Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

Toumani and Sidiki

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate on stage at St Georges Hall Concert Room

News out of Mali has been so dreadful this past two years that there was something extra-celebratory about the concert this Tuesday evening in the elegant, gilded surroundings of St Georges Hall Concert Room in which the world’s greatest kora player Toumani Diabate performed duets with his son Sidiki, the latest in a family of griots whose lineage stretches back 71 generations, father to son.

Toumani (who speaks pretty fluent English picked up when he lived in London for a while in the 1980s) didn’t mention the crisis that struck Mali in 2012 and 2013 when jihadist forces gained control of two-thirds of a country rich in music and ancient learning, and distinguished by a culture rooted in a relaxed and tolerant Sufi Islamic tradition.  But he was in Liverpool to play music from Toumani and Sidiki, the new album which he regards as a contribution to the healing process in post-conflict Mali.  It’s a collection of very old, recently rediscovered kora pieces which Toumani chose to give new titles, honouring people and institutions that he believes played a crucial role in preserving Mali’s dignity.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Sidiki came on stage first to play a solo piece, suggesting that already at 24 years of age, he has already absorbed much through his apprenticeship to his father. In addition to being the latest addition to the celebrated Diabate musical dynasty, back home in Mali, Sidiki is a star in his own right having  established a huge following as a hip-hop musician and record producer.  As a teenager he enrolled in the National Institute for the Arts in Bamako, taking up drums and learning digital recording techniques, and in 2013 – as his father proudly informed the Liverpool audience – he won the Malian Hip Hop Award, being voted Mali’s best beat-maker.

Like his father, Sidiki has been outspoken in defence of his country’s freedom. In 2012 he teamed up with rapper Iba One to record ‘On Veut La Paix’ (‘We Want Peace’), an all-star rap hymn to peace in Mali, released as the jihadist forces were outlawing music in the areas they controlled in the north of the country.

After performing the opening number, Sidiki assisted his father, leaning on a stick, to the seat beside him. For the rest of the concert father and son – who performed together in the UK for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall last year –  treated us to a dazzling display of virtuosity on the two koras. What we saw and heard comprises the essence of West African music and culture, as Andy Morgan observed in a great piece on their partnership in last Friday’s Guardian:

Take the bone-dry shell of a large gourd, a straight length of rosewood and a piece of cow or antelope hide, combine them with 200 years of craftsmanship and 21 strings, and you have the kora: sub‑SaharanAfrica’s most sophisticated native instrument. Then take a man or woman born to the task of reciting epic poetry from memory and picking the ripest words out of the air to praise or placate – now you have a griot: the hereditary bard of West Africa. Put kora and griot together, and you have the foundations of West African music and culture.

This is the classical music of West Africa, exquisite and delicate, and each player dazzled with cascading lines of melody. The communication between the two performers was so intense that at times it was difficult to tell that two instruments were being played. The interplay between father and son was especially marked in rhythmic passages where each vied with the other to drive the music forward.  The tunes they played were from their new CD Toumani and Sidiki, including this, the opening track on the album, ‘Hamadoun Toure’:

The St Georges audience responded warmly to each number with lengthy applause. Towards the end Toumani spoke for several minutes about being the descendent of 70 generations – ‘stretching back father to son, father to son’, while Sidiki, speaking in French and with a smile on his face, spoke of the complications of his apprenticeship with Toumani – ‘his father, and at the same time his master’.

Toumani made some sharp comments about Europe’s relationship with Africa by way of introduction to their final number – the delicate and lovely tune from the new album which he named ‘Lampedusa’, a moving tribute to the 360 migrants from Libya who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 while the album was being recorded in London.  Whilst the European media promote a distorted picture of life in Africa as consisting of no more that starvation and war, equally Africans gain an unrealistic impression of Europe as a place where there is no poverty, no one goes hungry, no-one is homeless, and there are jobs for all.

At the conclusion of ‘Lampedusa’ Toumani and Sidiki left the stage to rapturous applause.

Here are two short videos from World Circuit Records in which Toumani and Sidiki talk about  recording the new album:



Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

A Quran from the 12th century in Timbuktu

A 12th century Quran: one of the manuscripts that comprise Timbuktu’s heritage

There is the bravery of those who save other humans from certain death (this week, for example, Nicholas Winton, the man who rescued 669 children – mostly Jewish – from almost certain death in the Nazi concentration camps, celebrated his 105th birthday).  And then there is the bravery of those who, at great personal risk to themselves, save irreplaceable books or other cultural treasures from being destroyed by armed forces driven by ideologies which have no interest in freedom of expression.

Such is the story, told in today’s Guardian, of the brave Malians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts out of Timbuktu after the city had fallen to Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida in the civil war two years ago.

Guardian international editor Charlie English describes the terror that came to Timbuktu in late 2012:

It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.

The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. “When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it,” Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. “One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis,” she says. “My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives’ sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off.” Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu’s citizens.

Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site, the cultural and spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa.  Many cultural artefacts  were destroyed or damaged during the first week of the occupation –  the shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces, priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt.  It was then that Abdel Haïdara and a group of brave and dedicated assistants decided to act.

Haïdara manages the largest private library in the city, a library he can trace back to a 16th-century ancestor.  He also runs an organisation, Savama-DCI, that represents other private manuscript collections. Charlie English recounts the dramatic and inspiring story of how Haïdara and his assistants succeeded in saving almost 400,000 manuscripts, moved in thousands of lockers, each of which was the size of a small trunk.

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Timbuktu now may be a sleepy place threatened not just by war but also by the encroaching sands of the Sahara – but as Charlie English recounts, from the early 14th to late 16th centuries Timbuktu was famous for its wealth and as a centre for Islamic teaching:

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city’s market.

Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn’t afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.

In his Description of Africa, published in 1550, the traveller Leo Africanus marvelled that in the bustling markets of Timbuktu, under the towers of its majestic mosques, the richest traders were booksellers.

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

I recall seeing, several years ago, a BBC 4 documentary in which Aminatta Forna told the story of the lost libraries of Timbuktu and their long-hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscript.  She spoke, too, of Timbuktu’s university, founded around the same time as Oxford, and of the legacy of learning preserved in the manuscripts of Timbuktu – the classical Greek heritage copied and preserved in the middle ages, the history and laws of Mali and Songhai, chronicles of the families of Timbuktu, the poetry and stories of north Africa.  Yet when European empires scrambled for Africa in the 19th century, Africans were regarded as primitive illiterates, with no history or literature.

The whole film can be seen on YouTube:

Reading the Guardian’s account of how the manuscripts of Timbuktu were saved brought to mind a trio of posts in the archive of this blog.  In The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, I wrote of another documentary shown on BBC TV in 2012 that told the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo. That magnificent film can also be seen on YouTube:

In An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word, I wrote of seeing, in Manchester’s John Rylands Library, the project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.

