Rokia Traore rocks out at the Phil

We saw Rokia Traoré play to a lamentably half-empty Philharmonic Hall last night in what was a triumphant, guitar-driven and characteristically high-energy set.  The focus was mainly on songs from her most recent album, Tchamantche, with the rock-guitar direction of that album accentuated: Rokia and her band now really rock out. This was a major contrast with her acoustic and more traditional Malian approach when I last saw her in 2004.

She  began, though, alone in the spotlight, picking out on her Gretsch guitar the notes of the stately ‘Dianfa’, from the last album. But the set soon changed gear with her French trio on guitar, bass and drums driving along raunchier versions of the Tchamantche tracks, with a Malian ngoni player and  female backing singer both adding punch and excitement.

At the time of  Tchamantche‘s release Rokia said that she wanted to create a new musical style that was ‘more modern, but still African, something more blues and rock than my folk guitar’. She had heard an old Gretsch, the classic electric guitar that was central to the group sounds of the 1950s and 1960s, played by everyone from Chet Atkins to George Harrison. That was the sound she had been looking for, and it is the sound that defined Tchamantche and this concert.

The set mainly featured the exquisite and adventurous songs from Tchamantche,  including ‘Dounia’, ‘Aimer’ and a more driving rendition of our favourite track, ‘Zen’, with the n’goni player switching to mbira thumb piano (as seen below, performed on Later with Jools Holland last year).

Another featured number from Tchamantche was ‘Tounka’, the song about migration from Africa to Europe, which she explained she had written as a positive message to encourage Africans to see that migration will not solve Africa’s problems – Africans must solve them at home. And this is more than empty rhetoric: she recently launched the Fondation Passerelle (‘passerelle’ being French for footbridge) to help young in Mali to build careers in the music business. After years of living in Amiens, she now spends much of the year in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

This was music that at times sounded more rock than Mali, and towards the end of the show, more decidedly funk and Afropop, but always distinctively African. One surprise was ‘Quit It’, once recorded by Miriam Makeba, which Rokia sung in English, encouraging us all to check out the work of Makeba, the artist she regards as Africa’s greatest, on YouTube. So here’s that number from that source:

At another point, she had segued from one of her own songs to the work of another African hero, Fela Kuti, with a rousing treatment ‘African Woman’. It was an exhilarating performance.

The support band were a revelation. Named after a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, led by their main writer and singer Tim Elsenburg, played an excellent set of what has been termed ‘British atmospheric art-pop’. They performed numbers from their second album, Twice Born Men, as well as some from their first, We Just Did What Happened and No One Came, the most outstanding of which was the mesmeric but rather unfathomable ‘In The Water I Am Beautiful’. Overall, it was a beautiful performance, with – as The Sunday Times has put it – ‘the indefinable floatiness of the verses the springboard for a succession of delicious pop choruses’.

Introducing their final song, ‘There It Will End’, Tim Elsenburg said ‘at the end of a lovely sunny day, here’s something really cheerful for you:

Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

Today, under black skies and torrential rain, I finally got to the Tate to see Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic,  the exhibition that explores the impact of different black cultures from around the Atlantic on art from the early twentieth-century to today. The show takes its inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s influential book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness 1993. and features over 140 works by more than 60 artists.

Gilroy used the term ‘The Black Atlantic’ to describe the transmission of black cultures around the Atlantic, and the forms of cultural mixing that occurred as a result of transatlantic slavery and its legacy. Gilroy conceived of the Atlantic Ocean as a ‘continent in negative’, a network connecting Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, tracing routes (real and imagined) across the Atlantic.

There is a great deal of truly outstanding art in this exhibition, though I think it must be said that the quality and interest of the work declines considerably the closer one comes to the present.

The exhibition is divided into seven chronological sections. We start with the European avant-garde and the influence of African sculpture on artists such as Picasso and Brancusi. Then across the Atlantic we explore the impact of European modernism on emerging African-American artists, particularly those of the Harlem Renaissance group. The exhibition traces the emergence of modernism in Latin America and Africa and returns to Europe at the height of the jazz age and the craze for ‘Negrophilia’. The final section examines current debates around post-Black Art and features contemporary artists such as Chris Ofili and Kara Walker.

An interest in African art in Europe was initially aroused through the objects brought back from the colonies by traders and explorers in the nineteenth-century. Dissatisfied with traditional artistic conventions Picasso set out to re-invent art in his own terms, inspired by the direct approach of non-European culture.  The mask-like face, wood-coloured body and hatched planes of Bust of a Woman (1909) reveal the influence of African carving. This faceting and breaking  up of form was a stepping-stone to Cubism.

Other artists influenced by non-Western culture were Modigliani, with his highly stylised heads and figures, and Constantin Brancusi,  who blended non-European sources with the traditional wood carvings of his native Romania.

European Modernism had a profound global influence. Artists from other continents encountered modern art-forms through travelling or studying in Europe. Tarsila do Amaral was taught by Cubist Fernande Léger    and was inspired by European artists’ uses of non-Western culture. On her return to South America she turned to the indigenous art of her own continent. Moro da Favella (1925) represents a Brazilian subject in a style that fuses a wide range of influences experienced on her transatlantic travels.

This approach was shared by fellow artists who became known as the Brazilian Antropofagist movement. One of these artists was Lasar Segall, a Lithuanian who emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s. Banana Plantation (1927) uses a visual language derived from Cubism and German Expressionism allied to aspects of native South American art.

