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Roots + revolution at Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage

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Dropping me off outside Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage on Barima Avenue, my friend hung around to see if it was actually open. “I’ve never actually been here,” she said, peering at the sign. The closed gates didn’t look promising.

I had only discovered the museum existed a few days earlier, after walking up the wrong road (something that happens often to me). But being within walking distance of the National Zoo, Botanical Gardens and Castellani House, it’s actually well placed for the enterprising visitors who track it down.

Luckily, it turned out, the museum was open – and I wasn’t the first visitor that day. “We had a tour earlier,” said the friendly guide optimistically (admitting later that before starting work there, even she hadn’t heard of it). More promotion was needed, we agreed.

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Painting outside the Museum of African Heritage, Guyana

Until 2011, the museum was known as the Museum of African Art and Ethnology. According to the tourism board, it was renamed to “open their doors to a wider audience and begin to fully address the African experience in Guyana”. Most of the museum is still given up to artefacts from (predominantly) the West Coast of Africa and neighbouring Suriname, but there are artworks by local artists too.

On entering the top floor, you’re immediately met by a small replica of Guyana’s famous moment to Cuffy (more in this post)– an African slave who led the great slave revolt of 1763 in what was then the Dutch colony of Berbice. Most of the lower floor of the museum is dedicated to Cuffy and his men, too.

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The Dutch began bringing Africans to the colony as early as the mid-17th century. Over the following years, thousands of slaves were captured and transported over the seas in appalling conditions, for a life of back-breaking work, oppression and abuse.

Today, Guyanese of African ancestry make up around 30.2% of the population – according to the 2002 census. (There was a census in 2012, but the preliminary report makes no mention of ethnicity and I cannot find anywhere the final version, which was ‘due soon’ last May.)

The connection between Africa and the Guyana of today is made by the contemporary art itself, which tackles themes including slavery, unification and revolution. Like this striking piece by artist Ras Iah entitled ‘Escape Mental Slavery’:

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There’s also a great painting that imagines the pioneering group of former African slaves who clubbed together to buy their own plantation village and make it their home of freedom. But I’ll save that one for you to discover in person.

Museum of African History, Barima Avenue, Bel Air Park, Georgetown Guyana. Entry: Free. Getting there: Take the number 40 bus and get off near Popeye’s.

blog · Uncategorized

The wobbly flag pole + a national hero

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On a visit to D’Urban Park in Georgetown yesterday in search of the giant Guyana flag unveiled on Republic Day (23 February), I encountered the 1763 Monument (better known as ‘Cuffy’).

This striking statue was built in remembrance of the African slave rebellion which took place at a plantation in Berbice that same year. Created by Guyanese artist Philip Alphonso, it was unveiled on 23 May 1976.

According to local arts venue Castellani House (via Stabroek News), the figure’s pouting mouth is a sign of defiance and resistance. While in his hands he throttles a pig and dog – the pig representing ignorance; the dog covetousness, lust and greed. “This image … is inspired by a quotation from the Holy Scripture: ‘Cast not your pearls before swine nor give what is sacred to the dog.'”

Beyond the powerful figure of Cuffy, the super-size Golden Arrow flag was still nowhere to be seen. Surely a 65 × 35ft piece of patriotism isn’t lost so easily? Fear not, a friendly security guard told me, the 180ft flagpole has been taken down for extra reinforcement. “But don’t worry, it’ll be back in time for Independence Day!”

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Flag image credit: Ministry of the President, Guyana

African arts, culture + politics

Interview: Director Samba Gadjigo

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Sembene! director Samba Gadjigo on preserving the legacy of the ‘father of African cinema

As co-director of Sembene! – the acclaimed new documentary about Senegal’s legendary film director – Samba Gadjigo has had to (grudgingly) get used to walking the red carpet. “If there is one thing I’ve hated so far in my experience with the film it is that kind of artificial world,” he admits. But he’s also had to content with the restrictions and roadblocks still hampering Africa cinema, both locally and globally: “I’ve witnessed some horrific scenes; [like] when a director is invited to a festival at the other end of the world and they’re hopping from plane to plane with a suitcase full of reels … Many of the film directors unfortunately do not have distributors or they self distribute.”

…..

Read full article: http://whatsonafrica.org/interview-director-samba-gadjigo-i-dont-think-with-sembenes-films-its-a-memory-of-a-continent-the-issues-he-dealt-with-are-so-timeless/

African arts, culture + politics

Airbnb in Africa: Airbnb makes its move on the growing African tourism market

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Since it launched in 2008, Airbnb has revolutionised the way many of us travel. Goodbye bland hotel room, hello chic artist’s loft apartment. It’s not hard to see why millions have joined the site. In South Africa alone, the number of people using Airbnb has shot up by an incredible 255 per cent in the past 12 months with 11,000 properties now listed in the country. This spike in popularity has not gone unnoticed by Airbnb, which in July announced plans to “accelerate its growth” in the rainbow nation.

Read full article: http://www.nataal.com/airbnb-in-africa

African arts, culture + politics

Groundnut: London’s Afro-European food collective prepare to go global

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When you look on a menu and find moin-moin alongside sukuma wiki and sweet pepper frozen yogurt, you know you’re in for a treat. And it’s thanks to South London foodies Duval Timothy, Folayemi ‘Yemi’ Brown and Jacob Fodio Todd who are drawing on their varied African roots to start a taste revolution.

Read the full article: http://www.nataal.com/the-groundnut

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Breakin’ Convention 2013: Junior

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(ARISELIVE.com, April 2013)

Words Carinya Sharples  Photo credit Paul Hampartsoumian

For one weekend every year London dance venue Sadler’s Wells puts away the ballet shoes, flamenco skirts and leotards and gives free reign to a festival of street dance – with jaw-dropping shows, workshops, parties and more (see teaser video at bottom).

As the tenth edition of Breakin’ Convention prepares to pop, lock and boogie into town, we caught up with one of the international acts set to wow the crowds from 4-6 May.

Junior Bosila Banya aka Junior was born in Kinshasa, DRC, and moved to France age two to receive treatment after contracting polio. Since then he’s become a groundbreaking dancer; performing worldwide as a solo artist and with his crew Wanted Posse, and scooping up awards as easy as ice-cream – including World Champion at Battle Of The Year Germany in 2001 and winner of France Got Talent in 2007.

We spoke to the 32-year-old about his moves, what he’s looking forward to about Breakin’ Convention 2013 and how he came to dance for Madonna. Here are some of his thoughts…

I am looking forward to sharing a part of my passion for dancing through my solo show. I hope that I am going to be good enough to be on the main stage and able to captivate almost 2,000 people by myself. That will be a good challenge. I know how important it is to be in such a big hip hop festival.

The teams I’m hoping to see at Breakin’ Convention are Electric Boogaloos, Zamunda, ILL Abilities and Soul Mavericks.The Electric Boogallos because they are pioneers and the others because I’ve known most of their members for a long time from another competitions so I can’t wait to see them in a theatre-show environment.

I would describe my breaking style as unusual. I build it with my story, my inspirations and the energy that a crowd or any person can give.

Photo credit Mohamed Zerrouk

I’ve been to Breakin’ Convention three times before: twice with my crew Wanted Posse, and one time for another version of my solo BUANATTITUDE. I still perform with the Wanted Posse. My crew is 20 years old with almost 30 dancers.

The nicknames I have chosen are Buana, which I’ve had since I was 13 or 14, and Buanson from the Wanted Posse. The other names [such as Alien with Serial Crew Breakers] people gave to me. Some people even think that Junior is a nickname.

Thanks to my dance I have been able to visit 51 countries and I have been impressed by so many of them: Australia, Japan, Tahiti, Jordan, Cambodia… I had the privilege to dance for an emir of Dubai and big personalities. Another of my highlights was when I won France Got Talent [La France a un incroyable talent] in front of millions of viewers.

I had the opportunity to dance for Madonna two times. One time we did a show for her in a club. She liked it so we were invited to dance for her son’s birthday. She is a very friendly and open-minded person. I was so surprised to see how cool she is in the real world. And in the evening she invited us to eat at her home.

The ultimate place for me to dance would be… on a big stage like for the Super Bowl or in front of big personality. Why not the Queen!

My parents decided to leave Kinshasa because of the hard life over there. I have been back since; to see where I come from and to meet family. It was so nice to re-link with my roots – that gave me the courage to do my first solo. In Congo I felt this positive energy and dynamic that we often miss in our “developed countries”.

There is a street dance and a bboy scene in Kinshasa– they are very talented. I hope to organise a nice jam other there soon.

For the near future I am preparing my bboy team from Wanted Posse to win big battles; I’m working on my clothing brand, Buana; and I’m going to work with a company in Germany for maybe one year.

If I wasn’t a breakdancer…I would have been someone who would like to be a breakdancer!