In the third post I discussed Melvyn Bragg’s week-long In Our Time special, The Written World, broadcast over one week on BBC Radio 4.  Bragg’s thesis was that writing was the greatest human invention, and the focus of the series was the technology for recording words – tablets, manuscripts and books, each of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

– Emily Dickinson

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Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore

The first time I saw Rokia Traore live was in 2004.  I’d travelled to Oldham to see her perform in the tiny back room of a pub. The night before, in Edinburgh, she had been presented with the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award (Africa section). It was a memorable evening: the intimate setting, an acoustic set with Rokia’s exquisite, breathy vocals  accompanied only by a guy on water calabash and a young woman who joined her on vocals and in some wild dancing.

Monday night’s gig at the Royal Northern College of Music couldn’t have been more different: a large hall, packed with an enthusiastic audience clearly familiar with the five albums that Rokia now has to her name. And the sound: apart from one delicate number during the encores, this was a hard-rocking show.  Currently touring Britain to support her new album Beautiful Africa, Traore has assembled a band that blasts out a driving hard rock  sound, albeit that her songs and elements of the music draw deeply from Malian tradition.

Beautiful Africa is a rock album, celebrated as such by Traore herself. Of late, she has been wedded to the sound of an old Gretsch guitar, a sound unfurled on her gorgeous 2008 album Tchamantché.  On that and the latest CD, Malian n’gouni, classical harp, and kora are blended with the Gretsch, as well as acoustic guitars, layered in staggered rhythms with snares, drum kit, and percussion. On disc, the instrumentation is sparse, contrasting the Gretsch with subtle percussion effects or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been a key element of her sound.

In this live performance in Manchester, though, much of that subtlety was lost in a barrage of sixties-style rock guitar riffs. With her Gretsch loud in the mix, Rokia would  repeat a simple guitar figure endlessly through most songs.  Meanwhile, Stefano Pilia rolled out soaring guitar solos reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour – and even threw in a few passages of wah-wah to reinforce the classic rock feel.  That this is the sound Rokia has been pursuing was confirmed in an interview she gave to Pitchfork magazine:

Of course the folk guitar is the one I play very often, but I wanted a more electric sound. Not electric like the hard rock happening today. I wanted something more 1970s, 60s, 50s, and, of course, because of rock, my choice came very quickly to the Gretsch guitar. I tried it on one song and I was really satisfied, and finally all the rest of the album was composed around the sound of the Gretsch.

I do not deny the quality of the musicianship demonstrated at the Manchester show: every member of the band was on top form, from the  female bass guitarist (whose name I did not catch) to drummer Seb Rochford, the brilliant ngoni player Mamah Diabaté, and backing singers Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou. But I have to say that hearing the varied moods of songs from Beautiful Africa and the previous album Tchamantché uniformly steam-hammered by riffy repetitions of heavy electric guitar –  well, I felt something had been lost.  If there had only been some variation, a little space opened up in the aural landscape.

Pitchfork magazine described Traoré’s 2009 record, Tchamantché, as ‘a guitar album of a particularly understated bent…hauntingly spare yet ridiculously well-defined, the timbre and tone of every string presented in perfect resolution’. Here, though, the intricate, delicate instrumentation of songs like ‘Zen’ from Tchamantché and ‘Melancolie’ from the latest album were submerged beneath the attack of the killer guitar riffs.  Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘Melancolie’ is not a gloomy song, quite the opposite in fact.  But its inspirational sentiments, dedicated to all that brings joy and happiness seemed quite lost in its new arrangement that made me think a little of Bob Dylan machine-gunning his lyrics into oblivion on the live Hard Rain album:

Melancholy dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my joyful dreams

Melancholy sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

Faithful companion
Of my solitude

Melancholy, I don’t want your pain
Whirling in the fissures of my heart
Your tears that tarnish the colours of my soul
I long for laughter that explodes in sparks
Dreams that twirl and poems recite
And I’ll be gentler than the most beautiful of all joys

Melancholy, dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my dreamed of joys

Melancholy, sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

The set consisted entirely of songs from the last two albums – songs such as ‘Sikey’, ‘Ka Moun Ke’, ‘Tuit Tuit’, ‘Kouma’ and the title track from Beautiful Africa on which Traore addresses the unrest in her Malian homeland with impassioned words sung as wah-wah guitar and ngoni collide.

Although based in Bamako, Traoré has, for her son’s safety, temporarily relocated to Paris due to the current conflict in Mali.  It’s impossible for a musician from Mali to make a record today without referencing the terrible chaos and violence that has blighted the once-peaceful country since the beginning of 2012:

Malians, let’s conquer the pride that’s rife within us,
It only leads to pain.
Disrespecting our fellow being only leads to disharmony
These battles in which everyone thinks only of themselves
Bring nothing but destruction
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Battered, wounded Africa,
Why do you keep the role of the beautiful naive deceived
Yet, my faith does not know failure
More intense than ever,
My faith does not know failure
I love you beautiful Africa
Afrique je t’aime
I love you beautiful Africa
You are beautiful Africa
Hei hei héhé hei hé
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Performing title track from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

The evening had begun with Rokia playing the exquisite guitar figure from ‘Dounia’, the opening track on Tchamantché. When she begins to sing you realise that where most female Malian vocalists tend to sing rather stridently, Rokia’s voice is intimate and almost understated.  She’s the daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and studied sociology in Brussels before embarking on her musical career. She sings mainly in her native languages, French and Bambara.

Rokia’s music draws upon Mali’s traditions, but increasingly on American rock as well – music she has listened to throughout her life. In the Pitchfork interview, she explained:

I can’t do Malian traditional music because I don’t have that training. There are some specific schools for that, and I didn’t have the chance to learn how to do pure Malian traditional music – by traditional I mean not just classical, but music that is danced to and listened to in Mali today. I think this position that I have is suitable for me, because the interesting thing for me is to put together all my influences and all my experiences I got through my travelling with my father. My influences are jazz, blues, European classical music; they are rock music and pop music. So many kinds of music.

Her love of jazz – and especially of Billie Holiday – was referenced during the encores when she sang ‘Gloomy Sunday’.  Just before she recorded Tchamantché, Rokia was involved in a project called Billie & Me, with other vocalists, including Dianne Reeves: ‘I love jazz music and blues, and I used to listen to her,’ she told Pitchfork. Her own version of The Man I Love’ ended up on Tchamantché.

Towards the end of the show Rokia remarked, rather grumpily, that we were ‘a quiet audience’. We probably were – it’s not easy to let your hair down when seated in the RNCM’s concert hall.  But then Rokia and the band did a phenomenal job, getting everyone on their feet, clapping and stamping to a Malian-style praise song in which she name-checked and introduced the band members by name – as well as reciting in Bambara what sounded like their artistic cv’s. The number, which last for close on 20 minutes, just kept building momentum and energy, and brought the show to a tumultuous conclusion.

The encores included the aforementioned ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung acappella, the only song led by Rokia on acoustic guitar, before a final, rousing number with scorching dance moves by Rokia, Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou.

Performing ‘Ka Moun Ke’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Edinburgh, 811.13

Performing ‘Sikey’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

My determination is strong
My aim is clear to me.
Without artifice or malice,
Without ever hankering for the other summits
That tower over my own limits.
Accompanied by this unknown destiny,
Borne along by my convictions,
I advance with sure step towards the answers
Scrupulously hidden away
Behind the enigmas of life.