In the United States, artists of African descent appropriated European modernism in order to express a new confidence and pride in the arts and cultures of Africa. One of the first artists to use this new visual language for depicting themes of African heritage was Aaron Douglas.  Aspiration (1936, top of page) contrasts images of  slavery with the vision of an uplifted and educated future for African Americans in the ‘city built on a hill’. I was particularly struck by examples of his collaboration with Langston Hughes for the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life (1926) in which he illustrated several beautiful poems by Hughes that utilise the blues form.

I got to leave this town
This lonesome place
Got to leave this town
‘Cause it’s a lonesome place
A po’, po’ boy can’t
Find a friendly face

Goin’ down to de river
Flowin’ deep an slow
Goin’ down to de river
Deep an slow –
‘Cause there ain’t no worries
Where de waters go

In 1934, Douglas was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project to paint a series of murals for the New York Public Library. His cycle, Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African Setting (1934), traces the experience of the African American, from slavery in the Southern States to emancipation in the modern city. Douglas said, “I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people.”

British artist Edward Burra was initially attracted to Harlem through his love of jazz music. The vibrancy of the area’s African-American culture is captured in Harlem (1934).

Another striking piece from this period is Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free, a monumental sculpture, in lacquered wood, of a proud and dignified mother protecting her children. Johnson was a prominent artist of Swedish, African American and Cherokee ancestry from the San Francisco Bay area who aimed to celebrate the beauty and dignity of the African American.

Pedro Figari was an artist from Uruguay who lived in Paris between 1925 and 1933 where his painting was influenced by Vuillard and Bonnard. A great deal of his work focuses on the Afro-Uruguayan community, and the memories of his youth in the district of Candombe.

The exhibition continues by tracing the influence of Négritude – the literary, artistic and political movement founded in 1930s Paris – on the visual arts of the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Négritude originated with a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris led by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. A rejection of colonial racism, Négritude aimed to reclaim the value of blackness and African culture. It was influenced by both Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance.

With the advent of the Second World War, the ideas of Négritude spread as its leading figures left Paris for the Caribbean and Africa. New forms of modernism influenced by Négritude arose in these locations, including tendencies identified with creolisation in the Caribbean and the Natural Synthesis movement in Nigeria.

Creolisation reflected a blending of cultures and the acknowledgement by artists and writers that their cultural influences did not come solely from Africa. The concept of Natural Synthesis was conceived by the artist Uche Okeke following the independence of Nigeria in 1960. It proposed a fusion of European modernism with local African aesthetic influences, creating an artistic agenda for a nation reborn.

In Street to Mbari, the American artist Jacob Lawrence captures the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria.Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1960s he travelled to Nigeria, where he painted Street to Mbari.

Felix Idubor (1928-1991) was a Nigerian sculptor from Benin, part of a group of young artists in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s who raised awareness of the African artistic tradition at the time of decolonisation and independence. He is considered one of the pioneers of Nigerian contemporary art. The exhibition displays this photograph of his 1965 bas-relief for Independence House in Lagos.

The ‘Dissident Identities’ section of the exhibition deals with the counter-cultural politics of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Black art shifted focus to a concern with the specific social and political implications of slavery, segregation and oppression within societies such as the United States and Brazil. Highlighted here is the work of Romare Bearden who was involved in the struggle for Civil Rights. Bearden created a series of collages depicting scenes of African-American life that also commented on modernism and its use of African sculpture.

‘Reconstructing the Middle Passage’ examines how contemporary artists have revisited this historical trauma, throughn a process of imaginative recovery. This room reflects Paul Gilroy’s idea of the ship as both a symbol of the Black Atlantic and the mobile means by which it became linked. In Bird in Hand 2006 Ellen Gallagher explores a mythical ‘Black Atlantis’, a fictional underwater world populated by the descendents of pregnant slaves thrown overboard and whose unborn babies developed into a new marine life-form. Gallagher’s own identity as a black Irish-American is crucial to her interpretation of this myth which interweaves memories of oppression, migration and forgotten histories. The artist’s use of the traditional technique of scrimshaw, adds a sense of peeling back layers to this complex image.

The lightbox image, Western Union Series no. 1 (Cast No Shadow) 2007, by Isaac Julien is part of an installation work which investigates the wider context of diaspora, taking in latter day migrations from North Africa, Cuba and across the Caribbean. This meditative image also recalls the “door of no return” through which Africans once passed to board slave vessels: ‘We will miss you now that you are not with us’.


‘You can go beyond’

Good news seems so hard to come by, and sometimes you fear to believe in it when you read it.  Let me begin by recalling the opening of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, the winner of the 1998 Guardian First Book Award that bore testimony to the Rwandan genocide:

In the province of Kibungo, in eastern Rwanda, in the swamp-and pastureland near the Tanzanian border, there’s a rocky hill called Nyarubuye with a church where many Tutsis were slaughtered in mid-April of 1994. A year after the killing I went to Nyarubuye with two Canadian military officers. We flew in a United Nations helicopter, travelling low over the hills in the morning mists, with the banana trees like green starbursts dense over the slopes. The uncut grass blew back as we dropped into the centre of the parish schoolyard. A lone soldier materialized with his Kalashnikov, and shook our hands with stiff, shy formality. The Canadians presented the paperwork for our visit, and I stepped up into the open doorway of a classroom.

At least fifty mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor, wadded in clothing, their belongings strewn about and smashed. Macheted skulls had rolled here and there. The dead looked like pictures of the dead. They did not smell. They did not buzz with flies. They had been killed thirteen months earlier, and they hadn’t been moved. Skin stuck here and there over the bones, many of which lay scattered away from the bodies, dismembered by the killers, or by scavengers-birds, dogs, bugs.

