Friday, October 9, 2009

Indie Memphis Outtakes: The Hand of Fatima

Posted By on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 1:05 PM

The late critic Robert Palmer
  • The late critic Robert Palmer
Augusta Palmer's documentary The Hand of Fatima is many things at once. It's a detailed biography of her father Robert Palmer, the New York Times popular music critic and Deep Blues author who abandoned her when she was only a month old. It's also a portrait of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the 1,300-year-old Sufi brotherhood championed by Beat-era luminaries like William S. Burroughs.

But Palmer's film begins — charmingly and most unexpectedly — like any proper Disney classic, with the animated image of a big red story book that opens to tell a tragedy-laced fairy tale about a young woman who follows a trail of crumbs from the juke joints of North Mississippi to a secluded Moroccan village looking for home, harmony, and something like a happy ending.

“That's a pretty fair description,” says Palmer, who briefly attended Rhodes college in the ’80s and holds a PhD in cinema studies from NYU's Tish School of the Arts.

Shortly after Augusta was born, her absentee father started making trips to Morocco with other freethinking pilgrims like Burroughs and jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, in order to commune with the reed and drum players of Jajouka, whose hypnotic music he called “the square root of the blues” and whose traditions could be traced directly to ancient rights of Pan. Palmer was by no means the first person to make this observation. To some degree, he was following in the footsteps of Rolling Stone Brian Jones who visited Jajouka and documented the music before him. The music moved him deeply, however, and his visits to "the mothership" — where Eastern and Western traditions collide like sperm and egg — greatly influenced both his worldview and his writing.

When Palmer died of liver failure in 1997 at the age of 52, he left Augusta a trinket that he picked up on one of his trips. This “Hand of Fatima” charm — a talisman of protection against demonic possession and the evil eye— captured her imagination and eventually inspired her to visit Jajouka in an attempt to better understand the spirits of sound and substance that possessed her father.

Robert Palmer wasn't merely a critic, he was also an accomplished woodwind player whose first band, The Insect Trust , blended warbling psychedelic rock with traditional American folk forms. The result was a dreamy, literate answer to Jefferson Airplane that laid the foundation for groups as varied as Catapilla and the Cowboy Junkies.

In the years before his death he could often be found playing alongside Memphis musicians such as Clint Wagner and Charlie Wood in a proto-jam band called The Scam.

As Hand of Fatima points out, Robert Palmer had a Virgil complex. Like the Roman storyteller who escorted Dante through Hell in The Inferno, he saw himself as a poetic figure able to bring very different cultures together using music as a bridge. He was as comfortable leading Ornette Coleman to Jajouka as he was leading writers and rock stars through through North Mississippi to meet bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, two artists Palmer helped to rescue from obscurity.

The Hand of Fatima juxtaposes great sadness and confusion with moments of joy, celebration, and revelation. It's a sophisticated and often surprising documentary mixing animation and live action with archival footage and interviews with artists such as Yoko Ono, Genesis P-Orridge, and Donovan Leitch. It's at once a deeply personal story and an entertaining essay on how we make our myths and they in turn make us.

The Hand of Fatima screens on Sunday, October 11th, at 5:45 PM.

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