Hé sikey (let’s talk openly!)
Your senseless hate will change nothing.

Closing moments of the show, Edinburgh, 8.11.13

Rokia Traoré: Roots live in 2011

In November and December 2011, Rokia performed a limited series of thirteen acoustic concerts, ‘a magnificent journey where voice and strings made tribute to the Mandingo tradition, a tribute to her own roots’.  This full-length concert video shows a different Rokia Traoré to the one I witnessed the other night in Manchester.  She’s joined by Mamah Diabaté (ngoni), Mamadyba Camara (kora), Habib Sangare (Bolon), Virginia Dembele (chorus), Fatim Kouyate (vocals) and Bintou Soumbounou (chorus).

Rokia Traoré: live at The Festival Les Suds, Arles, August 2013

A full-length performance from the Beautiful Africa tour last summer, with some of the same band members.

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Mali: the music cries out

Mali: the music cries out

Oumou Sangare

Oumou Sangare

I’ve had it mind on several occasions in the past 12 months to write something about my love for the music of Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries that for two decades had been held up as a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa until last January when an armed insurgency resulted in Islamist forces gaining control of vast swathes of the north of the country, including the ancient cultural centre of Timbuktu.  Earlier this week, before the French military intervention, Mali appeared to be on the brink of dissolution as Islamist forces pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

This morning, The Guardian has an article by Robin Denselow (Mali music ban by Islamists ‘crushing culture to impose rule’) that will have been read with interest – and dread – by anyone who has been energised and enthralled by the astonishing cavalcade of wonderful musicians who have emerged from this land. Denselow begins by observing:

Nowhere does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali. It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali currently controlled by Islamic rebel groups.

He goes on to summarize the global impact of Mali’s musicians:

Malian musicians have become household names in the west. The list is remarkable, from the late Ali Farka Touré to the soulful Salif Keita, from Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the kora, to the bravely experimental Rokia Traoré. Then there’s the rousing desert blues of Tinariwen, who have performed alongside the Rolling Stones.

There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangaré, and the rousing, commercially successful African pop fusion of Amadou & Mariam.

These musicians, with varied, distinctive styles, have educated western audiences about Africa and their country’s ancient civilisation, and the way in which traditional families of musicians, the griots, had acted as advisers to the rulers and guardians of the country’s history, and kept alive an oral tradition for generation after generation.

And yet, Denselow writes, ‘the Islamic rebel groups are trying to wipe out this ancient culture’ – and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.  He quotes Manny Ansar, director of Mali’s celebrated Festival in the Desert, at a recent censorship conference in Oslo as stating that the Islamic militias are banning music in order ‘to impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them’. ‘They are attacking the traditional chiefs and musicians. And they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old.’  Young people have been stopped from listening to music and families have had their televisions smashed for watching music shows, but music was still being played underground, Ansar said.

Denselow reports that Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara has just finished a new song and video, Peace, which will be released in Bamako on Thursday. The aim was to promote peace and ‘show that … we want one Mali’.  Outside Mali, other musicians are involved in an international campaign to promote the culture of their battered country. Rokia Traoré, arguably the most adventurous female singer in Africa, is currently on tour in Australia. She explains: “I can just keep going and doing the best in my work, to try to make people think good things about Mali and see good things from Mali.”

So, here are some good things from Mali, beginning with a track from one of the first Malian albums I bought, Salif Keita’s Soro from 1987, and followed by a song from the golden era of the state-subsidised bands of the 1970s, ‘Mandjou’ by by Les Ambassadeurs, also featuring a young Salif Keita:

Last, one of my favourite pieces of music of any description: ‘Djorolen’ sung by Oumou Sangare.  Sangare is the voice of feminism in West Africa. In a region where polygamy is the norm, and women are often viewed as the property of their husbands, Sangare’s music has come to symbolize the struggle against gender imbalance. In addition to their social content, Sangare’s songs are full of the joy and spirit that the traditional rhythms of Mali have been communicating for generations. The lyrics translate in part:

The worried songbird,
Cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
The worried songbird,
cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
For those of us who have no father,
Her thoughts go out to them.

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For these times: the portrait of Ayuba Sueiman Diallo

For these times: the portrait of Ayuba Sueiman Diallo

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

‘You can now say things about Muslims, in polite society and even among card-carrying liberal lefties, that you cannot say about any other group or minority.’Those were the words of Mehdi Hasan, writing a final comment piece for The Guardian on Tuesday.  They came to mind as I stood before the remarkable portrait of an 18th century West African Muslim that is on display for a limited period at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

William Hoare’s 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is the earliest British oil painting of a freed slave – and the first portrait to honour an African subject and Muslim as an individual and equal.  The Museum has given this one-picture exhibition the title, Faith, Slavery and Identity, noting that ‘Djallo had a lasting impact on our understanding of West Afrjcan culture, Black identity and the Islamic faith, but his life raises some uncomfortable questions’.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born into a family of Muslim imams in West Africa in 1701. In 1731, while on a trading mission to the River Gambia to sell two black slaves to the English ship Arabella, Diallo was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported to Maryland where he was made to work on a tobacco plantation. Diallo (known also as Job ben Solomon) escaped, was caught and imprisoned but permitted to write a letter to his father that came to the attention of James Oglethorpe, Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe was so moved by the letter that he arranged for Diallo’s purchase and passage to England.

Diallo arrived in London in 1733. Recognised as a deeply pious and educated man, Diallo mixed with high and intellectual society and was bought out of slavery by public subscription.  His portrait was painted that same year by William Hoare, an accomplished artist, who painted many members of Georgian high society. Diallo was himself a high-status, educated and wealthy individual from a family of Muslim clerics. He was born in Bundu (now on the Senegal-Mali border) in West Africa, and as well as his native language, was fluent in Arabic and later learned English while enslaved.  Hoare’s painting depicts Diallo as a man of intelligence, character and compassion and was made at the time when there was a new interest in Islamic culture and faith in Britain, a reflection, perhaps, of  more tolerant values during the Enlightenment.

Through the publication by Thomas Bluett of his Memoirs in 1734, Diallo had an important and lasting impact on an understanding of West African culture, black identity and the Islamic faith. Bluett was on the same ship that brought Diallo to England, and in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, concluded that Diallo was ‘no common Slave’.

Freed from slavery with money raised by public subscription, arrangements were made for Diallo’s return to Africa – a rarity for victims of slavery. Returning to his home town,  Diallo learned that during his absence his father had died, the country had been ravaged by war and his wife had remarried.

Despite his own life having been blighted by slavery, Diallo resumed his own slave trading activities.  An interpretation plaque at the Slavery Museum comments:

Slaves were an accepted part of most African Islamic societies. Many were prisoners of war, although exceptions could occasionally be made if prisoners converted to Islam. The Koran proclaimed that to free a slave was a most praiseworthy act, but although Islam arguably promoted the more benign treatment of slaves (women were generally not separated from their children, and masters did not have the power of life and death), human rights of Muslims and non-Muslims were sometimes still abused.