The more complete figures looked a lot like people, which they were once. A woman in a cloth wrap printed with flowers lay near the door. Her fleshless hip bones were high and her legs slightly spread, and a child’s skeleton extended between them. Her torso was hollowed out. Her ribs and spinal column poked through the rotting cloth. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was open: a strange image-half agony, half repose.

I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes. I wanted to see them, I suppose; I had come to see them – the dead had been left unburied at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes – and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn’t need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what bad happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it.

Those dead Rwandans will be with me forever, I expect. That was why I had felt compelled to come to Nyarubuye: to be stuck with them – not with their experience, but with the experience of looking at them. They had been killed there, and they were dead there. What else could you really see at first?

Now today I read in The Observer that Rwanda has a plan to prevent a return to the genocide of 1994 by connecting its children to the outside world with their own laptops. The gizmo in question is an object 10 inches square, green, white and rubberised, inscribed with the logo of an X and a filled-in O:

The Rwandan government intends to provide 100,000 Rwandan children between the ages of nine and 12 with one of these gadgets, and has a vision not only of the transformation of an impoverished agrarian society into one of the most advanced in Africa, but also of technology as a tool that will help exorcise the country’s lingering ghosts. The genocide that took place in this country in 1994 deprived many of these children of uncles, aunts, grandparents. During 100 days of killing, 800,000 minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in service of so-called ‘Hutu Power’, documented so chillingly in Gourevitch’s book.

The XO machines are supplied by One Laptop Per Child (1.4 million have already been delivered to children in 35 countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Brazil and Uruguay). The organisation’s mission statement is to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children via a rugged low-cost, low-power laptop. Rwanda, with its shortages of electricity and lower internet connectivity are driving One Laptop Per Child to develop even cheaper and tougher machines with ever lower power consumption. The next generation of computers will be usable even where there is no mains power at all. At the heart of their programme is the idea of ‘joyful, playful and innovatory’ learning.

The Rwandan government wants to encourage rapid economic development by educating these children to be computer-literate. But there is also a notion that these laptops might help to vaccinate a society still in painful recovery from its genocidal past by opening up the rest of the world to a new generation. David Cavallo, the project director for One Laptop Per Child, talks about Jean Piaget, the educational psychologist who believed education to be ‘capable of saving our societies from possible collapse’. It is an ex-student of Piaget’s, Seymour Papert, mathematician and education and technology theorist, who is the inspiration for the XO. Papert was a political refugee from apartheid South Africa who fled to England and finally America where he became one of the founders of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Papert has long argued that children in all societies can master computing and, by doing so, transform how they learn throughout their lives, inside and outside the classroom and, consequently alter societies. He is a longstanding enemy of what he sees as the tyranny of formal education systems which he believes equip children only to master set syllabuses. Papert believes that computers can enable children to learn how to learn for themselves through playful problem-solving and that this will lead to their becoming better-rounded human beings.

Peter Beaumont, the author of the Observer feature, tells of being driven by Samuel Dusengiyumva, a 28-year-old consultant with One Laptop Per Child, to the genocide memorial in Nyamata, the church where 10,000 Rwandans were blasted with grenades then hacked to death in April 1994 – the place where Philip Gourevitch opens his book. Dusengiyumva tells Beaumont what schooling was like before the genocide and after, and how lack of education contributed to mass murder. He is a firm believer in what the XO can do, in particular its promise for opening up a society that was once lethally closed:

You know the problem with having a poor education is that you are not given the faculties to cross-check information, not given access to information. Our society, before the genocide, was not open. Now I can go on the internet. I can check what I am being told. I can make my own analysis.  I remember a text that I learned at school. It said you go to school to learn how to learn. If you can enable people in society… with computers… you release the human potential. You can go beyond.

An ordinary place: the church at Nyamata turned into a memorial, left mostly untouched after the massacre in April 1994.
And central Kigali behind

Philip Gourevitch concludes his account of the genocide with this:

I cannot count the times, since I first began visiting Rwanda three years ago, that I’ve been asked, ‘Is there any hope for that place?” If there is hope for Rwanda [it comes] with [this] story. On April 30, 1997 – almost a year ago as I write – Rwandan television showed footage of a man who confessed to having been among a party of genocidaires who had killed seventeen schoolgirls and a sixty-two-year-old Belgian nun at a boarding school in Gisenyi two nights earlier. It was the second such attack on a school in a month; the first time, sixteen students were killed and twenty injured in Kibuye. The prisoner on television explained that the massacre was part of a Hutu Power ‘liberation’ campaign. …During their attack on the school in Gisenyi, as in the earlier attack on the school in Kibuye, the students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, were ordered to separate themselves – Hutus from Tutsis. But the students had refused. At both schools, the girls said they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.

Rwandans have no need – no room in their corpse-crowded imaginations – for more martyrs. None of us does. But mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?


Sharpeville repercussions

Today marks 50 years since the Sharpeville Massacre, when police in apartheid South Africa opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, killing 69 and injuring about 180.  The Pan Africanist Congress, having split from the African National Congress,called on black South Africans to demonstrate against the hated pass laws. Thousands gathered outside the local police station in Sharpeville, challenging the police to arrest them for being without the pass books, or dompas, they were meant to produce on demand.

The massacre was a watershed in the country’s liberation struggle, providing the spark for the armed struggle mounted by the PAC and the ANC, and outraging international opinion, leading to the worldwide boycott and  disinvestment movement.