Breakin’ Convention takes place at Sadler’s Wells in London from 4-6 May. For more information and to book tickets visit breakinconvention.com.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

The Playwright Q&A: Bola Agbaje

Bola Agbaje colour. Pic by Brian Would

(ARISELIVE.com, March 2013) Words Carinya Sharples  Photo credit Brian Would

In her Olivier-Award winning debut play Gone Too Far, Bola Agbaje brilliantly captured the lives of young black residents on a London council estate. In her new play, The Burial, the playwright draws on her Nigerian heritage in a satire about a daughter, her late father and his two Nigerian wives.

If that sounds like a Nollywood plotline, it’s no wonder. Raised in London (bar a couple of years in Nigeria), Agbaje is fascinated by Nigerian culture and both the country’s firmly established DVD market and its burgeoning cinema scene, and carried out careful research to write the play.

The Burial is set to open at The Albany theatre in Deptford, South East London, on 2 May. But that’s far from the only ink pot Agbaje has her pen in. She has also written a play, Take A Deep Breath And Breathe – inspired by Aristophanes’ famous female-sex-ban play Lysistrata. The production, performed by young actors from Ovalhouse theatre’s Drama Company, runs from 16-20 April.

In a break between rehearsals and castings, ARISE met Agbaje in the café of the Royal Court Theatre, the launchpad for her first play. Perched on a high stool, she told us all about writing the script for the film adaptation of Gone Too Far, exciting future projects, African Buddhists and much more we couldn’t squeeze in here.

Already a fan of ARISE, she was keen to link up. “My aim is to get my work out into Nigeria so for me this is a good thing,” she declared. “It’s such an emerging market and I want to be part of it from the beginning.” Nigeria, are you listening?

ARISE: How are things going with The Burial so far?
Bola Agbaje: It’s cool. We’ve just finished casting and we start rehearsals next week, so at the moment I’m just redrafting it, because I recently had a play on here [at the Royal Court Theatre] called Belong and if you look on it from outside it was about the Black-Nigerian experience and mixed cultures – so with The Burial I wanted people not to make the assumption that it’s the same as Belong. It’s a totally different style, exploring music, dance and dream sequence and fantasy, which I’ve never done before but a lot of traditional African playwrights – like Wole Soyinka – used to do that in their work. Because we didn’t grow up learning African mythology or anything like that it’s a lot harder to incorporate that into your work. So that’s my challenge with this play.

How are you introducing these new forms? Are you bringing in musicians and choreographers?
Well, I’ve sourced the old music myself because I like talking to my parents, asking them about traditional folk songs and stuff like that and incorporating that in it. And then talking to loads of musicians about how to do it, watching loads of different plays and reading old screenplays from African contemporary playwrights. It’s tough. [There’s been] a lot of research for this play. The others you just kind of write from memory but this one… I don’t want to get it wrong!

With more and more African and Nigerian productions coming to London stages – such as The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba, Feast at the Young Vic and the critically acclaimed Mies Julie (still on at Riverside Studios), do you feel there’s more space for Nigerian theatre?
I think so. It’s important to have those voices. Like with any culture, you want an Irish playwright to tell an Irish story, you want a Scottish playwright to tell a Scottish story and I think it’s the same with Nigerians. For too long it feels like we haven’t had a voice in London. There was a time when you had the Wole Soyinkas, the Chinua Achebes, you had all those great authors who came out and had global recognition, but then after a while it just seemed like it kind of died down completely. So it’s nice that now there are more emerging – like [Nigerian playwright] Janice Okoh, she’s got a play on at the moment [Three Birds] at the Bush Theatre. So there are loads more coming out, and there are loads of Nigerian actors – LOADS! So it’s nice to tell those stories and to be given the platform to tell those stories.

Identity has been a theme throughout your work. In The Burial you’re exploring religious identity too. What made you want to approach that?
I’ve always been interested in religious studies and my mum’s a Muslim, but I don’t practise, so it’s kind of weird in my family – where my mum and my sister are practising Muslims but me and my younger sister are not. And I went to a Catholic school when I was younger, so I’ve been exposed to all different types of religions. But I find it quite fascinating how that has an impact on people’s daily lives; how people think, how people react to certain situations – so I wanted to explore that. Tradition more than religion. Like with The Burial, it’s about what traditions do you follow when someone dies? What do you do? How do you bury someone? Because your religion has an impact.

And you brought Buddhism as well into it. That’s more unusual…
Most Africans aren’t Buddhist so I thought it was an interesting twist. I’ve met a few and you know people have raised eyebrows when someone [goes against] what religion you expect. Like [you anticipate] Christian or Muslim or atheist and then they go ‘Buddhist’ – and you’re like, this is a little bit wrong! ‘How did you get involved in that culture?’ So I thought it was interesting to explore that.

And African culture, music and creativity are hot right now in London…
Of course, completely. Whenever I explore my Nigerian culture it is a bit of making up for the lost time when I was younger and wasn’t so proud of it. My sister’s 18 and I find it so fascinating watching her growing up and she can’t believe there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be African. She’s like ‘How is that possible?!’

“We’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge”

Why do you think things have changed?
I think there are more of us [Africans] in London, in England, and more people are tapping into that. My parents came over in the 80s and, like a lot of parents, their whole idea was to set up a new life and fit in. Whereas now we’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge.

What would be your ideal project to work on? A TV series? Another film?
At the moment I’m developing a TV series – actually I’m developing a web series that I’m really keen to get off the ground because I’ve seen loads of web series online. Have I heard of Awkward Black Girl? It’s amazing! There’s also a Nigerian one that comes on at the moment called Gidi Up which is only about 8 minutes long but it’s so fascinating so I want to be a part of that movement.

Have you got a concept in mind?
Yeah but I can’t say yet, it’s not out there – someone could steal the idea. But I’m quite excited about that. And I’d love my [theatre] work to be performed in Nigeria and do more TV and more film stuff. I’m working on a collaborative piece for a film idea with Destiny Ekaragha, she’s the director of Gone Too Far. I’ve known her for a while now, we’re worked together closely on this film so I know what I’m in for. We’ve got a similar sense of humour so it won’t be a shock.

Last October [through 2Far Media] I also produced my own play [House Of Corrections at Riverside Studios]; funded it myself and put it on myself. That was quite an experience, a hard experience – I learned to appreciate other aspects of what makes a play come alive. But I want to do more of that – I got a buzz from it.

Nigeria is big on your radar at the moment. Do you want to travel out there sometime?
I do, I do. I might be going out later on this year because one of the lead actors of Gone Too Far, O.C. Ukeje, is one of the rising Nollywood stars so we want to have a premiere out in Nigeria. That will be kind of cool.

Do you know when Gone Too Far will be released?
No. Before its official opening we’re going to do a series of screenings though. So we’ve got one at the end of the month [March], a couple more in May/June and then officially it launches in October – hopefully through London Film Festival. I’m really excited. It’s a good little film.

Would you consider moving to Lagos for a while?
I’d love to. I’ve got loads of family out there so it wouldn’t be a massive leap, and as I writer I can work anywhere. As long as it’s got electricity and internet [laughs]! But I just want to make my mark here, make a bigger stamp on this place first and go over. The aim is to be global, tough task but that’s the aim! And the great thing about writing, making film or having a play is that it can travel around the world. And that’s what’s exciting for me being a writer – your work can reach so many different people, it can live on. Good work lives on for a long time.

Last year I had a version of my play on in Germany, and in Italy they did a translation of my play Gone Too Far, which was really cool. I went to go and see it and it was so weird watching them speak Italian and not understanding a word they were saying but I knew where they were in the story based on where people were laughing. It was amazing to see, and to see that it worked somewhere else.

You’ve named Wole Soyinka as one of your role models. How do you feel about being a role model yourself now?
I grew up in Peckham and I make no shame of growing up on an estate or coming from that environment but if that motivates one person to go off and do something against the norm then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job… Most of the time what you’re inspired by is seeing someone else doing it, it’s those mirrors that people hold up so you go ‘Oh actually if she can do it I can do it too’. It’s like when we were filming Gone Too Far; my nieces and nephews came on set and it was the first time they’ve ever been on a film set and it was fascinating to watch them see the process of filmmaking and then go ‘I want to be a director. I want to be a writer’ – and that’s how it works really. My nephew saw Destiny directing and was like ‘She’s the boss, I want to be the boss!’

The Burial is at The Albany, London, from 2-11 May 2013. For more details and to book tickets visit www.thealbany.org.uk

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Flashback: 21 July 1969. Pan-African culture festival rocks Algiers

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(ARISE magazine, issue 18) “It was absolutely amazing, explosive,” remembers Algerian artist Houria Niati. “People were embracing each other, there was total acceptance of what they were seeing. It was very pure, very untouched: raw Africa.” Algiers had never seen anything like it. Miriam Makeba, in exile from South Africa, sang protest songs, while Nina Simone premiered her take on Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. In shaded courtyards, Black Panther leaders discussed revolutionary tactics with their African comrades. Wide-eyed children stayed out late under the twinkling streetlights, determined not to miss a second of the action. And the air was filled with the smoke of gun salutes, the sound of drums and a hubbub of tongues from all corners of Africa and beyond: Arabic, Portuguese, French, English, Yoruba, Swahili.