Three years ago, the National Portrait Gallery raised £100,000 from private donors and won support from Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund to acquire William Hoare’s portrait of Diallo but were beaten at auction by the Qatar Museum Authority.  A temporary export bar prevented the portrait being whisked abroad and now a 5 year cooperative agreement has been reached to lend the painting to the NPG. The Qatar Museum Authority are supporting a programme of conservation and research on the work in London, and the painting will tour the UK before being exhibited in Doha in 2013.

Nearby, the Museum currently has on display this painting by William Windus, entitled Black Boy (c 1844), from the Walker Art Gallery collection. A Museum caption notes:

It could be read as an example of how European artists sometimes treated black people as picturesque subject matter. However, it can also, perhaps more convincingly, be seen as a straightforward realistic portrait.  Windus was born in Liverpool and trained at the Liverpool Academy Schools. This poor boy dressed in rags is traditionally associated with a touching story with a suitably happy ending. He is said to have crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway and been found by Windus on the steps of the Monument Hotel in Liverpool. Windus is then supposed to have employed him as an errand boy. This painting was put in the window of a frame-maker’s shop.  A sailor relative of the boy saw it, found the boy and took him back to his parents. It is unknown whether this story is true or not.

Windus’ image of picturesque poverty would have had a strong appeal in Victorian England. It is also, however, a strikingly direct picture of a boy, shown in a matter-of-fact pose. It does not have any ‘humorous’ props or symbolic details that often accompanied images of black people from the time suggesting lowly status or social inferiority. It is simply an image of a poor boy, similar in style to many other images of the ‘lower classes’ produced at this time.

The Museum adds these notes about Liverpool’s early Black presence:

There have been people of African descent in Liverpool since at least the 1700s.  Some Africans were sold in the town in the 1760s and 1770s but very few enslaved Africans were brought to Liverpool directly from Africa. A number of merchants brought slaves from the West Indies to work as servants in their homes.  Some African chiefs also sent their sons to be educated here and in the 1790s over 50 were at school in Liverpool.  With the development of the palm oil trade after 1807, African seafarers were increasingly employed to crew the ships. Many of them settled on the outskirts of the town, in the area we know as Liverpool 8.

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Wangari Maathai: I will be a hummingbird

The elites have become predators, self-serving and only turning to people when they need them. We can never all be equal, but we can ensure we do not allow excessive poverty or wealth. Inequality breeds insecurity.
– Wangari Maathai

John Vidal’s obituary for Wangari Maathai in The Guardian today is a stirring account of the life and achievements of an exemplary woman. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and the first Nobel laureate to make the link between keeping peace and conserving the environment:

The state of any country’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace.

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is led by and for rural Kenyan women. What began with planting a few tree seedlings grew to forever reshape the political landscape of Kenya and the world. Maathai trained thousands of women on everything from water conservation to civic leadership, and to date, they’ve planted 35 million trees in a country devastated by deforestation. Along the way, they also helped overthrow a dictatorship.

Vidal observes that initially, the Green Belt movement’s tree-planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace.  However, it became clear to Maathai that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without effective democracy. The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya and a way of challenging widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement:

The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree-planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree.

Vidal begins by recalling his last conversation with Maathai:

For a young Kikuyu girl growing up in the early 1940s, the small village of Ihithe, in the lush central highlands of Kenya, was next to perfect. There were no books or gadgets in the houses, but there were leopards and elephants in the thick forests around, clean water, rich soils, and food and work for everyone. “It was heaven. We wanted for nothing. … Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live.”

And you can hear the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings when you read that after graduating from high school in 1959, she won a scholarship to study in the US, as part of the ‘Kennedy airlift’ in which 300 Kenyans – including Barack Obama’s father – were chosen to study at American universities in 1960.

After her return from the US, Maathai became increasingly involved in environmental causes and activism.  In 1977, the first ‘Green Belt’ action in Nairobi instigated what became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged women throughout Kenya to plant tree nurseries in their villages, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

Presenting her with the Peace Prize in 2004, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking  ‘a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular’ and for serving ‘as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights’.

Elsewhere in The Guardian, John Vidal has written of Maathai’s fierce denunciation of the rich north in a talk she gave on a visit to Britain in 1988:

The top of the pyramid is blinded by insatiable appetites backed by scientific knowledge, industrial advancement, the need to acquire, accumulate and over-consume. The rights of those at the bottom are violated every day by those at the top.

Her disdain for the economics promoted by Britain, the World Bank, and the west was huge:

The economic and political systems are designed to create more numbers, population pressures show no sign of waning, deforestation and desertification continue. The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs.

Wangari Maathai planting a tree

In a tribute on the BBC website, Richard Black, Environment Correspondent, writes:

It’s not just planting trees – it’s the reasons why trees are planted, it’s the social side of how the tree-planting works, it’s the political work that goes alongside tree-planting, and it’s the vision that sees loss of forest as translating into loss of prospects for people down the track.

There is, in some parts of the world, a backlash now against these ideas.  Every couple of days an email comes into my inbox asserting that the way to help poorer countries develop is to get them to exploit their natural resources as quickly and deeply as possible with no regard for problems that may cause.

Organisations promoting this viewpoint are not, to my knowledge, based in the developing world but in the Western capitals that might make use of the fruits of such exploitation – cheaper wood, cheaper oil, cheaper metals. It is the opposite of sustainable.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is a documentary film that tells the dramatic story of a woman whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy.  YouTube has a clip:

It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.
– Wangari Maathai

Here’s an example of Wangari Maathai’s inspirational message – ‘I will be a hummingbird’ from the film, Dirt: The Movie:


Baaba Maal: Tales from the Sahel

I went over to the RNCM in Manchester last night to see the event billed as ‘An Evening with Baaba Maal – Tales from the Sahel’.  The music – an intimate performance by Baaba himself, with Jim Palmer on drums or additional guitar and Mamadou Sarr on percussion –  was sensational.  But the format of the evening was a little disappointing, with a vociferous section of the audience becoming pretty restless after a while.

The advance details for the event stated that ‘Tales from the Sahel will feature ancient Fula stories from Senegal; a discussion between Baaba Maal and the UK playwright and journalist Kwame Kwei-Armah about how such mythological tales have led to the inspiration that is modern Africa; and performances of songs that have emerged from these two apparently divergent strands’.   But there were no ancient Fula stories and the ‘conversation’ between Kwame Kwei-Armah and Baaba was far from revalatory, especially for an audience that was pretty evidently very well-informed about Baaba Maal and his music.

The stage was set with a table and chair for each of the two conversationalists, flanked by Maal’s guitars, Palmer’s drums and Sarr’s djembe, sabar and water drum.  Kwame Kwei-Armah kicked off by saying the evening would consist of an unprepared conversation betwee himself and Baaba Maal, explaining that they had met in Dakar last year when he was artistic director of the 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, and that the inspiration for the evening’s format came when Kwame spent an evening at Baaba’s house there. As the night went on, the house bustled with friends and acquaintances dropping by, engaging in animated, freewheeling discussions about everything under the sun, with Baaba, fluent in a variety of African and European languages, translating from one to the other for the benefit of those present.