Not coincidentally, this weekend I have been celebrating another anniversary – 40 years since the end of an 11-day occupation of the University of Liverpool’s Senate House administrative block in March 1970.  The focus for the protest? The demand that Lord Salisbury – renowned for his racist views, scornful rejection of African self-government and financial links with apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa – resign as Chancellor, and that the University divest itself of investments in South Africa. After the protest, the University handed down punishments that were unprecedented in their severity: 9 students suspended and one expelled.

Yesterday, 60 of the 300 students involved in the sit-in came together in a joyous reunion. For the past three months I have been delving into the University archives to research this event, and producing a blog – An Emotional Involvement – which tells the full story of the protest.

The Liverpool students’ protest was rooted in a critical questioning of the nature of a university, its relationship and responsibilities to the wider world. Did it matter? The solidarity protests and the boycott movement gave black South Africans a sense of hope that change could occur. In 1981, on Robben Island, hearing of the massive and successful protests against the Springboks tour of New Zealand, Nelson Mandela said “When I heard that news it felt like the sun coming out.”

The Liverpool protest asked big ethical questions about what it is to be human: what kind of lives we want to live, and want others to be able to enjoy in freedom and dignity, and what kind of world we want to pass on to our children.  Back in 1970, the University Treasurer, HB Chrimes, talking about disinvestment from apartheid, asserted: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’. In 2010, the current Vice-Chancellor, Howard Newby,writing to the student expelled for the action, affirmed: “Your voice and actions serve as a legacy to the freedoms we enjoy, preserve and defend”.


20 years since Mandela walked free

Today South Africans are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom – on February 11, 1990 – after 27 years as apartheid’s political prisoner.

Our march to freedom is irreversible.
– Nelson Mandela

16 June 1964: Mandela and seven others, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial are driven from the court to prison.

1966: Mandela sews prison clothes in the yard of Robben Island prison

21 March 1960: 59 people shot dead in the Sharpeville massacre

Soweto uprising Sam Nzima's photo of Hector Pieterson

Soweto uprising: Sam Nzima’s photo of Hector Pieterson, age 12 who died in Mbuyisa Makhubo’s arms after being shot by a police officer. Over 500 people were killed in the uprising.

Steve Biko: died 12 September 1977, murdered in police custody

11 February 1990: jubilation in Soweto

11 February 1990 was one of those days of your life that you can remember vividly, almost moment to moment, decades after: the long wait, through a Sunday lunchtime as the release was delayed, watching live on TV as the world’s cameras waited for the moment that Mandela would emerge from the gates of the prison.

In today’s Independent, there’s a piece by Gordon Brown in which he states, “for many of us born in the second half of the 20th century, the anti-apartheid struggle was the defining political question of our time”. He recalls how, almost 40 years ago at Edinburgh University:

Through a painstaking investigation we exposed the University’s shares in apartheid South Africa, and eventually forced their sale. So many of us could tell similar stories – of the rugby matches boycotted, the holidays not taken, the petitions signed.  The contribution of the British people – the trades unions, the student movement, the Liberal and Labour Parties, the ordinary shoppers who did their bit – all of it should never be forgotten.

Opposition to racism and apartheid was central to my politics as a student at Liverpool University at the same time. I have recently been researching the events of the occupation of the university’s administration block in March 1970 and posting the results in another blog.  The occupation was demanding the resignation of the university Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, infamous for his racist politics and economic interests in apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and that the university relinquish its investments in companies profiting from their involvement in South Africa.

For me, and I suspect for most of the other 300 or so involved in the protest (including ITN news anchor Jon Snow), this remains a moment in my life that I would never disown.

Back in 1970 I doubt that we could never have imagined a peaceful, negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. What scenarios did we have for challenges to repressive state power and regime change at that time? Sharpeville…Prague ’68…Hungary ‘56 ? We surely envisaged that these regimes would only be overthrown by armed uprising and revolution. South Africa in 1990 is comparable to Eastern Europe in 1989 in that both situations were pretty much unprecedented in terms of the absence of violence. That’s not to say that the regimes weren’t under pressure (in the case of South Africa, the pressures of the international boycotts and disinvestment campaigns, coupled with the resulting pressure from multinationals, were clearly a powerful factor). Recognising that doesn’t, to my mind, undermine the crucial importance of the internal resistance –  the ANC, Steve Biko’s Black Conciousness movement, the school boycotts, the Soweto risings, the courage of the men and women, schoolchildren, students, trade unionists who resisted down the years.

In a ceremony outside the gates of Victor Verster prison today, Cyril Ramaphosa told thousands of ANC supporters:

De Klerk did not free Mandela, you did. De Klerk did not end apartheid, you the people – the ANC – did.

Ijuba by Mzwakhe Mbuli

Ijuba lakhal’ emthini
Ijuba lakhal’ emthini

From childhood to adulthood
Non could arrest my mind
From the cradle to the grave
None could imprison my mind
From obscurity to excellence
None could manipulate my mind
From season to season
Non could infiltrate my brainpower
From prison to release
Non could scar my mental capacity

Prison bars and doors
Prison gates and keys
Prison security and walls
Prison itself could not imprison my mind

My mind is impenetrable
My mind is indomitable
My mind is invincible
Yes my mind is extraordinarily powerful

Ijuba lakhal’ emthini
Ijuba lakhal’ emthini

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangare

Saw Oumou Sangare put on an electrifying show at On the Waterfront last night – a short series of free concerts in the spectacular setting of the Pier Head plaza. In the one-hour set, Sangare performed songs from her recent album, Seya (Joy) with a stripped-down band consisting of drums,  djembe, kora, flute, ngoni, electric bass, and two young female backing vocalists who dance and twirl calabashes, one of whom Oumou introduced as her daughter.