Niati was just 21 at the time and working in the Algerian Ministry of Sport and Culture. “Every day was different. Wherever they said there was a big singer I would go. We had open halls, open theatres… It was just incredible. People wouldn’t sleep because the weather was so fantastic.” Musical and political conversations thrived, inspiring scenes such as acclaimed US jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp freestyling on stage with Algerian and Touareg musicians. “We are still black and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus,” Shepp can be heard chanting on a live recording. “Jazz is an African power. Jazz is an African music.”

Funded by the Organisation Of African Unity (now the African Union), The Pan-African Cultural Festival of 1969 celebrated the achievements of a decade that had brought independence to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and, in 1962, Algeria – among others. Africa was united by a new sense of shared purpose, a sentiment evident in the excited yet overawed faces captured in Le Festival Panafrican D’Alger, American artist William Klein’s remarkable first-hand documentary of the event, which invaded Algiers from July 21-August 1, 1969.

But this impressive display of Africa’s rich culture had a deeper purpose. “The first Pan-African Festival is not a general diversion that distracts us from the daily fight,” says Algerian president Houari Boumédienne in the film to a UN-style conference of country representatives. “It is part of an immense effort for our emancipation”. Although today Algeria might seem an unlikely location for a pan-African festival, the country’s brutal eight-year struggle for independence in the 1960s had made it something of an African hero. Nelson Mandela trained with the country’s National Liberation Front in 1962. And it was the adopted home of Martinican writer Frantz Fanon, a key voice in Algeria’s independence struggle.

Nathan Hare, founding publisher of The Black Scholar, attended the festival and noticed Algeria’s resistance to “the re-entry of the French and American imperialists”. In the November 1969 edition of The Black Scholar he writes of seeing revolutionary graffiti on “buildings, walls and fences, and the old pre-revolutionary symbol of resistance, the haik (or veil), worn by so many of the women”.

A symposium was held to give a platform to speakers including Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, US Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael and Negritude theorist Leopold Senghor. “People came here specifically to check each other out,” says Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in the film, “to see what was going on and to get some ideas as to which movement they could relate to.” An Afro-American Cultural Center was also opened and a Pan African Cultural Manifesto drawn up, calling for culture to form the basis of a new, empowered Africa.”I don’t think there will ever be any African festival like that,” says Niati.

Nevertheless in 2009 there was an attempt to recreate the glory of the 1969 festival. The €80million event, organised by the Algerian government and African Union, attracted 8,000 artists from 51 African nations – including Salif Keita, Khaled and Binyavanga Wainaina. However a lot had changed since the first festival. “It’s quite amazing because [in 1969] you can see women wearing the traditional veil next to a topless African dancer,” says Ali Meziane, one of the organisers of London’s Algerian Cultural Festival. “But in 2009 you could hear from the crowds shouts of ‘monkeys’ towards the dancers and some racist comments.” In 40 years Algeria had been through a lot: Algerian Civil War, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But, says Meziane, “the festival is a good tool to educate people to reopen the Algerian identity towards an African identity. We are Algerians and we are Africans”.

African arts, culture + politics

Changemakers: Botswana

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(ARISE magazine, issue 18) Best known for its diamonds, safaris and peaceable record, Botswana is widely viewed as one of Africa’s most economically and politically stable countries. Once a British protectorate, Botswana (or Bechuanaland as it was then) became independent in 1966 under the leadership of national hero and Botswana’s first president Seretse Khama. Following presidential terms under Quett Masire and Festus Mogae, Khama’s son Seretse Khama Ian Khama took the mantle in 2008 and today presides over a country of 2million people with a GDP of US$17.63billion.

Botswana attracted attention in 2002 when indigenous bushmen, or San people, of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve took the government to court for forcibly evicting them from their ancestral lands. After a four-year legal battle the community won its fight and, with it, the right to live and hunt on the reserve.

The country is also known for its high HIV rate, with one in four adults in Botswana infected with the disease, according to 2009 figures. Though this has lowered from the 2003 rate of 37.3 per cent it’s still the second highest in the world (behind Swaziland). The government has responded by rolling out an extensive programme of free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment and launching the Zero New Infections By 2016 campaign.

Most recently Botswana hit the headlines for granting women the right to inherit (after a dogged campaign by a group of sisters, all aged over 65) and winning its first Olympic medal; 18-year-old Nigel Amos scooped silver in the 800-metre final at London 2012. The country is known as “the place to go if you want to see The Big Five in the wild” (CNN Traveller). And tourism is on the increase, with 2.1million people visiting in 2010 – in part due to Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling series The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Set in and around the capital, Gaborone, the novels inspired the hit BBC/HBO adaptation starring Jill Scott.

Here we meet five local heroes making a difference in the southern African country.

The lawyer: Uyapo Ndadi
Lawyer Uyapo Ndadi has worked with the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/Aids (BONELA) since 2007 – first as legal officer and now executive director. Alongside implementing BONELA’s aim to advance an “ethical, legal and human rights approach” to how the country responds to its HIV/Aids epidemic, Ndadi blogs for online paper Mmegi and was invited to meet President Obama in 2010, after been named one of JCI’s 10 Outstanding Young Persons Of The World.

“BONELA is something that is close to my heart because I see the organisation bringing dignity to people’s doorsteps. People come saying ‘I’ve been fired from work because of my HIV status’ and you fight for their rights to be restored by taking the matter to court and getting a reinstatement or getting good compensation for the client.

“I think what I’m most proud of is changing the law. There are laws now that say no one should be fired from work because of their sexual orientation or their HIV status. I’m also proud of changing mindsets. It used to be a taboo to talk about issues of sexual orientation, issues of sex workers or gay rights but these days the nation is talking. Recently there was a huge outcry after I brought it to the fore that the government had problems with ARV shortages and didn’t tell the nation. The minister of health refused to talk to me on the radio but it got the nation talking anyway. People called to say ‘No, this is unacceptable. We need to know what happened and we need promises that it will not occur again’. They’re still dealing with the backlog but at least ARVs are available and people can get a full month’s supply.

“We have about 80 organisations signed up to be part of BONELA, to infuse human rights into their work. Human rights in Botswana are like a foreign thing. People don’t believe much in human rights or see the need to talk about them. We’re trying to change that mindset.”

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The drugs advisor: Lebo Mothibatsela
Lebo Mothibatsela is acting executive director of Botswana Substance Abuse Support Network (BOSASNet), the only organisation dedicated to providing specialised outpatient rehabilitation, support and relapse prevention services in Botswana. Alcohol is a thorny issue in the country since President Khama imposed a 70 per cent levy, or ‘sin tax’, on alcohol (later reduced to 30 per cent) and a midnight curfew on bars.

“When I joined BOSASNet I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the mitigation of substance abuse and dependency. I’ve seen and dealt with the challenges and consequences of dependency, [so] being involved with rehabilitation and relapse prevention services has been wonderful.

“There is a lot of stigma, discrimination and lack of understanding of substance abuse and dependency in Botswana. And because of this we, as a nation, will continue to have ineffective interventions and programmes. Many people are not prepared to accept or identify problems or talk about the problems that they or their family members are going through. We need factual more than moral education and we need to ensure that we have the necessary services available.

“Like HIV/Aids, substance abuse affects all ages and backgrounds, religions or races. Our clients range in age from 15 to over 60. And the substances we have dealt with to date are alcohol, mandrax, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, nicotine, heroine and sleeping pills. We have also provided a counsellor to Sbrana Psychiatric Hospital in Lobatse since May 2011 but due to lack of donors and insufficient funding we will be ceasing clinical services in December.

“Sin tax and restrictions on the sale of alcohol can be effective to mitigate alcohol consumption, when implemented alongside complementary interventions and services. But the effectiveness of these measures
on actual alcohol and substance abuse or dependency still requires conclusive evidence. BOSASNet has been a recipient of a grant from the Alcohol Levy Fund for just under 3million pula [US$379m] from June 2010 to November 2012. Unfortunately the funds from the alcohol levy have not been sufficiently dedicated to rehabilitation and relapse-prevention services since its inception. We hope that the ministry of health will provide such services nationwide in the future.”

bosasnet.com

The poet mentor: TJ Dema

TJ Dema is a champion for poetry in Botswana, representing the country internationally and supporting up-and-coming artists through her arts administration company Sauti Arts And Performance Management. A former Chair of the Botswana Writing Society, she co-founded poetry collective Exoduslivepoetry! in 2003 and has recorded a multilingual CD of 12 Botswana poets entitled Dreaming Is A Gift For Me. In October she helped put on the first Botswana-based edition of Poetry Africa.