The trouble with this element of the evening was that Kwame Kwei-Armah’s chat with Maal wasn’t especially probing or revealing for anyone who has perused their Baaba Maal CD notes or read interviews with him.  Too much of it was along the lines of Armah saying things like, ‘what a fantastic gig – me on stage with the great Baaba Maal, and getting paid for it!’  We did learn about the important influence of Baaba’s mother (who sang for pleasure at weddings and other ceremonies) and his father’s very different musical preferences.  He was a fisherman, he sang religious songs, and was fundamentally opposed to the idea of a son of his singing popular songs.  His mother also influenced Baaba Maal’s views about women in African society – her experience of polygamy was an unhappy one, as is that of most women in polygamous marriages, according to Maal.

The conversation also made plain the enormous debt that Baaba Maal feels he owes to his lifelong friend and mentor Mansour Seck. Since his father was a fisherman, Baaba Maal was expected to become a fisherman as well. However, under the influence of  Mansour Seck, Maal devoted himself to learning music from his mother and his school’s headmaster. In 1974, after his baccalauréat he chose to study music while also taking a fine arts course in Dakar. In this way he was able to convince his father that he was training to become a teacher – albeit a teacher of music. However, he and his old friend Mansour Seck and were soon recording musical performances at the radio station.  He persuaded the stationa announcer not to mention his name, but eventually his performances became so popular that, one day, the announcer let slip his name – and his father found out.

Little of this would be news to most of those in the Manchester audience who, an hour into the session, with the musical interludes short and the conversation extended, were getting restive, with calls for ‘more music!’  Armah seemed to recognise the way things were going, abandoned a promised audience Q&A with Maal, and handed over to the musicians.  They completed the show with three or four numbers that moved from contemplative passages in which Baaba Maal’s voice soared above his acoustic guitar, to storming finales driven by Mamadou Sarr’s thunderous percussion.  Sections of the audience shook free of the format’s shackles and danced – one or two joining the musicians on stage, where Sarr whipped them to a frenzy.

Baaba Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, in the Fouta province, Senegal. That makes nearly 60 – something very difficult to believe, with his still-youthful appearance.   He is of the Toucouleur or Haalpulaar (pulaar-speaking) people, of northern Senegal, sings primarily in Pulaar and is a deeply-committed promoter of the traditions of the Pulaar-speaking peoples who live on either side of the Senegal River in the ancient Senegalese kingdom of Futa Tooro.  He spoke passionately about his home town, which has featured in several of his songs.

In 1982 Baaba Maal completed his musical training in Paris at the Conservatoire. Mansour Seck joined him and they began touring in various European countries. In Brussels they recorded their first album, Djam Leelii.  I can still remember when the album was released in 1989 in the UK, bringing home the vinyl lp with its emblematic cover featuring a room, photographed through a doorway, that contained traditional wooden furniture and a modern matt black stereo system, red LED glowing.  I recall the moments when the first notes of the opening track, Lam Tooro, flooded the room.  Like the rest of the album, it was beautifully hypnotic, with the two musicians’ guitars and Baaba Maal’s ethereal voice, accented by dabs of African percussion, producing pure magic. It remains one of my most treasured albums, amd Baaba Maal’s best in my view.

In July 2003, Baaba Maal was appointed as a Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Programme. As part of his role, the musician-ambassador devoted a significant amount of time and energy to raising young people’s awareness of AIDS and HIV. In 2006, Maal organised the first Les Blues du Fleuve (River Blues) festival in Senegal. The festival has become an annual spring-time event, linking the countries that border the Senegal River and involving all branches of the arts from music to painting, crafts and public lectures.

Baaba Maal recalls his childhood in Podor (BBC World Service)

Baaba Maal: Baayo

Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leelii

Mamadou Sarr with Baaba Maalperforming in Ireland in 2009


Remmy Ongala: songs for the poor man

When the first wave of what came to be categorised as ‘world music’ hit the UK in the early 1980s, it resulted in leading record companies in the UK releasing some outstanding albums of African music. Some were added to my record collection, among them Baaba Maal’s Djam Leelii, Salif Keita’s Soro and King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music, and two Sound d’Afrique compilations released on the Virgin record label.  One album I played repeatedly was Agwaya by Orchestra Makassy from Tanzania, long since out of print.  The music capered and glittered, driven on by the dazzling lead guitar of Remmy Ongala.

Ongala had been born in Zaire, and had experienced a tough childhood;  both his parents had died by the time he was nine.  After building a reputation as a musician in Zaire, Ongala moved to Tanzania.  In 1980 Orchestra Makassy, a band from Dar Es Salaam, got together in a Nairobi studio to record an album for some young Brits who wanted to cash in on the African music boom that was happening back in the UK, thanks largely to the King Sunny Ade album.

The band was named after Mzee Makassy, the leader and principal vocalist, but it was Remmy Ongala’s driving guitar, particularly on the opening track, ‘Mambo Bado’, that grabbed your attention right from the first note.  Here it is again to brighten up the January gloom:

Ongala’s fame spread throught East Africa as a result of his guitar work with Orchestra Makassy, and later Orchestre Super Matimila.  He brought to these bands the soukous dance style of his homeland, mixed with Tanzanian and other East African rhythms.  Today the Guardian marks his passing on 13 December with a revealing obituary by Robin Denselow.

One thing that Denselow highlights is how much the British ear missed when listening to Ongala’s music – he wrote outspoken Swahili lyrics which championed the urban poor, dealt with subjects such as poverty and Aids.  In 1989, Ongala and Orchestre Super Matimila travelled to the UK to make their first recordings outside Africa, for Real World. The album Songs for the Poor Man included several of his most thoughtful lyrics, sung mainly in Swahili.

Kifo (Death Has No Mercy):

The Throne of Weapons

Recently I wrote on how this year marks 50 years of African independence.   The artwork above – The Throne of Weapons, made by the Mozambican artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) from decommissioned weapons collected since the end of the civil war in 1992 – adds a further commentary on that period.  It was featured today as the 98th object in the BBC History of the World in 100 Objects, also reminding me that in 2005, on a visit to the British Museum,  I saw a companion piece by Kester, The Tree of Life.

This is how Neil MacGregor described The Throne of Weapons:

Although it’s entirely made out of chopped-up guns, in its shape the Throne of Weapons looks like a conventional wooden armchair – the sort you might find in a kitchen or at a dinner table. But that’s the only conventional thing about it. The guns that make up this chair in fact track the twentieth-century history of Mozambique. The oldest, forming the back, are two antiquated Portuguese G3 rifles – appropriately so, as Portugal was the country’s colonial master for nearly five hundred years, until independence in 1975. That independence was won by a left-wing resistance movement, FRELIMO, which was supported by the Soviet Union and its allies. Which explains why all the other elements of this chair are dismembered guns manufactured in the Communist bloc. The arms of the chair are made out of Soviet AK47s. The seat is formed from Polish and Czechoslovakian rifles, and one of the front legs is the barrel of a North Korean AKM. This is the Cold War as furniture, the Eastern Bloc in action, fighting for Communism in Africa and across the world.