On an evening when the rain of recent days thankfully held off, but with a chilly breeze whipping in off the river,  the band drove the beat forward from the first number, Oumou’s voice soaring over the interweaving pulses and beats. One of the features of the set was how Oumou engaged directly with the audience, using French and her ‘not so good’ English to explain the lyrics of her songs. She is a champion of women’s rights, and she was at pains to get across how her songs express the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy and arranged marriage in Mali, but also  the importance of love, the pain of exile, and the frailty of human life.

Oumou Sangare 3

The whole performance was relaxed and joyous, ending with an extended introduction, by Oumou, of each member of her band, bringing them to the front of the stage hand on their shoulder. Introducing the djembe player, she aked if anyone in the audience could play the hand drum; several hands went up and she invited one guy up on stage to briefly demonstrate his skill.

Oumou Sangare 2

Oumou’s songs are expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. She has brought to the world the hauntingly beautiful music of her homeland: wassoulou.

Wassoulou music is based on the song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten. But by the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare took all this much further with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical colour but she also had a personal mission: to improve the subservient position of women in Mali.Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in a fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song Diaraby Nene (The Shivers of Love).

This summer I’ve been listening to her great new album Seya (Joy).  This review from Pitchfork:

Sangaré gets a hand from a whopping 47 collaborators on the album, including master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, and Tony Allen. Most appear on a track or two, and mixed in with all the electric guitar, bass, flute, sax, and trap drums are a host of traditional Malian instruments, including the ngoni (a cousin of the guitar and banjo), the balafon (a type of marimba), and an arsenal of drums and percussion that give the album a diverse and always interesting rhythmic base. It opens with a blast of rhythmic balafon and dives into a fractured groove topped with an arcing flute, as Sangaré sings a forceful appeal for women’s equality in society and the home. Women’s rights are an issue she’s built her public life and much of her music around, and it’s a theme that crops up across the album.

“Wele Wele Wintou” sets dark female harmonies against a sharp sax theme behind Sangaré’s rapid-fire vocal, which speaks out against forced marriage. Subtle wah guitar burbles through the verses, and Tounkara takes one of the most unusual solos I’ve heard, playing far down the neck with a dark, blunt tone. You could probably listen to just the instrumental backing tracks to most of these songs and come away satisfied by the richness of the interlocking rhythms and the subtle harmonic shifts. Even slow tracks like “Senkele Te Sira”, which features another brilliant guitar part from Tounkara, have a dynamic, vibrant character that perfectly matches Sangaré’s sometimes towering vocals. She knows how to accent a phrase, unleashing a powerful wail at key moments to drive home a thought in a way that makes her passion clear in any language.

And this from the BBC:

Seya traverses a wide range of moods, from confident and celebratory to more austere, stripped down meditations. And while few artists give as good a groove as Oumou, the latter are often the best settings to appreciate her extraordinary voice; if Aretha Franklin had grown up in Bamako, she might have sounded something like this.

Apart from the declamatory Donso – an adaptation of a traditional Wassoulou hunter’s song – the material is all original as usual, and the basis of her distinctive sound remains the twitching, funky sound of the kamel n’goni(‘youth harp’), mostly played by ‘Benogo’ Brehima Diakité. But with fifty musicians taking part, there’s more variety of sounds and textures than ever. She’s used electric guitar before, but never with the kind of squealing rock treatments heard on Senkele Te Sira and Kounadya, which also features a great retro Hammond organ solo by co-producer Cheick TidianeSeck. There’s brass and the occasional deft use of strings, as well as guests such as flautist ‘Magic’ Malik Mazzadri and drummer Tony Allen, but none are allowed to overshadow the star.

Though it’s difficult to pick highlights from such a consistent album, the driving opener Sounsoumba and the radiantly joyful title track, with its lovely swooping chorus vocals, are the most instantly appealing of the more upbeat pieces.

Oumou Sangaré – Seya

Oumou Sangare ‘Sounsoumba’

Special acoustic version of the ‘Seya’ album opener filmed at World Circuit’s Livingston Studios, featuring Benego Diakite on kamelngoni.

Who we really are

Omo River, southern Ethiopia, site of the oldest known fossil remains  - from 195,000 years ago - of  anatomically modern humans, discovered by Richard Leakey in 1968
Omo River, southern Ethiopia, site of the oldest known human fossil remains

A really interesting piece in today’s Guardian by Victor Keegan. He’s taken part in the Genographic project organised by National Geographic, which is collecting over 100,000 DNA samples from around the world. He writes: Continue reading “Who we really are”

Dave Eggers: What is the What

I’ve just finished reading this astonishing book – I think the most important novel published so far this century.  Novel? Well, yes, for although the novel’s subtitle, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’, refers to a real-life Sudanese refugee,  this Valentino informs us in a brief preface that ‘over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation’. Dave Eggers has transformed Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with the imaginative sweep, the scope and, above all, the emotional power of an epic.