“Poets have a special place in our history. Weddings feel incomplete without a poet and they have always been unofficial advisors to leaders. The poet is the person that can chastise the chief. You don’t necessarily make any money from it but kids stop you on the street – they tell you that they want to be like you, they want to write like you. And their parents stop you to tell you you’re a really good role model.

“I had poets come to me saying, ‘Oh, I’ve seen you performing in South Africa, how did you do that?’ So for two to four years I would just give people advice: ‘talk to so and so’ or email them a draft of my contract. My roles ranged from mentor to editor to performance and stage management. Even today, having set up Sauti Arts, it’s more of a partnership with me and each artist than me fully managing them, because I don’t have the resources. I managed myself and struggled for 10 years; negotiating contracts, looking at fees. And I always wished somebody else were doing it.

“There are at least three platforms for spoken word in Botswana. We are used to performing as collectives. You don’t get the ‘Adele: performing for one night only’ type of shows. But it keeps you inexperienced; you only ever do 10 minutes so that’s all you ever rehearse, that’s all you build your muscles for. [At Sauti] we push our artists to do 15-minute to one-hour showcases, and the ones who put in the work see the benefits.

“In the future I’d like to build a team to translate poetry from Setswana to English. I would make it a two-step process: linguists from the University of Botswana with a focus in Setswana would first do a literal translation and then I would be in a position to make it a poetic translation. I could reference the Setswana and say ‘No, no, no, we’ve completely lost track of what we’re saying here’.

“The Botswanan is such a beautiful and developed language. Our similes, idioms and proverbs are built around what is most important to the people. So, for example, telling a woman she resembled a cow would
be the highest form of praise – poets often refer to cows as ‘wet-nose gods’ ”.

tjdema.blogspot.co.uk

The landrights activist: Jumanda Gakelebone

Jumanda Gakelebone is the spokesperson of the First People Of The Kalahari (FPK), a non-governmental organisation fighting for the rights of the San people. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the San people were evicted from their ancestral lands by the Botswana government from 1997 – before a 2006 high-court ruling re-established their land rights. But the verdict did not put an end to the struggles of the San, and the FPK continues to raise awareness of fresh obstacles, such as the 2010 decision to block reserve residents from using the Kalahari borehole or drilling a new one (a move that was overturned in 2011).

“At the time FPK was founded in 1993 I was still in school and got interested in the issues they raised. My community on the Central Kalahari Reserve was having a problem with land rights and I thought ‘this is a good organisation. I have to go there to do something’. Even at school I could feel the pressure – the way they would humiliate us – so that was on my mind. So when I came across the late John Hardbattle [co-founder
of FPK alongside Roy Sesana] we had a talk and found we shared the same ideas.

“Today the organisation is still running, it’s still living but we have funding problems and depend on outside donors. The people I was going to school with are now the governors of the country – so this [matter] is generation to generation. It’s going to be very difficult for the issue to be solved. But some things have changed since the 1996 ruling. I would say about 10 per cent of the population have understood and said that ‘this is [the San people’s] right and we need to respect them’. And the man who was the head of the struggle – Sesana – is now residing there [in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve] with his family.

“But whenever decisions are made [by the government] we are not there… there are no ministers or MPs from the San communities, so our voice is less there. The government still encourages the San to move into settlements instead of staying on the reserve. I would not say it’s because of wildlife, I would call it racial discrimination – them not really respecting us. They don’t recognise us as part of the population of the country. Gem Diamonds
did help to build wells after the 2011 ruling but I will not call that [real] help – whatever they’re doing is to show the outside world they care. If it wasn’t for the ruling they would not have paid for them.”

savethefpk.org

The eco champion: Keneilwe Moseki  

Keneilwe Moseki is executive director of Somarelang Tikologo (Environment Watch Botswana), a pioneering NGO situated in its own eco-park in Gaborone. Since it was set up in 1991, following Africa’s first sustainability summit, ST has been a local leader in recycling. The organisation has represented Botswana at international platforms such as COP17 in Durban. It’s also lobbied government, resulting in Moseki winning a place on JCI’s 10 Outstanding Young Persons Of The World list for 2012.

“Setting up this park has been one of our major achievements. We used to go to schools to give presentations, to get people to understand conservation, but we said, ‘Some people are getting it and some are missing the point. What do we do?’ So we found this space, cleared away the rubble and built an orchard, an area for kids made of recyclable items, an eco café, a drop-off recyclable park and community hall, which people can hire for a small fee. There’s also our innovative green shop, which sells crafts made out of waste metal, paper and plastic by women from rural areas, students and unemployed young people.

“We do public tours to tell people which trees and plants to buy, how to plant them and how to start an organic garden at home. We also do awareness activities, such as trying to promote solar use and energy, and have worked in the corporate community.

“Working for a development office you need regular sponsors. If they become irregular there’s potential for your programmes to suffer. You find a lot of sponsors that come on board but don’t want to finance operational costs. But without those things there is no project. So we realised we had to have parallel programmes and fundraising projects that could support our activities. And we have had the support of Barclays, FNB, E.ON – and Shell Oil. I know that one is controversial to mention with environmental conservation but in Botswana they are behaving very well. They have been supporting us and are the ones who started the organic garden with us.”

http://www.somatiko.org.bw

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Gaborone

zeus
Detail from illustration by Jim Spencer

(ARISE magazine, issue 17) Hip hop artist and Channel O awards nominee Zeus tells us where it’s at in Botswana’s chilled-out capital, from the coolest club to the unofficial business hub

Mokolodi Nature Reserve
Most people come to Africa expecting to see wild animals everywhere, which is just silly! There are areas in Botswana with freely roaming wildlife but not usually in cities, towns or villages. There is, however, a small game reserve in Gaborone where you can enjoy a game drive or a braai in the picnic area.

BotswanaCraft
This amazing place connects aspects of Setswana culture and lifestyle. They sell art, sculpture and other ornaments made by Batswana artists. Its courtyard restaurant specialises in local cuisine served in the traditional manner – down to how the waiting staff assist you in washing your hands before a meal. It’s also a popular live music venue and has hosted some first-class acts, including Oliver Mtukudzi, Salif Keita and yours truly!
Plot 20716, Magochanyama

Mafia Soul
For a more urban shopping experience visit one of the five Mafia Soul stores. The branch in Riverwalk Mall is the place to go if you live the hip hop lifestyle. Check out latest hip hop fashion trends, flick through magazines, buy music or debate the latest song, beef or your favourite MC with owner Molf and manager Prince. They man the floor, giving first-class service.
Riverwalk Shopping Mall, Unit 25/27

National Museum
Located next to the old mall in the city centre (formerly known as the Main Mall), the museum gives travellers an appreciation of the history of the relatively young city and the country as a whole. It brings back memories of primary-school field trips for me, and is captivating for all ages.
331 Independence Ave

Thapong Arts Centre
Located in the charmingly lazy, residential area of Village, this centre exhibits works by local visual artists. It’s testament to the resilience of Batswana artists, who haven’t received the support they deserve but still manage to produce breathtaking works.
Plot 21965, The Village

Pop-Inn
There is a local snack served with tea or coffee – or alongside chips, fish and Russians (a type of sausage) – which is known as magwinya or fat cakes. They are an oily, unhealthy but delightful [fried dough] treat one should enjoy every so often. Stop by here for one and some snoek fish – you can work it off later.
1873/4 Kgopo Close Ext 4

Dot Com
Formerly known for hosting business executives and political hotshots, this popular ‘beer after work with the guys’ spot mixes professionals, socialites and entrepreneurs in a melting pot of boyish mischief. Talk ranges from football, cars and ladies to business. If you want to bypass a lot of gatekeepers and meet key influencers and decision-makers, this place might serve you better than the business district.
Matima Crescent, off Maputo Drive

Khwest Cafe
For sundowners, Khwest is where it’s at. A very sociable joint smack in the middle of the oldest mall in the city with a lovely balcony, it’s a setting for soulful house music sessions, poetry recitals and stand-up comedy.
Queens Road, Ext 2

Sanitas Tea Garden
A nursery that houses more than plants and ornaments, Sanitas Tea Garden has a chilled restaurant with a great homestyle menu – complete with homemade lemonade and ice-cream. Perfect for a lazy afternoon or mid-morning when you want to escape from the routine of a dull day.
Gaborone Dam

Fusion Entertainment
Fusion Entertainent caters to a house and hip hop market. I’ve hosted some great parties there, including the debut of my Champagne Music video and my birthday. It attracts an ‘I wanna party, no BS’ crowd and on the right night it’s electric inside – with the balcony serving as a half-time rest stop for the city’s party rockers.
Mowana Park, Phakalane

African arts, culture + politics

Icon: Freddie Mercury

freddie

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Many people have tried to claim Freddie Mercury as their own. In 2009, Brian May unveiled a star-shaped plaque dedicated to his former bandmate in the London town of Feltham, where Mercury lived when he first moved to England in 1964. Last year The Asian Awards recognised the Queen frontman, who was born to parents from India and studied there as a child. And in Zanzibar, visitors can find a gold plaque outside Zanzibar Gallery commemorating the island’s most famous son, who was born at the Government Hospital on September 5 1946. For most of his fans though, Mercury is simply a legend – the musical genius who made Queen famous and dazzled audiences around the world with the always-fulfilled promise: We Will Rock You.