MacGregor described the disastrous years of economic collapse and bloody conflict that followed independence in Mozambique – the consequence of a bloody civil war that flared when the Rhodesian and South African regimes created and backed an opposition group to fight the new government.

The guns in the Throne are the guns with which this civil war was fought, and it left a million dead, millions of refugees, and 300,000 war orphans in need of care. Peace came only after 15 years when, in 1992, a settlement was brokered, and the country’s leaders began to rebuild their state.

The key challenge in Mozambique was to decommission the hundreds of thousands of surviving guns, and to equip the former soldiers and their families to rebuild their lives. The Throne of Weapons played an inspiring role in this recovery process. It was made as part of a peace project called Transforming Arms into Tools, which is still going today. Weapons once used by combatants on both sides were voluntarily surrendered under amnesty and, in exchange, the people who gave them up received practical tools – hoes, sewing machines, bicycles, roofing materials. The guns themselves were to be turned into works of art.

The Throne was made by the Mozambican artist Kester. He chose to make a chair and call it a throne, which immediately makes a particularly African statement. Chairs, rather than stools, are rare in traditional African societies, reserved usually for tribal heads, princes and kings. They are “thrones” in the truest sense of the word. But this is a throne on which no-one is meant to sit. It’s not for an individual ruler, but it’s intended rather as an expression of the governing spirit of the new Mozambique – peaceful reconciliation.

Since the beginning of the project, more than 600,000 weapons have been relinquished and handed over to artists like Kester, to be disabled and turned into sculpture. The sculptures take many forms, but this piece seems to me to have a very particular pathos, precisely because it has been made in the shape of a chair. When we talk about chairs, we always speak of them as though they were human beings – we say they have arms, legs, backs and feet. So there is something particularly disturbing, I think, about a chair made out of weapons that were designed specifically to maim backs and arms, legs and feet.

The Tree of Life, which I photographed at the British Museum in 2005 (above) was made a year earlier by Kester and three other Mozambican artists: Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Maté. It is also product of the Transforming Arms into Tools project and it, too, is made from decommissioned weapons.  TAE was set up by Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane in 1995 and supported by Christian Aid.

The British Museum guide describes the sculpture as follows:

The tree stands 3.5 metres tall. Its trunk is a filigree of rusted metal rising from four thick roots at the base and sprouting overhead into a canopy of branches. Two-thirds of the way up, a small monkey springs up the trunk, its tail curved, its eyes trained on a bird’s nest on a branch above its head. A mother bird, wings splayed, feeds her chicks in the nest that is partly hidden by leaves. On the opposite side of the tree a butterfly hangs from a branch.  All are the same tarnished brown colour. Like the tree, the creatures are made of gun parts: chopped-up AK-47 rifles, pistols and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Around the base of the trunk are more creatures – birds with abundant plumage, a lizard, a tortoise and a giant butterfly.

The rough texture of the bark is formed by different sized gun barrels, butts, and magazines welded together to make a cylindrical framework. Here you can make out a trigger and trigger guard, there a complete pistol. At the top of the trunk gun barrels create the beginnings of the stiff, angular branches. Barrels with increasingly narrower bores – often with their sights still in place – have been welded together, end to end, so the branches taper. For the leaves, sections of metal from gun barrels or magazines have been opened out and flattened. Groups of leaves fan out on either side of the gun-barrel branches.

Bishop Dinis Sengulane, founder of Transforming Arms Into Tools, said the sculpture was relevant to UK gun crime. “We would like you to adapt this to your own reality. People involved in the armament industry, even in making toy guns, should realise that guns are instruments for destroying human life.”

The concept of the tree of life has a long pedigree, and has been depicted for millenia in the art, literature and religion of many cultures. It is often seen in ritual paintings, which are created to ensure a good harvest or keep away evil spirits.
In Egyptian mythology Isis and Osiris, the first couple, were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Saosis, which
the Egyptians considered to be ‘the tree in which life and death are enclosed’. In Jewish folklore, the tree of life was planted by God in the Garden of Eden, its fruit giving everlasting life. For the Vikings, Yggdrasil was the world tree, a great ash tree located at the centre of the Universe, joining the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. It connected the realm of gods with the world of mortals and the land of giants. In many parts of the world, especially in Indian rural areas, trees continue to be venerated and people continue to create art forms depicting the tree of life.

In this example of Kalamkari, the temple art of Andhra Pradesh, the artisan uses a pen-like brush called kalam, giving the technique its name.  The tree is considered to be one of the most potent of symbols. Its roots delve into the underworld its trunk links the earth to the heavens – it transcends all three spheres. It symbolizes birth, maturity, death and rebirth embodied in leaf, bud and fruit.

Here, the tree of life is transposed as a vase containing flowers and a variety of leaves. The flowers are those associated with fertility. Generally, a tree of life is flanked by worshippers, birds or animals, which could vary locally. Here the tree is flanked by a couple of peacocks. It is relevant to note that in Indian mythology, peacocks occupy a prominent place. They symbolize immortality, love, courtship, fertility, regal pomp and protection. When the auspicious tree of life and the important motif of a peacock come together, this painting’s worth is doubly elevated.

The tree stands 3.5 metres tall. Its trunk is a filigree of rusted metal rising from four thick roots at the base and sprouting overhead into a canopy of branches. Two-thirds of the way up, a small monkey springs up the trunk, its tail curved, its eyes trained on a bird’s nest on a branch above its head. A mother bird, wings splayed, feeds her chicks in the nest that is partly hidden by leaves. On the opposite side of the tree a butterfly hangs from a branch.All are the same tarnished brown colour. Like the tree, the creatures are made of gun parts: chopped-up AK-47 rifles, pistols and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Around the base of the trunk are more creatures – birds with abundant plumage, a lizard, a tortoise and a giant butterfly. 

The rough texture of the bark is formed by different sized gun barrels, butts, and magazines welded together to make a cylindrical framework. Here you can make out a trigger and trigger guard, there a complete pistol. At the top of the trunk gun barrels create the beginnings of the stiff, angular branches. Barrels with increasingly narrower bores – often with their sights still in place – have been welded together, end to end, so the branches taper. For the leaves, sections of metal from gun barrels or magazines have been opened out and flattened. Groups of leaves fan out on either side of the gun-barrel branches.

50 years of African independence

The incomparable History of the World in 100 Objects on BBC Radio 4 is now approaching the finishing line. Has this been the best radio documentary series ever?  Each episode, presented by Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, where all the objects are located, has managed to compress into less than 15 minutes a description of the object and its historical context, as well as assessing its contemporary and present-day significance.

A recent episode focussed on the Benin plaques, made in what is now modern Nigeria, in the sixteenth century. Made of brass, they show figures in high relief that celebrate the battles won by the army of the Benin ruler, the oba, and the rituals of the oba’s court. They’re not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting, they’re also documents of two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact – the first, peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.