Two stories unfold simultaneously in What Is the What. It begins, vividly and against expectation, in America, with the arrival of a stranger at Achak’s apartment in Atlanta. ‘I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.’ The ‘tall, sturdily built African-American woman’ who rang the bell asks if she can use his phone to call the police because her car has broken down. He lets her in, and she’s soon followed by a man with a gun. They crack his skull, tie him up, and empty his apartment of valuables. But the thieves don’t have room in their van for the TV, so they leave a young boy to watch over both it and Achak until they can come back. Lying on the floor of his apartment, bound and gagged, his head bleeding and aching, Achak begins to imagine telling his life story to the boy, whose name he discovers is Michael.

This is a brilliant opening section to the novel that lets us see the violence and strangeness of American society through Achak’s eyes and his memories of a tranquil childhood among the Dinka tribe in the village of Marial Bal. There his father, who owned a shop, used to tell the story that gives the novel its title. After God created men and women, according to local legend, he gave them cattle, the source of ‘milk and meat and prosperity of every kind’. But God offered mankind a choice: ‘You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What’. The Dinka chose the cow. But others picked, and continue to seek, the mysterious, unnameable, destructive and possibly unattainable What.

It was five years ago that Dave Eggers met Valentino Achak Deng. Achak, then in his early twenties, was one of 4,000 ‘Lost Boys’ who had washed up in adulthood in the United States having seen their childhood homes in southern Sudan destroyed in war, their families murdered. Orphaned, starving and having walked 1,000 miles across West Africa when he was eight or nine, under constant threat of random slaughter from militias and wild animals, Achak had lived for nearly 15 years in squatters’ camps in Ethiopia. In America, where he had finally been transported by charity, he was working to put himself through college.

Egggers listened to Achak’s story and in the months and years of their friendship that followed, he travelled to Sudan with Achak to witness the remains of the life he had left behind and became determined to write his story. Eggers has his own experiences of losing parents as a child. His first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was about coping as a very young man with his younger brother after the sudden death of their parents.

The initial plan was essentially for Achak to write his autobiography, while Eggers would assist him with his English and ‘straighten the narrative out a bit’, taking on a more or less conventional role somewhere between editor and ghostwriter. But, after a year, they realised this wasn’t going to work: ‘What we had from our recording sessions . . . was fascinating, but it did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaper articles already available to the world.’

Eggers came to realise that for him to tell the story in the third person ‘would be distracting and tonally incorrect’. So Achak would have to tell his own story. But, ‘as a journalist’, Eggers was ‘trained not to put any dialogue between quotation marks unless it was on tape’. So the only way to tell the story in a way that stood a chance of appealing to a wide general readership was to write it as fiction.


Liverpool Art Prize 2008

Went along to the recently-opened Contemporary Urban Centre in Greenland Street to take a look at the entries for the Liverpool Art Prize 2008.The artists whose work was on display were: Mary Fitzpatrick, Gareth Kemp, Jayne Lawless, Emma Rodgers, The Singh Twins, Imogen Stidworthy.

The Liverpool Art Prize is a new annual exhibition and award for fine artists based in the Liverpool area. This inaugural year’s event is housed in a Grade II listed converted warehouse in the new ‘Independent Arts Quarter’.

From over 400 submissions, a panel of judges have selected a short-list of six artists to be put forward for this year’s prize. The artists are all mid-career professionals who are currently establishing themselves on an international level. They are working in extremely diverse practices – from surround-sound installations, to Indian miniature painting – and have made significant achievements in the past few years.

The venue is the huge gallery space within the NOVAS Scarman Group’s new Contemporary Urban Centre North West. The Liverpool Art Prize is the first event to take place in this new development.

I really liked the Singh Twins‘ paintings:

The Singh Twins, Amrit and Rabindra, are internationally acclaimed contemporary British artists whose award winning paintings explore universal issues of social, political, religious and multicultural debate through a narrative, decorative, symbolic and witty ‘Past Modern’ style that combines Indian miniature with aspects of traditional global aesthetics, creating a unique body of work which seeks to challenge the Eurocentric stereotypes in art and society through an ongoing programme of touring exhibitions, publications, seminars and education workshops.

Photographer Mary Fitzpatrick specialises in images of places abandoned after conflicts, particularly those in the Middle East. She is currently working on a project in Ramallah on the West Bank. Originally a painter, Mary exhibited in London and then after moving to Northern Ireland made large scale photographic sculptures based on a two year art documentary of events within the Irish Peace Process before the ceasefires. She continued making work in Belfast until her move to Kuwait. Mary is now mainly known for her large scale atmospheric installations incorporating images from places left abandoned after conflict.

Gareth Kemp is a painter based in the North West of England. For the past few years Gareth has been working on a series of paintings called Fifteen feet of pure white snow. These canvases are inspired by a set of old family photographs of a remote part of Wales where he grew up. The paintings allude to more innocent times, whilst hinting at some kind of impending horror or disaster. Some of the pictures have figures in them; which lends an eerie, creepy and voyeuristic feel to them. In others, the landscape appears bleak and olde worldy; the only signs of the modern world are subtly painted electricity pylons or telegraph poles.

Postscript: Imogen Stidworthy was awarded the Art Prize, while The Singh Twins were the People’s Choice Winners.

Hawkins & Co: 15 Contemporary Artists – One 16th Century Sailor

Also showing was Hawkins & Co, an exhibition consisting of more than 70 major works by fifteen British-based and international contemporary artists. The theme recalls Elizabethan naval commander Sir John Hawkins, whose 16th century voyages to Africa and the Caribbean pioneered the British slave trade. The 8-week exhibition will be one of the opening shows at Liverpool’s new arts venue, the Contemporary Urban Centre, and will contribute to events in the former slave-trading port during the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. The fifteen artists are all known for their thoughtful and sometimes provocative work. Every piece, including Guineas by George ‘Fowokan’ Kelly (above) explores a different aspect of the culture and history of the peoples of the transatlantic African-Caribbean diaspora affected by Hawkins’ 450-year legacy.