Mercury came into the world as Farrokh Bulsara, son of Bomi and Jer Bulsara. In Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones, his mother remembers: “As a young boy he was very happy and loved music… I think he always wanted to be a showman”. At the age of eight, Mercury left Zanzibar to go to St Peter’s School in Panchgani, India, where he formed his first band, the Hectics. “I was a precocious child,” Mercury remembered in an interview with Melody Maker in 1974. “My parents thought boarding school would do me good so they sent me to one… I look back on it and I think it was marvellous. You learn to look after yourself and it taught me to have responsibility”. It was also here that Farrokh got his nickname Freddie, though it wasn’t until moving to England that the transformation from Bulsara to the intergalactic Mercury would happen. In The Definitive Biography, a friend recounts his memories of hanging out with Mercury on his return to Zanzibar: “We’d cycle to Fumba in the south, Mungapwani in the northeast, the site of the old slaves’ caves… we’d swim, eat snacks, climb coconut trees. We were mischevious but not bad”.

Under pressure

Away from their youthful adventures, however, a political and social storm was brewing. After gaining its independence from Britain in 1963, Zanzibar’s power passed into the hands of an Arab ruling elite – despite the Afro-Shirazi Party winning 54 per cent of the electoral vote. Furious that the party, which represented Zanzibar’s African majority, had lost out, revolutionaries overthrew the Sultan and his government in 1964. In the aftermath of the coup, Arab and South Asian Zanzabaris were targeted in reprisal attacks. A headline from a Los Angeles Times report of the time declares “Hasty Mass Burials Prevent True Count; Toll of ‘Political Suspects’ May Hit 4,000”. Years on, the BBC website is no closer to knowing an exact figure – saying only that “as many as 17,000 people were killed”. During these events, the Bulsara family fled the country – with England in their sights.

For Mercury, the move opened a world of possibilities. “He really wanted to come to England,” his mother later told BBC radio. “Being a teenager, he was aware of these things in Western countries and they attracted him.” In London, Mercury flourished. After A-Levels, he enrolled on a course at Ealing College of Art, where he met bass player Tim Staffell, who was in a band called Smile with May and Roger Taylor. In 1970, Mercury replaced Staffell, and Queen was born.

During a spectacular career, Queen would monopolise the number 1 single slot for nine weeks with Bohemian Rhapsody, perform what’s widely regarded as the greatest-ever live gig at the Live Aid concert in 1985, and send audiences around the world wild. One of these tours took Mercury back to his African roots when in October 1984 the band played at Sun City in South Africa. However the run received huge criticism as the British Musicians’ Union’s boycott of the venue was still in place, in protest at South Africa’s continued policy of apartheid. “We’ve thought a lot about the morals of it,” said May at the time, “and it is something we’ve decided to do. The band is not political – we play to anybody who wants to come and listen.”

While in South Africa, the band made some amends. As Mercury rested a damaged throat, which had led to several cancelled dates, his guitarist accepted an invitation to present an award in Soweto. “Moved by the welcome he received, May vowed that Queen would come back some day and play for the Sowetans,” recounts Phil Sutcliffe in Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock.

While Soweto is still waiting for its show, Queen have since performed elsewhere in South Africa – namely at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 charity concert in March 2005. But the show went on, of course, without Mercury, who died in London on November 24 1991 of Aids-related bronchial pneumonia. The 45 year old had publicly announced he was HIV positive just 24 hours before.

Buried past

As with his diagnosis, Mercury was cagey about his heritage. When asked about his roots in
a 1977 interview with NME, he responded: “Oh you sod! Don’t ask me about it. Read my bios. Oh, it’s so mundane.” Even Tony Brainsby, Queen’s first publicist, was none the wiser: “He was very secretive about his background… He was fairly dark-skinned… so there was no disguising that he came from somewhere off the beaten track, or at least had exotic parents.”

Whether his decision to hide his background was born of a desire to fit in, a lack of interest or self-denial, Mercury’s loss of contact with his Zanzibari roots – and the exodus of 1964 – means little is known about his time on the island. “I don’t know anything… there is no one left here who knows” a local Indian shopkeeper says in The Definitive Biography (first published in 1998). “Local people don’t understand. Who was this person anyway?” Since then, however, few can have failed to have heard of Mercury. In 2006 a Freddie Mercury-themed restaurant on the waterfront of Zanzibar’s capital city, Mercury’s, drew up plans to hold a 60th birthday party in the singer’s honour. However the celebration was cancelled after the Association for Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation declared: “We do not want to give our young generation the idea that homosexuals are accepted in Zanzibar”.

Today Mercury’s name is woven into the history of Zanzibar and India – just as these countries left their mark on him. “If you know that Freddie was born in Zanzibar, then went to India, then came to London… then you can see multiculturalism in Freddie Mercury and the way he used his voice,” says Rudi Dolezal, director of Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story. Mercury’s own analysis of his technique, especially being able to hit the high notes, was less exotic: “I used the Demis Roussos method: you get a pair of pliers under the frock and go ‘crack’. ”

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Casablanca

simo

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) TV presenter Simo Benbachir guides us around Morocco’s largest city, from where to eat the tastiest couscous to the best view in town

Squala
Located in an 18th-century bastion, Squala has a rustic interior and a delightful garden, surrounded by flower-draped trellises. Their traditional Moroccan breakfast is mouthwatering; the fresh fruit juices are wonderful and the tagines are fabulous, especially the lamb. I go at teatime to escape the stress of Casablanca and on Fridays for its legendary “couscous time”!
Boulevard des Almohades

SkyBar
Skybar is classic and very elegant. When it’s hot I have a drink at the lounge by the pool or at the bar. It’s home to Casablanca’s jet set – locals and tourists stay there until 2am having fun. The music’s great, from hip hop to house.
Boulevard de la Corniche

Le Carré
After a drink at Skybar, if I want to stay out I go down to Le Carré: a club with good music and good vibes. It’s better to go midweek as it’s packed on the weekend. On Wednesdays the DJ plays hip hop remixes – I can dance all night. It’s a bling-bling place, so be sure to have plenty of cash in your wallet.
Boulevard de la Corniche

La Suite
La Suite isn’t far from Twin Center, Casablanca’s new downtown. I go there for after-work parties and happy hour. As the owner and chef are French, the menu is too, and it’s delicious. Although I also like their hamburger. It’s a good place to meet your friends for a quiet dinner or to dance in the mojito bar. I give it two thumbs up.
Rue Jean Jaurès, Quartier Gauthier

Lizarran
My best friend is Spanish but has lived in Morocco since she was a kid, and she introduced me to Spanish culture. I go to Lizarran because I love the tapas bar with great sangrias and wines. The selection is extensive and a waiter comes around every so often to offer tapas fresh from the oven as well. I like dining downstairs then ending with the DJ upstairs.
Boulevard d’Anfa

Relais de Paris
I go here for lunch. There’s an elegant terrace, with a view of La Corniche, the beachside promenade. The food is excellent – modern brasserie style, with superb desserts. At midday the cream of Morocco’s business world arrive for lunch. It’s great for a romantic evening too or a night with friends or colleagues.
Boulevard de la Corniche

SKY 28
If you’re in town for a visit, Sky 28 is a must for the view alone. It’s located in the Kenzi Tower Hotel in the heart of Casablanca, with a breathtaking view of the skyline. It’s a wonderful location for afternoon tea and pre- and post-dinner drinks in the bar, listening to live piano music, before the DJ takes over.
Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni

Rick’s Cafe
Rick’s Cafe, the mythical saloon from the 1942 film Casablanca, is set in a mansion with a courtyard in the Old Medina of Casablanca. The restaurant is intimate, with a view of the fishing port, and it has an international menu that specialises in Casablanca’s fresh fish, vegetables and fruit.
Boulevard Sour Jdid

Le Cabestan
I’d recommend this place for couples, as the atmosphere is quite intimate. If you’re seated by the huge windows overlooking the ocean I’m not sure you’ll ever want to leave. The bathrooms are one of a kind, very spacious with a big couch. It has excellent service, great food, a fine wine list and is open all afternoon – perfect for a business lunch after an interminable meeting.
Boulevard de la Corniche

Saveurs du Palais
Saveurs du Palais is an authentic Moroccan restaurant. Here the chef pays attention to detail: the couscous is done as it should be, the pastries are fresh and tasty and the mint tea is homemade. The owner is such
a nice person and takes care of you personally.
Rue Jallal Eddine Essayouti

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: August 1986. Paul Simon releases Graceland

paul

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Over a quarter century has passed since Paul Simon went into a Johannesburg studio with a host of South African musicians, defying the UN cultural boycott. But the ‘was he right or wrong?’ debate rages at the core of every Graceland anniversary review, casting a shadow over a universally acclaimed album.

