter two songs come to mind when Jean sings these lyrics:

Don't look behind

Just think ahead for what's in store

Cause Monday and Tuesday is a Friday

and Wednesday and Thursday is a Saturday

and then on Sunday

anotha day for us to sunbathe…oh, oh, oh

Mary J.'s "Seven Days" is, of course, an altogether different song from Jean's. "Seven Days" was the story of two friends who jeopardize their friendship by sharing a night of passion. But the use of time and related cyclical themes were expressed in much the same way as in "Spanish Holiday". Mary J. sang:

Monday, a friend of mine

Tuesday, we played a game

Wednesday, you went away

Thursday, things weren't the same

On Friday, you came back

I wanted to kiss you

On Saturday

On Sunday we made love

Now what are we gonna do.

In similar fashion, "Saturday Love", a duet between Cherrelle and Alexander O'Neal, told the story of former lovers who reminisce over an affair that's been long extinguished. "I see you haven't changed", Cherrelle tells her old flame, and then she adds, coyly, "It's good to see you anyway". What R&B fans remember about the tune is the chorus, as it symbolizes the extent to which the lovers were trapped in their affair by repeating the days of the week: "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday love". "Spanish Holiday" employs the same effect, except Jean's purpose is to forever woo and charm his beloved rather than stir up past angst.

"Dulce Café", the other tune that finds Jean working an old school vibe, is built decisively on flowing horns and heavy drum beats. The song also sounds very much like Prince's "Satisfied" from his 3121 LP.

Overall, the album's best moments occur in "Duele", the romping "Juegas Con Fuego", "Vamo' A Chocar", "Spanish Holiday", and "Dulce Café". The album's downside is its predictable and repetitive subject matter. Jean has no problem letting the world know he's all about the girlies, and if you don't pick it up from the Spanish lyrics, he recorded a song in English (aptly named "Girls") to give you a hint. The repetitive hook in "Girls" ("I just wanna love you long time / Love you long time / It makes me feel high") is representative of Jean's basic message.

Likewise, "Get There" poses as an inspirational song about commitment and overcoming obstacles ("'Cause I've never heard of an open sea / Without rough waters, and full tranquility"). It's not a bad tune, but its this ocean of sentiment that threatens to drown the album's vibrant appeal. On top of that, there's an alternate demo of "Get There". The double take was intended as an acoustic version, but as its squeaky guitar becomes an irritant, it does little more than showcase Jean's voice.

By track number 11, however, we already knew he had the pipes; we just wanted to see more interesting material flowing through them. Fortunately, there's enough here to keep us curious and looking forward to Jean's next effort.


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"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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