African Soul Rebels

Went to see Salif Keita at the Phil – part of this year’s African Soul Rebels package. Strangely, he was on second, sandwiched between the other two acts, as this review from the Guardian observes:

The fourth annual African Soul Rebels tour is dominated by one man. Salif Keita has long been praised as the finest singer in Africa, and has experimented in acoustic styles ever since his glorious Moffou album six years ago. Now he is back with a new acoustic lineup, and the result is an intriguing new chapter in his ever-changing career.

Mysteriously, he only appeared second on this latest, agreeably varied triple bill, but he reigned over the first night of the tour with his exhilarating singing and playing. He came on in his now familiar white robes and white cap, sitting alone on stage to play gently lilting guitar and show off his fine, soulful vocals on a revival of Folon, before gradually introducing the rest of his current band. With the harsh-edged Malian lute, the n’goni, currently in fashion thanks to Bassekou Kouyate, it was a shrewd move by Keita to include duets with a lesser-known n’goni player, Makan Tounkara, who provided exquisite and delicate accompaniment before Salif brought on his full band, including calabash percussion. He played guitar throughout, and his singing was confident, understated and thrilling, ending with a powerful tribute to the 16th-century Islamic scholar Ahmed Baba.

His outstanding performance was tough on the other two Rebels. Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, who opened, lacked originality, and his rapid-fire French lyrics were matched with simplistic political cliches in English. Some of his songs were backed by wailing electric guitar but he made more original use of an amplified kora.

Tony Allen, the headliner, is an inspired drummer who has worked with everyone from Fela Kuti to Damon Albarn. He had a fine, post-Afrobeat band, but they needed a frontman to give the performance some presence.

Press release:After three series of acclaimed concerts, the African Soul Rebels tour has raised its game further for 2008, uniting two legends and a young groundbreaker for 10 nights. A West African spectacular, the tour features Mali’s Salif Keita, perhaps the finest singer the continent has ever produced, Tony Allen, the man who put the beat in Nigeria’s Afrobeat, and Awadi, the latest hero of Senegal’s fertile rap scene.

A soul rebel to the core, Salif Keita’s life has been one of confounding expectations. Because of his noble surname, he should never have been a singer; as an albino he was considered an outcast from the day he was born. Now, more than 40 years after he became a musician, Keita can look back on decades of unparalleled international success: his album Soro (1997) has been labeled the best African LP of all time; both the albums he has recorded since returning to Mali in 2000, Moffou and M’Bemba, have been called classics. For this tour, he is going further back in time, to the acoustic sound he grew up hearing while working in his father’s fields.

It’s not for nothing that countless fellow musicians have called him the greatest drummer of all time. A master of jazz and traditional African drumming styles, Tony Allen was the heartbeat behind Fela Kuti in the 1970s, playing on albums such as Zombie, Sorrow Tears and Blood and Gentlemen. After leaving Kuti, he followed his own instincts, bringing dub and hip-hop to Afrobeat, and his most recent project, The Good, the Bad & the Queen (recorded with Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong) won Best Album at the Mojo Awards in 2007.

One of the founding members of West African rap pioneers Positive Black Soul, Didier Awadi, has spent two decades mixing contemporary American soul with traditional Senegalese music. In January, he releases a new album, Presidents D’Afrique, based on speeches by African leaders, which tackles questions of heritage, independence and debt. “What I’m trying to do”, he says, “is use hip-hop as an entertaining way to get Africans to re-appropriate their history and give these presidents their rightful place in our pantheon.”

Salif Keita – Mandjou (full)

Salif Keita – Mandjou (live at the Roll Back Malaria Concert, June 2007)

Salif Keita live: Tekere


Youssou N’Dour with the Fathy Salama Orchestra

Youssou N’Dour with the Fathy Salama Orchestra

Youssou NDour

Tonight at at the Philharmonic.

Muslim life in Senegal is centered in the country’s Sufi communities, which have adapted to the modern rhythms of post-independence Africa. N’Dour, who sought to explore the links between his homeland’s religious beliefs and that of Muslims in Egypt and the Middle East, has explained that Egypt is an album that “praises the tolerance of my religion”

“Egypt” feels celebratory. The music is by turns witty (“Cheikh Ibra Fall”) and delicate (“Bamba the Poet”), and it has moments of conversation-stopping sweep. N’Dour provides his reassuring tenor, but much of the magic comes from the Fathy Salama Orchestra, a rich ensemble that makes use of hand drums, the kawala (a flute) and violins. In key passages, the sound becomes cinematic — you can almost see North and West Africa spreading out before your eyes.”
Nick Marino, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Songs of Praise to the Brotherhood

By Max Annas and Dorothee Plass: an article previously published by TAZ, Germany, 28 July 2004

The 45-year-old N’Dour has also made a shift in content with his new album. “Egypt” is a deeply religious album, recorded with an Egyptian chamber orchestra, which pays homage to the Mourides and other Islamic brotherhoods in Senegal.

The fact that Youssou N’Dour is portraying the leaders of the Mourides, the most important brotherhood, is a testament to their status in Senegal: There is hardly a home to be found there that does not contain a likeness of one of these esteemed and honored role models; the people live with them and know about their lives.