In new documentary Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger looks at the album’s legacy, but the story isn’t a South African one. Guitarist and Graceland collaborator Ray Phiri lamented in an interview with South Africa’s Times Live. “Other individuals haven’t started telling their stories yet… There are gaps and holes. And these are the South African stories.” Even Simon admits in the film “I don’t know what the internal debate was here.”

However the US singer was well aware of the situation. Harry Belafonte advised him to tell anti-apartheid party the African National Congress (ANC) he was coming but Simon ignored the singer and civil rights campaigner. And though he refused to play the boycotted casino resort Sun City, Simon felt his recording visit was justified. “To go and play Sun City would be like going over to do a concert in Nazi Germany at the height of the Holocaust,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “But what I did was to go over and play to the Jews.”

Adopted in 1980, UN resolution 473 called for a cultural boycott of South Africa – backed by the ANC, the UK-based Artists Against Apartheid movement (AAA) and other international groups. “We saw Paul Simon coming as a threat and an issue,” remembers Dali Tambo, AAA founder and son of ANC politician Oliver Tambo. The concern, Amer Araim from the UN Centre Against Apartheid told the LA Times in 1987, was that “the apartheid regime is utilising them [artists] to show the people that everything is business as normal.”

Despite Graceland going triple platinum within a year in South Africa, Simon was blacklisted by the UN, a mark that was only lifted once he had promised he would not play in the country. The advocacy of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela – who both spent over 30 years in exile in protest against apartheid – certainly helped. “[Graceland] revealed the excellence of our indigenous urban and rural music,” said Masekela, “leading listeners to lean on their governments, to turn their backs on the racist regime that had destroyed the entire Southern African region”.

Politics wasn’t the only issue dogging Simon and Graceland. While the South African musicians had been paid generously (triple the NY studio rate), some complained that they had not been properly credited. Chicano group Los Lobos accused Simon of stealing songs from them, while Phiri claimed co-songwriting credits on Crazy Love and Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes – although he later said he had “no hard feelings” and recently joined Simon on his Graceland 25th anniversary tour.

Further criticism of Graceland was that Simon hadn’t written any anti-apartheid songs to add to the growing canon, which included: The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela, Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope Jo’anna and Stevie Wonder’s It’s Wrong (Apartheid). But Simon admitted, “I realised I’m not capable of telling a South African story, nor did I have the right to.” Despite this, Graceland and its 1987 world tour were far from apolitical, with Miriam Makeba’s Soweto Blues, Hugh Masekela’s Bring Him Back Home, and the entire line-up joining in on a rendition of then-unofficial national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Lord Bless Africa).

With South Africa off limits, Simon took the tour to Zimbabwe – but criticism still dogged him. Phineas Ndlovu wrote in Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper ”Paul Simon stands like some explorer or missionary in 19th century Africa surrounded by a group of singing, tribally dressed Africans. The European is the center of attraction… the master.” However the event itself was harmonious – uniting white and black Zimbabweans with the 2,000-plus South Africans who had crossed the border.

Apartheid’s death knell sounded in 1992 and Graceland finally came to South Africa, with concerts in Joburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town. The boycott over, the ANC gave their support and even held a reception for Simon. “It’s poetic that it finishes like this,” said Simon. “I can feel a sense of completion and move on”. His 2012 reunion tour – where he was joined by Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and, for the first time, Jimmy Cliff (who sang on pro-boycott song Sun City) – shows that while he may have moved
on, the power and legacy of Simon’s music remains.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture · Travel

Land of my father

richard

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Richard E Grant lives in two timezones: “I wear my late father’s watch on the left, set to Swazi time, and one my wife gave me set to GMT on my right. It’s both sentimental and practical.” It’s also a sign of the strong hold Africa still has over the actor, who spent his formative years on the continent.

Born Richard Esterhuysen to a South African mother and his education minister father, Grant grew up in the British Protectorate of Swaziland, which became independent in 1968. In 1982, after studying at the University Of Cape Town (UCT), Grant came to the UK and five years later made his name as Withnail – the narcissistic, acerbic, out-of-work thespian of Withnail & I.

He’s gone on to play many more scathing anti-heroes; from George in Gosford Park to Larry Lefferts in Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence. But while he does a good line in English toff, Swaziland still looms large in his life. He documented his childhood in the 2005 film biopic Wah-Wah and returns every year. Despite a reputation for satirising Hollywood – his book With Nails: The Film Diaries Of Richard E Grant is full of candid anecdotes – Grant is always in demand. He voiced Cecil in new South African 3D animation Zambezia, and joins comedy duo Kath & Kim in the upcoming Kath & Kimderella.

How did you get involved in Zambezia?
I was in Johannesburg for a couple of days finishing a BBC documentary about the history of safari and was asked to record the voice for this cartoon character. The bonus of doing a voiceover role is that it gets done quickly, doesn’t require costume or make-up and is very enjoyable to record. Playing an ugly marabou [stork] was a good laugh.

You have retained a strong connection to Swaziland, what draws you back?
I usually go once a year as my father is buried there and I still have many friends from my childhood. I was last in the country for the Bushfire Festival [in May], which was a real pleasure. I was good friends with Jenny Thorne, whose sons Jiggs and Sholto created the House On Fire open-air theatre in Malkerns, and they asked me to be a patron. It was my first taste of the festival – and unforgettable.

After graduating, you co-founded the Troupe Theatre Company, described as ‘multi-racial’ and ‘avant-garde’. Was it unique for the time?
We founded the company in 1980 at the People’s Space theatre [now The Space Theatre] in Cape Town. The opening production was David Hare’s Fanshen; about the Chinese communist revolution. This prompted the censors to fly down from Pretoria to decide whether we were legally allowed to perform. It put us on the theatrical map. Working with actors I really trusted was an incredibly important grounding for me.

How vibrant is the film industry and theatre world in Swaziland now?  
Since the advent of TV and the exodus of British expats the once-thriving amateur scene is a destitute shell of what it once was.The House On Fire is now the epicentre for all things artistic in the kingdom.

You directed Wah-Wah in Swaziland. What was the country like as a film location?
No film had ever been made there before so everything had to be imported. We had crew and cast from England, France and South Africa, as well as trainees and crowd extras from Mbabane. We had full co-operation from the government and police departments, which made it possible to complete the film on schedule and on budget.

Media coverage of Swaziland tends to focus on King Mswati III’s wives, the Reed Dance and its high HIV rate. What do you make of it?
The politics of Swaziland are very troubling. How the king can justify buying a private plane and amassing an army in the smallest country in the southern hemisphere – and purportedly be worth £150million – while asking for more loans from world banks I find very depressing. Hopefully the Jasmine Revolution will filter south and the decades of dictatorship and despots holding their countries to ransom, while amassing fortunes stashed away in Switzerland, are numbered.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m making a documentary about French impressionists for the BBC, then start filming in London this October on Dom Hemingway, with Jude Law.

[Boxout] R.E.G.’s 5 Swaziland must-do’s

1 Take a drive through the mountains of Piggs Peak past the Maguga dam
2 Buy anything you can afford from Coral Stephens handweaving shop
3 Climb Sibebe mountain in Pine Valley
4 Swim in the hot springs in the Ezulwini valley, called the Cuddle Puddle
5 Visit the House On Fire venue for music and food at Malandela’s restaurant and spend some nights at Mkhaya game reserve

African arts, culture + politics

Social science

science

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) In Uganda, pop out for coffee and you may learn something that could save your life. Science Café Uganda is a popular format in which ordinary people gather in a café, church or school to learn about science in a simple, accessible way.

“We found that when you discuss abstract ideas, people aren’t so interested,” says Christine Munduru, responsible for communications at the company. Instead, experts talk on a topic of the community’s choice – diabetes, domestic violence or living with HIV. Afterwards the floor is opened for a Q&A session. The Science Café Uganda team are uploading videos of debates to YouTube.

sciencecafeuganda.org

African arts, culture + politics

Key player

samuel

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Pianist Samuel Yirga is at the melodic heart of Ethiopian collective Dub Colossus. But left to his own devices, as he is on his brilliant debut long player Guzo, the 27 year old shows us his keyboard skill set stretches to classical, jazz and Latin too. “I took good experiences from the Dub Colossus tour and how audiences accept your experimental works,” he says.

Dub Colossus came about after producer and aid worker Dan Harper started a home studio in Ethiopia and called on local musicians to come and record. After Harper got in contact with him, producer Nick Page came to Addis and took recordings of the musicians back to the UK. “Three years later he rang five of us and he told
us he wanted to work with us,” remembers Yirga. “So we processed everything, went to the UK and made the first album with Dub Colossus. After that we started touring, and it’s been a great time for all of us”.

