A bit of ragga about the edges

New Ethnicities and Urban Culture
November 8, 1996

Les Back is a man with a mission, indeed multiple missions. The buzz words "racism'', "ethnicity'', "urban'', "culture'' ("multiculture'' no less) are all there - and in the title. Inside the book, others appear: "intermezzo culture'', "connective supplementarity'' and, a particular favourite, "cultural syncretism''.

So what is the objective here? Part of the book's problem is that it seems confused as to the answer to this question. After 26 pages, we discover the structure. Parts one and two are ethnographic, chronicling young lives through the lens of racism on two south London estates. Part three concerns itself with pop, or more specifically "black music''. Back dabbles in sociology, history, musicology and linguistics, but mostly anthropology.

Two compelling pen portraits are painted of the respective locales in the ethnographic sections. Frustratingly, however, the names have been changed to protect the innocent: thus a major preoccupation is in trying to work out where the two areas, rechristened "Riverview'' and "Southgate'' (no jokes about missed penalties here please), might be. The important factor differentiating them is that the former was once a "desirable'', predominantly white area, whereas the latter has historically always had a multicultural composition. We hear a multitude of voices, old and young, who recount change and decay on their patch. There are some memorable moments, such as the hapless young soul who complains that things only get done for the "effnics minority'' (sic), and Winston the black amateur basketball player with his "upper class twit'' routine (on reggae music: "Frightfully good; lots of rhythm. Good to move about to").

My urge to applaud the author for his courageous forays into high-rise hell, and for transcribing the mountains of tapes that this fieldwork must have produced, is tempered with reservations about his role as social (youth) worker throughout, which puts him in an uneasy position of authority vis-a-vis his interviewees. Although he agonises about the researcher-researched relationship, his focus is more on his whiteness than on the power dynamics of the situation.

In part three, the intrepid Back hangs out with assorted djs, mcs and bhangra types in what is the book's most interesting section. However this elevation of the fashionable seems somewhat incongruous with the worthy pram-pushing single mothers and mixed-race kids of parts one and two. After a concert given by bhangra star Apache Indian, the author celebrates "the sublime energy and joy of what it was like to bear witness to the appearance of a new transcultural congregation'', and pens an "urban poem'' which seems to boil down to "white men can't dance''.

Back is obviously brimming with ideas and has done his homework, as the comprehensive bibliography and footnotes testify. The discussions of jungle and other musics are pioneering, in academic writing at least, and interesting because he is evidently a music fan. At other times, he is perhaps too ever-present, separating incidents of fisticuffs from others admonishing young south Londoners about their racist ways. Admittedly all ethnography is autobiographical, yet here every other word seems to be "I''. The reproduction of scribblings by "the chip shop mob'' for their hidden meaning seems particularly surplus to requirements, as are the copious diagrams reducing various cultural relations to a few arrows. In all, a well-intentioned yet patchy affair.

Rupa Huq is carrying out research at Universite des Sciences Humaines, Strasbourg, for her PhD on "youth culture" at the University of East London.

New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives

Author - Les Back
ISBN - 1 85728 252 3 and 251 5
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £38.00 and £12.95
Pages - 288

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