This was really our first notable encounter with the European world. People came in looking for trading partners, looking for expansion of their own knowledge of the world – and being astonished to encounter this society.
– Wole Soyinka

The discussion of the significance of the Benin plaques reminded me that this year African nations have been marking 50 years of independence.  Before 1960, only seven African countries gained their independence, most notably Ghana in 1957.  But 1960 itself saw independence sweep across large swathes of Africa. Fourteen countries ceased to be French colonies, while the Belgian Congo became Zaire and Somalia and Nigeria, source of the Benin treasures, broke from British control.

Those were heady days of optimism, reflected in the political aspirations of the new African leaders and in the music that emerged from confident new states such as Guinea, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria – to take just four examples.  Often the music was subsidised by the state as a means of establishing national identity and restoring respect for ethnic cultural traditions.  Guinea was the first sub-Saharan country in Francophone Africa to celebrate its independence, in 1958. The president, Sékou Touré, promoted a number of government-sponsored bands, such as Bembeya Jazz, whose music has transcended their era. Mali followed suit, with several state-sponsored bands, including the Super Rail Band de Bamako which blended Latin rhythms with traditional instruments with the Mande griot praise singer tradition, and initiated the careers of Salif Keita, Kante Manfila and Mory Kante. The aim was to give ethnic traditions a modern context and to promote the ideology of national revolution. From Ghana and Nigeria the new urban sounds of  highlife, afrobeat and juju music swept across West Africa, developing the cultural identity of the newly independent countries.

Listening to this music now is a bitter-sweet experience. For most African countries, the euphoria and hopes of early independence reflected in this music soon turned to domination by dictators or military juntas as post-colonial Africa became a Cold War conflict zone in which the the west faced off the Soviet Union. In Angola, Zaire and Mozambique, western support for unsavoury leaders was justified as necessary to stop the spread of communism. This consequences for the continent were devastating. The legacy of colonial rule was not to develop Africa, but to plunder its wealth for the benefit of its rulers and foreign interests. By the late 1980s most Africans were as poor or poorer than they had been at the time of independence.  Today, the World Bank estimates that 40% of Africa’s private wealth is held offshore.

Returning to the Benin bronzes.  The Europeans depicted are Portuguese, who, in the 16th century, were sailing down the west coast of Africa in their ocean-going galleons on their way to the Indies. They were were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa, and soon developed a trade in West African pepper, ivory and gold.

The oba is with his officials who manage and control the European trade. The three Africans are in the foreground and they’re on a far bigger scale than the diminutive Europeans, both of whom are shown with long hair and elaborate feathered hats – in fact they look rather ridiculous. One of the Europeans is holding a manilla, the ‘bracelet’ currency of West Africa,  and this, MacGregor argued, is the key to the whole scene.  It makes it clear that the brass brought from Europe is merely the raw material from which the Benin craftsmen would create great works of art like this plaque. What we’re looking at, he argued, is a document that demonstrates that the whole process of the trade in brass was controlled by the Africans. And part of that control was a total prohibition on the export of the finished brass plaques.  The Benin plaques are a reminder that, at this point in the sixteenth century, Europe and Africa were dealing with each other on equal terms.

So how did the Benin plaque end up in the British Museum? In 1897 the British, in revenge for the killing of members of a British delegation, mounted a punitive raid on Benin City, exiled the oba and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues – and the plaques. Many of these objects were auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.

The arrival of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe, changing European understanding of African history.The British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read at the time was perplexed:

It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.

The plaques must have come from Ancient Egypt, or perhaps the people of Benin were one of the lost tribes of Israel.  But in fact, research quickly established that the Benin plaques were entirely West African creations, made without European influence. Most of Europe had simply forgotten that they had at once admired the court of the oba of Benin. Why this amnesia? Neil MacGregor again:

I think it’s probably because the later relationship was so dominated by the transatlantic slave trade, with all its dehumanising implications. Later still, there would be the great European scramble for Africa, in which the punitive expedition of 1897 was merely one bloody incident.

Wole Soyinka, Nigerian poet and playwright, sums up the significance of the plaques for Nigerians today:

When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art – the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self-esteem, because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilisations, established some great cultures. And today it contributes to one’s sense of the degradation that has overtaken many African societies, to the extent that we forget that we were once a functioning people before the negative incursion of foreign powers. The looted objects are still today politically loaded. The Benin Bronze, like other artefacts, is still very much a part of the politics of contemporary Africa and, of course, Nigeria in particular.

African Sanctus

The other day I was writing about the importance for me of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in opening up new musical horizons. Now, with news of the death of the composer and musicologist David Fanshawe, I’m drawn back to another album of the 1970s – African Sanctus – that was seminal for me, one of the first sparks to set alight a love of African music.

In African Sanctus the Latin Mass is juxtaposed with live recordings of traditional African music, which Fanshawe had recorded himself in three years  journeying up the Nile to Lake Victoria. The work, in 13 movements, blends field recordings from Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda and Kenya with elements from the western Catholic mass.  The lp sleeve notes described the music as being for an ensemble of  ‘African tapes, choir, operatic soprano, light soprano, shouter, African drummer, rock drummer, two percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and Hammond M-100 organ’ which was pretty far out for 1975.

African Sanctus was premiered live in London in 1972, and really took off after a BBC TV documentary three years later (be good to see that again), and the release of the lp, which became a bestseller. The work was ahead of its time in many respects:  using backing tracks with live performance was uncommon; in effect it introduced sampling; it brought world music to the attention of people like me; it fused genres; and it scored pop, ethnic and classical instruments and vocal styles together.

African Sanctus is a synthesis of Christian and Islamic tradition, but also fuses references to religious and spiritual traditions which are far older than either.  For Fanshawe, a key moment in its conception came at the beginning of his 1969 journey.  He was in Egypt and, sitting in a Christian church, he heard the muezzin of a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer, and imagined this sound placed in counterpoint with Western choral harmony. And so, on the Kyrie, Fanshawe layers a western choir singing the Kyrie over a recording of the muezzin in the Mohammad Ali mosque in Cairo in a way that is totally respectful to both traditions. This one track crystallizes Fanshawe’s vision of  shared humanity, and seems even more pertinent today.

‘It informs both listener and performer about African music and its relationship to Western polyphony and captures the eternal and spiritual soul of music. It is an event, a celebration of power and energy, both visual, aural and multi-cultural, now performed live all over the world. For David Fanshawe there are no musical barriers.’
–  official African Sanctus website

African Sanctus was first performed in London in July 1972, and was later played on BBC Radio on United Nations Day. On Easter Sunday, 1975, a documentary about the making of the work was broadcast on BBC1’s Omnibus programme. Made by composer and film-maker Herbert Chappell, this charted Fanshawe’s progress recording the work in North and East Africa, and coincided with the release of the album. The two men retraced Fanshawe’s original journey and tried, largely unsuccessfully, to find the musicians he had recorded on his original trip. The documentary was nominated for the Prix Italia.