Despite now striking out on his own, Yirga has continued working with Page, who produced Guzo. “Nick opened my mind and really made me think broader,” he says. “He is an amazing guy, like a father or big brother.”
Ethio-jazz and its variants are popular in Addis Ababa, and when he’s not in his studio, producing or working on his R&B album, Yirga is playing in one of the city’s jazz bars: “Every Monday I play in Guramayle and on Wednesdays in a new bar called Jazz Amber”. Ethio-jazz is definitely unique though, he says: “There
are different styles in each group, for example I have a group Nubian Arc which plays Ethio-funk and jazz. Another group plays experimental Ethio-jazz and you can see the difference. It’s really bringing a change to the audience”.

On Guzo, Yirga enlists the varied talents of The Creole Choir of Cuba, British/Iraqi singer Mel Gara and Nigerian-British vocalist Nicolette. And he has a whole list of other artists he’d like to collaborate with, from established Ethiopian musicians such as singer, masenqo and krar player Alemayehu Fanta – “he’s amazing” – to acclaimed American jazz pianist Chick Corea, and Alicia Keys. Ms Keys are you listening?

Guzo [Real World Records] out now

African arts, culture + politics

Inside the circle

cypher

(ARISE magazine, Issue 16) When South African filmmaker Bryan Little was commissioned by Red Bull SA to shoot some short films for its Beat Battle, he was so amazed by the talented township street-dance crews he met that he decided they warranted a feature-length documentary. The result, The African Cypher, won the Audience Award for Best South African Film at this year’s Encounters Documentary Festival, was selected for the 2012 Durban International Film Festival and has rightly attracted a lot of interest overseas.

“The Cypher is the circle, especially in b-boy culture, where the battles and expression take place,” explains Little. “The name developed out of a sense that the circles, formed when people dance informally, are places of power, expression and identity”. The film takes the viewer around South Africa – predominantly Soweto, Orange Farm, Mohlakeng, Cape Town and the Cape Flats. “These areas are mostly known for being low-income or impoverished areas,” says the director. “But our experience was one of incredible richness in culture, courage and hospitality. We really tried to integrate ourselves into the lives of the dancers and the communities from a place of respect”.

The result is an intimate, candid and electric record of a vibrant dance scene, and likely to propel its protagonists into the spotlight. Prince and Mada of featured pantsula crew Shakers & Movers are now working on a theatre piece and have teamed up with the Cape Town b-boy crew. “Before the Red Bull event the b-boys had never seen pantsula [dance] and the pantsulas had only seen really bad attempts at b-boying in Soweto,” says Little. “Now they are performing together we might see some pantsula footwork in the b-boy six-step and, who knows, some flares in pantsula. In South Africa there’s an incredible propensity for innovation so there is no limit to what can happen.”

facebook.com/theafricancypher

African arts, culture + politics

Recipe for success

marcus

(ARISE magazine, Issue 16) Adopted from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, made in America, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has blended the ingredients of his bittersweet life and come out sizzling

Out of the kitchen to launch his latest book, Marcus Samuelsson has walked right into the fire. It should be a time for celebration, but the release of his memoirs Yes, Chef, has instead put the 42-year-old in hot water. First there was The New York Observer’s scalding critique, in which writer Eddie Huang scoffed that Samuelsson’s famous Harlem restaurant Red Rooster “fails utterly in its goal of paying homage to the neighbourhood, coming off instead like an embarrassing exercise in condescension, much like the book”.

Speaking to Samuelsson days after the piece was published, on the eve of his US book tour, he was clearly still angry and quick to disregard Huang’s comments. “I don’t look for validation. I look at our work here and our purpose here, and whether someone is going to agree with that or not it doesn’t matter. I’m still gonna be here.

“As an African, we’re used to getting jumped at left and right – we get tested all the time… I recognise when somebody tries to enter themselves into the conversation. We live in a world now where even if you don’t produce good content you can just jump in by screaming at those people who do”. He could equally be talking about another man not best pleased with what’s in Yes, Chef: British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. In the book, Samuelsson claims Ramsay called him a “fucking black bastard” during an enraged phonecall back in 2000. Ramsay denies the allegation, his spokesperson describing it as “completely false and extremely offensive”.

While Samuelsson says elsewhere in Yes, Chef that he has “no big race wounds”, he does recall a bully at school in Sweden asking him why he wasn’t good at playing “negerboll” (neger is Swedish for ‘negro’). “Me and my sister just wanted to be like Swedish kids but we couldn’t,” he says. “That’s why it’s so sweet just to be here [in Harlem]. When we stand out it’s because of our actions, not anything else”.

HARLEM’S GLOBETROTTER

As the owner and executive chef of Red Rooster Harlem, Samuelsson has carved out a niche – bringing his own twist and glamour to the neighbourhood’s legendary soul-food scene. It’s been a long journey to the top. After studying at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Samuelsson apprenticed in Switzerland, France and even on cruise ships. In 1994 he arrived in America to take up an apprenticeship at Aquavit, and a year later was made executive chef at the Nordic-inspired restaurant. Within three months he had received a prestigious three-star rating from The New York Times – the youngest chef ever to do so – and went on to win two titles from the James Beard Foundation (the Rising Star Chef Award in 1999 and Best Chef In New York in 2003). In 2009 Samuelsson reached the pinnacle of his career when he was asked to cook for Barack Obama at his first state dinner. His fame shows no sign of waning, with regular appearances on TV shows including his own series Urban Cuisine, Top Chef Masters (which he won in 2010), The Today Show and Dr Oz. Yes, Chef is his fourth book, and Red Rooster is only one of his restaurants (the others are Ginny’s Supper Club, newly opened downstairs at Red Rooster; Marc Burger in Chicago; and Costa Mesa – with Norda and Street Food in Sweden). He also has a website, FoodRepublic.com, “for men who want to eat and drink well”.

Given his eventful life story, public squabbles are unlikely to concern Samuelsson too much. “My mother walked 75 blocks – that was a test in life,” he says, “A real test in life”. He’s referring to his birth mother; the woman who in 1971, in the small Ethiopian village of Meki, gave birth to a boy called Kassahun Tsegie. When he was three years old, his mother put him on her back and, with his sister Fantaye in tow, set out on the long road to the capital Addis Ababa, in search of treatment for the tuberculosis all three had contracted. Seventy-five miles later they reached the hospital – but Kassahun Tsegie’s mother died shortly afterwards. The two siblings recovered and a year later were adopted by a white Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne-Marie Samuelsson, taken to Sweden and renamed Marcus and Linda.

In a recent piece for Huffington Post, Is That Your Baby? Growing Up a Child of White Parents, Samuelsson recalled his childhood with “the original Brad and Angelina (if Brangelina lived in a small fishing town and made cabbage rolls”. “There was so much love, so much positive energy. I never heard my parents say,  ’We have adopted kids’. The minute my sister Linda and I landed in Sweden, we were their kids.” In our Big Question feature in Issue 13, ARISE asked ‘Should non-Africans be able to adopt African children?’ How would Samuelsson have answered? “It’s a complex issue and I think that sensitivity and tone are the key things. It worked for me and my sister but it might not work for everyone else… [and] as I said in the Huffington Post, maybe one day there’ll be an African family adopting from Europe.”

Despite their differences, one thing united the family: food. “We had to learn how to create our sense of family value, and food became this thing that we hung on to,” says Samuelsson. “In my Ethiopian family it could be a tribal handshake, it could be singing, it could be language – we had other ways to connect. When you are a large family you figure out what can be that connecting tie.”

In his online biography, Samuelsson reminisces about how he nourished a love for food in Sweden: “Every morning I went fishing with my dad, Lennart, and my uncles. We caught crayfish, lobsters and mackerel, and often smoked and preserved the catch. My grandmother, Helga, would gather us in the kitchen to teach us how to pickle fresh vegetables, and make meatballs, ginger snaps, cookies, and apple jam”. The legacy of his childhood is still apparent in his cooking today, where the emphasis is on fresh and local ingredients. At Red Rooster you can snack on Swedish delicacies, including pickles, cured meats served with lingonberry jam, and Helga’s Meatballs, which even Huang had to concede are “excellent”.

But on the menu you’ll also find African specialities – from coffee and tea to injera, the spongy bread that is a staple in Ethiopian cuisine. They’re souvenirs of Samuelsson’s first return trip to Ethiopia in 2000. “I got to know about myself, I got to know about different types of food and I developed an African and Ethiopian side to me that I didn’t have before,” he says. Another thing he didn’t know until his sister Linda decided to dig into the family history was that he wasn’t an orphan after all – his father was still alive and he had eight half-brothers and half-sisters. How was the reunion? “It was amazing and very strong,” he enthuses. “I didn’t know him the way I knew my Swedish father but there are other things you pick up like language, his laughter, his walk. He is a tribal leader… and my mother sacrificed herself so that me and my sister would be able go to the hospital, so I knew there was a lot of strength within my family and that has helped me each time I’ve had obstacles in my life.”