Thus, “Egypt” refers to a local variety of Islam, and the sensitive music for strings that Fatih Salama’s orchestra plays here helps the listener transcend the vast expanse of the Sahara.

Pop music has a very different sound in Africa than it does in Europe anyway. In the countries that achieved independence later, such as Zimbabwe or Guinea-Bissau, it has always been part of the political struggle.

Islam is still a bonding element in Senegal

At the same time, in the countries that were already independent, the most important dance combos accompanied the upheaval in the new nation-states: In Guinea, Bembeya Jazz paid tribute to President Sekou Touré; Orchestra Baobab from Senegal sang – among other things – about religion and religious themes.

After all, Islam was – and is to this day – an important bonding element in the social structure of this small West African country.

Youssou N’Dour explains his approach this way: “I believe that Islam has to make use of creative media such as music and cinema in order to be better understood. I don’t see myself as the champion of the religion. I am a faithful and practicing Muslim, but I am creating a work of music. And through this work of music, I speak about the realities that I perceive in relationship to the religion.”

More than 20 years ago, Ndiouga Dieng, one of the singers from Orchestra Baobab, would hardly have expressed it differently, had he been asked about the lyrics of “Werente Serigne”. The song, which appears on the legendary and recently re-released CD, “Pirates Choice”, advises listeners to steer clear of religious disputes and to respect the religious leaders.

Bambar, pillar saint of Mouridism

Thioné Seck, who was briefly a bandmate of Diengs, a member of Baobab in the mid-1970s, wrote one of the most moving songs in the history of Senegalese pop music for the band: “Bamba”, an ode to Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is the pillar saint of Mouridism, the most important variation of Senegalese Islam. He fought against colonialism; his birthplace of Touba, 100 kilometers east of the capital city of Dakar, is thought of as the country’s holy city. At the same time, it is the fastest-growing city in West Africa.

Youssou N’Dour also dedicates two out of the eight tracks on his “Egypt” album to the religious leader who died in 1927. In addition, one song deals with the city of Touba and yet another is devoted to Bamba’s closest companion, Cheikh Ibra Fall.

The African pop star considers it important to ground “Egypt” in Senegalese tradition. “Everybody has sung the praises of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba; that’s how it is where we live. He is a leader, he is very important to the society; we sing about him and we thank him. There has always been music honoring Ahmadou Bamba. But I think that, for the first time, we have done something different with the more acoustic approach, which brings home the religious theme very clearly.”

“Except for the finale, about the seat of N’Dour’s Mouridist sect (Touba, the fastest-growing city in West Africa), all the songs extol Sufi teachers. Senegalese Islam is largely Sufi. Islam being anything but monolithic, and Sufism being highly individualistic, that doesn’t mean Sufi like ecstatic Pakistani qawwali mystic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or like calm Turkish musical healer Oruj Guvenc, or like the fierce Chechen Muridists, or like the secularizing Afghan Naqshbandis. Senegalese Sufism divides into the seminal Qadiriya, state-building Tijani, and N’Dour’s Mouridists, whose work-worshipping mercantile ethic, Calvinist in a highly un-Swiss way, dominates Senegalese politics and émigré communities like New York’s. Opposing animism, Sufism is a modernizing force. But like most sub-Saharan Islam, it’s also very non-Arab. So for N’Dour, who for 20 years has been building bridges to Europe and America, to go to Egypt to record these pointedly pan-Sufi lyrics–in addition to praising the two Mouridist founders, he devotes songs to Qadiriya history, a Tijani anti-colonialist, a Tijani pan-Africanist, and an eccentric messianic brotherhood–is to remind his Western friends, and enemies, that in the crucial matter of faith he is not “Western,” not even a little bit.”

Why N’Dour refused to tour America in the spring of 2003

“It is my strong conviction that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should rest with the United Nations. As a matter of conscience I question the United States government’s apparent intention to commence war in Iraq. I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world–rightly or wrongly–as support for this policy, and that, as a consequence, it is inappropriate to perform in the US at this juncture.

“I understand that there are many in the US who do not support the idea of their government initiating war in Iraq at this time, and I offer my greatest respect to them. I also regret the difficulties this causes those who were to present my concerts in North America and those who were looking forward to seeing me and my band. This tour was over a year and a half in the planning and was the greatest commitment I had ever made to performing in the US.

“It is my fervent wish to return to the US in better times. But I find it impossible to imagine playing concerts in America when such grave issues are confronting all the peoples of the world.”

– Village Voice, June 8, 2004

Personnel: Youssou N’Dour: lead vocals; Kabou Guèye, Souka Guèye, & Mama Guèye: backing vocals; Babou Laye: kora; Mbaye Dieye Faye: various Senegalese percussion; Beugue Fallou Ensemble: various Sengalese percussion and backing vocals. The Fathy Salama Orchestra, featuring: Fathy Salama: arranger & conductor; Yuri Kablotsky and Midhat Abd El Sameeh: first violins; Mamdouh El Gibally: oud; Abdallah Helmy: kawala; Mostafa Abd El Azeez: arghul; Shaker: rababa; Shibl: magruna; Hasaneen Hindy: mizmar; Ramadan Mansoor: tabla; Ayman Sidky: doholla; Ahmed El Gazar: sagat; Yaser Mal Allah: various Arab Gulf percussion; Bisheer Ewees: bass violin; Vassily: bass violin. Hassan Khaleel: score manager.

Femi Kuti at the Phil

Femi Kuti And The Positive Force Perform In London

Last night at the Phil: Femi Kuti and his tremendous afrobeat orchestra and dancers.