David Fanshawe – only 68 when he died – created something new: he didn’t force European rules onto the African material, but found a way of creating a sense of real equality between the two traditions, a symbiotic relationship reflecting his humanist message. In the original lp sleeve notes David Fanshawe wrote:

African Sanctus began to evolve in the heat of summer whilst I was riding with Bedouin nomads across the desert towards Egypt on a camel. That was in 1966 when I was studying at the Royal College of Music. Since then I have been on many hair-raising journeys and have recorded music from well over 50 tribes in Arabia and North and East Africa. African music is fascinating, weird, and wonderful, but like so much folk-art it is rapidly vanishing and one of the main reasons why I wrote African Sanctus was that I felt, quite simply, that instead of just recording tribal music I could preserve and create my own music around it, thus adding many more colours and variations which would express my adventures and love of people in a composition where African music, African songs and dances, religious recitations and ceremonies would live within the heart of a work conceived along ‘Western’ lines in the form of a Mass. The driving force is one of ‘Praise’ and a firm belief in ‘One God’.

African Sanctus attempts to fuse different peoples and their music into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise. It reflects the changing moods of music today and I hope moves with the times, for we are all living and sharing life together on a very small planet.

My journeys are always exciting. Means of transport varies from walking, donkey-riding (terrible strain!), camel-riding (even worse strain!), paddle-steamer, canoe, jet, light aircraft, sailing dhow, and endless trucks and lorries across remote deserts and scrub. It is a relentless search. In 1969 I hitch-hiked down the Nile through Sudan and into Uganda. In many ways that safari was my most fruitful; practically all the recordings – all extremely rare and valuable – in African Sanctus stem from that journey. In 1970 I returned again, travelling in a huge arc towards the Indian Ocean and ending up in a dug-out canoe on the Tana River. Whilst on the river I unfortunately hit a hippopotamus on the head with my paddle, the canoe upset, the tape-recorder drowned, and I was pursued hotfoot to the river bank. Finally, I sailed across the Ocean to the Island of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf where I had the good fortune to meet Judith who is now both my wife and travelling companion.

In 1972 with the help of the Sir Winston Churchill Memorial Trust we both returned to East Africa and were initiated as European members of the Taita Tribe (a proud moment), got lost in the bush when my light aircraft crash-landed due to failing light, were thrown into a Tanzanian prison for recording the Royal Drums of the Sukumu Kings minus our shoes, and finally returned to the Phonogram Studios, London, to record the final version of  African Sanctus.

The work began as a composition for choir and African tapes and was given an exhilarating first performance by the Saltarello Choir in July 1972; this performance was later broadcast on United Nations Day, October 24, 1972. Since then the work has developed (or moved with the times), as I have added twice as many drums and group. Now it is even being developed as a stage show based on the break-up of tribal law.

We have all been experimenting at the studios and I owe special thanks to sound engineer, Peter Olliff, whose patience and artistic wizardry have created a final balance between the African and European elements at all times, a most critical one. I hope African Sanctus will stimulate and inform both listener and performer and that the total sound will reflect the music and people of Africa. What others have said in words, I have tried to say in music.

There are hundreds of hours’ worth of songs, dances and rituals, an entire ethnological treasure-trove, that David recorded painstakingly around the world belonging to tribes and communities in developing countries whose heritage since then – the 60s, 70s and 80s – has since disappeared. He has saved for posterity the voices of their ancestors and the musical footprint of their existence. David’s passion for the music of other cultures was never touristic, he had a deep respect for the people and cultures he engaged with and believed that the recording of their music was an act of love and admiration, which it was. As every decade passes since he conducted his monumental task, his contribution will seem ever greater, ever more precious, to rank alongside that of Bartok in Hungary or Evgeniya Lineva in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. His own composing paid tribute to his research into other cultures but retained an authentic, heartfelt Britishness, confirming the truth that it is only by appreciating one’s own culture that one can truly relate to those of others, as equals. He will be sorely missed as a musician, friend, composer, but beyond the personal, his contribution to the preservation of now lost musical wonders of the world was a towering achievement that can never be matched or repeated. The world of music is a hugely poorer place without him.
– Howard Goodall – composer and broadcaster.


Africa Oye: Authenticite!

Africa Oye 2010

This weekend in Sefton Park saw the annual Africa Oye festival draw probably the biggest crowds ever over two days of constant sunshine. The festival has grown considerably from its early days and now there’s a beer tent  and stalls offering all kinds of food, CDs, clothes, musical instruments, jewellery and more.

Espoirs de Coronthie 2

On Saturday I spent some time enjoying sets by Espoirs de Coronthie from Guinea and To’Mezclao from Cuba. Espoirs are a group of seven musicians and dancers, performing very much in the style of Guinean Authenticité: utilising the rhythms and instruments of traditional music, but updating their lyrics to deal with contemporary topics and daily life in Conakry. ‘Authenticité’ refers to Guinea’s state-sponsored programme in the 1960s and 1970s which established national and regional orchestras to promote authentic Guinean culture following independence from colonial rule.

Espoirs de Coronthie 1

Last summer I listened often to Authenticité, The Syliphone Years, a superb retrospective album retracing the history of those orchestras. A review of the album on the Radio France International website fills in the background:

‘Guineans celebrated the dawn of a new era in 1958, waking up to their newly won independence. But once the celebrations had died down, President Sékou Touré was faced with a harsh reality. After years of French cultural influence, the former colony had totally lost touch with its musical heritage and its own cultural roots. When President Touré wished to organise a grand musical gala in Guinea, he had to call in ET Mensah, the Ghanean king of high-life, because no local group had ever developed a repertoire based on traditional home-grown songs and rhythms.

In a bid to turn this disastrous situation around, President Touré instituted a government initiative based on reviving authentic Guinean culture and creating a popular style of Guinean music by modernising tradition. President Touré saw in this cultural initiative a vital means of forging an all-important sense of national pride amongst his compatriots.’

Espoirs de Coronthie  have become a real phenomenon in Guinea, where their music can be heard in coffee shops, clubs, on radios, in the street, and even in taxi cabs. As we saw in Sefton Park on Saturday, their music is  based on traditional instruments  such as the balafon, kora and djembé, supplemented by vocals from three singers and wild dancing. It was a powerful show, full of infectious energy.

This YouTube clip shows the group performing at a Festival in October 2009 – the presentation is the same as at Africa Oye, even down to the lead singer’s repeated exhortation, ‘We are together!’

Earlier, the festival had opened with a set from the seven-strong Havana collective To’Mezclao (from todo mezclado– all mixed together). In Cuba they are huge stars, mixing pop with cumbia, merengue, rap and reggaeton as well as the more traditional forms of Afro-Cuban music.

This morning the Daily Post reports that this year’s Africa Oye was the most successful in the event’s history.

Organiser Paul Duhaney said he had been taken aback at the success of the event this year, estimating that at any one time around 10,000 people were enjoying the music and many stalls selling everything from African – and other – food to clothes and CDs, arts and crafts.  Beginning in 1992 as a series of small gigs in the city centre, the event has gone from strength to strength, moving to its present Sefton Park home in 2002 to cope with demand after brief spells in Princes Park and even Birkenhead Park.

Mr Duhaney said: “I think Liverpool as a city should be proud of this – other cities don’t have anything like it. And there is something for everyone here.  “It’s a local festival in the sense that we want people from Liverpool coming here – but in terms of the acts on stage it’s an international festival. These are acts who could easily charge £15-£20 a ticket, but people can see them here for free.”