Samuelsson later travelled to 20 different African countries, including Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania and Zanzibar. Unsurprisingly, exploring African food was a highlight. “I stayed with families. I wanted to know it from a family point of view rather than a restaurant point of view,” he says. The trip resulted in the book The Soul Of A New Cuisine, which is full of beautiful photography, stories and recipes from the trip. Samuelsson also went on to create a pan-African menu for the since-closed Merkato 55 in New York. Would he give it another go or even launch his own pan-African restaurant? “It depends,” he says thoughtfully. “Here at Rooster we have a lot of African-inspired dishes and I feel that a lot of the dishes that I wanted to do there [at Merkato 55] I encompass in my restaurants and those dishes are very popular… I wanted to create a menu from Harlem: African-American cooking, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Mexican food – but also immigrant food from Africa and Sweden.”

THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS

The staff at Red Rooster are as diverse as the cuisine they serve. Says Samuelsson: “Asian, black, white, Jewish, Christian… with a diverse team we’re gonna be more set up for understanding the customer and we can cook better food.” He is also helping to inspire the next generation in his role as a UNICEF ambassador and through the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), an organisation that since 1990 has provided culinary training and employment opportunities for young people. Samuelsson has been hands on, taking on graduates from C-CAP to work in his kitchens. “Having my restaurant and being on TV is a platform,” he says. “Coming from where I come from you have to give back”.

With the notoriously antisocial hours of a chef and all his philanthropic activities – not to mention building a relationship with his estranged daughter, Zoe, who was raised by her mother Brigitta with financial support from Samuelsson – it’s a wonder Samuelsson has any free time. But when he does, chances are he’ll be spending it with his wife, Ethiopian model Maya Haile, who he married in Addis Ababa in 2009. “Marcus was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and then moved to Harlem,” Haile told Glamour magazine six months after the wedding. “I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Holland and then moved to…Harlem. How many people have experienced those things? Right away our shared backgrounds were something we connected on. And we both love basketball.” And, of course, food. “I cook at home but so much of my time is spent in the restaurant,” says Samuelsson. “My wife cooks a lot of Ethiopian food, which is great. When I want a good Ethiopian stew I just go home and it’s right there”. In Haile, Harlem and his passion for food, Samuelsson has finally found a place to call home.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Dele Sosimi: Afrobeat Ambassador

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(ARISELIVE.com, 2012) Words Carinya Sharples

Dele Sosimi is the self-confessed ambassador of afrobeat. Ever since he became keyboardist in Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 band in 1979 at the tender age of 16, he has been promoting the genre.

But like Fela´s former drummer Tony Allen, Sosimi has kept the spirit of afrobeat alive while also taking it into new waters. After playing with Femi Kuti´s Positive Force for eight years, he moved to London in the mid-1990s to strike out alone.

Since then Sosimi has performed at Montreux Jazz Festival, Womad and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival; hooked up with British rapper Ty; and set up his own underground night – London´s answer to The Shrine – the monthly Afrobeat Vibration sessions. Little wonder that he scooped the Outstanding Contribution to Music title at the 2011 Nigerian Entertainment and Lifestyle Awards.

His 15-piece band Dele Sosimi´s Afrobeat Orchestra is due to play at Liverpool´s Africa Oyé festival in July, so we caught up with the man himself on a rare sunny London day (“It´s like we´re back in Lagos!”) to chat Fela, future plans and what he thinks about the new afrobeats wave.

You left Lagos for London nearly 17 years ago now. How has it been?

It’s been fun. It’s been kind of a learning curve for me. I’ve mostly been experimenting with my music, and then trying to evolve the genre by making sure I don’t go stagnant. I’m always happy to try something new. When I initially got to London I was not performing in anything less than a big band but now I do trios, I do quartets, quintets, duets… so I’m ready to experiment as long as there’s a good spirit between me and whoever I’m working with.

Are you collaborating with anyone at the moment?

Right now I´m working with a Brazilian artist, we’re exchanging stuff. Who is it? Well I should keep it under wraps! It’s supposed to be a surprise thing, but I’ll tell you that I’m working on his material to start with then depending on the result we will bring him over to the UK or I will go out to Brazil. We’re not sure what will happen but we’ve got a good spirit. And the jellifying factor is Fela. He loves Fela to bits and when he heard that I was interested in collaborating with him he was over the moon and he was very quick to give me his latest album and say, ‘look listen to that and tell me what you think’.

Any other hookups?

I’m working also with my very good friend, another keyboard player who’s based in London, his name is Kishon Khan. We went to his country, Bangladesh, the year before last and performed in the first Dakar World Music Festival, which was interesting. It was one hell of a performance. We’re definitely going back very soon. But that got me collaborating with him and we’re going to be trying to release a couple of tracks very soon. I happened to also go to India this year so I’m taking afrobeat to two new territories.

You’re like the Afrobeat ambassador

Yeah, more or less. I think I can claim that I’m Afrobeat’s most interesting ambassador at the moment! I’ve taken it to Dakar, Bangladesh; I’ve taken it to Booti in South India and there’s a possibility that I’m going back very soon to those two places and this time I’ll probably stay longer and do some collaborations with local musicians, local traditional Indian musicians. So it’s looking very very interesting in terms of content that people can look forward to.

Do you have much connection with what’s happening in Lagos or Nigeria at the moment?

I try to stay in touch with what’s happening but if you’re not on the ground there there’s no point. You have to be there. And to be honest I’m not there, I’m not there at all! I keep in touch with Femi every once in a while, we chat and all that but it’s not enough. You have to be in Nigeria for you to be relevant. But I’m always looking to see what’s going on, to see what people are doing.

What do you think of the new afrobeats craze?

I don’t know much about it but I know that there’s a particular wave going around now called afrobeats. I don’t know whether it’s a fad, whether it’s a phase but I know there’s a lot about it on Twitter. I also know that a couple of people have made reference to me, Seun Kuti, Fela etc as the originals…For me art is art, I don’t like to criticise art. I think it’s an interesting wave to watch but I still remain true to my upbringing [and] school, and happy to explore, to expand the horizon as long as it’s live and real.

When I performed in India…[there were musicians on stage] surrounded by computers, playing samples, pre-recorded material on a loop… It sounded interesting enough but what I noticed was that there was no energy. When we got on stage the whole vibe changed. When you watch ten men performing afrobeat on stage there’s an energy that you feed off them that makes you move and they are feeding off your return energy.

Why do you remain an independent artist?

Lots of reasons. The industry has changed for starters and I’m a mature artist so I’m more experienced, I’m choosy, I’m picky. And I have not been able to convince myself to sign with a record label, the kind of contract that exists today, which is in my opinion not worth getting involved in. The advent of technology now gives the artist the ability to keep his destiny in his own hands. You can record an album as long as you finance it, you can pay a producer to produce with you if you don’t have those skills and then upon doing that you can release your product yourself. And with the advent of social media networks you can get involved in a lot of things. Working with an established record label is good if they are willing to work with you and earn what they work for – but they always want more.

Are you working on any of your own compositions?

I’ve got quite a number of tracks that I’ve written but – maybe because I’m old school – I don’t believe in releasing something that I have not performed well. When Fela released an album he had been playing that track in The Shrine for over three years. So the band could enter the studio with their eyes closed and record it in one take. That’s what I was exposed to, so I always like doing the same thing. I believe in getting that live feel going, having performed it so many times over and over again you get so used to it and then creatively develop it over the repeated performances so when you get in the studio you know you’re performing the best version of it you can.

What would you say is the most important thing you learnt from Fela?

Loads of different things but one of the most important things is; no matter what happens it’s better to get to your appointment two hours before and be chilled, relaxed and ready than for you to get there late and have to make an excuse. [ARISE: So much for African time!] Oh the African time thing, it’s good it’s all good and all that but to be honest we live in a world today where time is money and time don’t wait for nobody!

What I also learnt from Fela is you need to have somewhere you can be identified with, so in London I have a regular night every two months called Afrobeat Vibration, where if you want to hear what I’ve been up to that is where to go. So that’s where I have been able to keep my sanity, keep my music going, keep my creative juices flowing and also offer an environment for interested musicians, up-and-coming musicians to have an experience of playing afrobeat and funk in front of an afrobeat-loving audience. So I’m really proud of that – four years and we’re still going.

What about future collaborations?

There are a couple of people I’d love to work with. Top on my list is Questlove, it would be nice to do something with him. Last year I did something with the Copenhagen Jazz Festival where we did a Fela tribute, a star-studded line-up of the top jazz musicians based in Denmark, and it was a successful outing so I’m looking forward to doing it again this year – we’re earmarked the 13th or 14th July for that. I’m going to be doing some collaborations with Tony Allen at some point in time too, and I’m looking at collaborating with a couple of hip hop artists because I believe afrobeat is a hip hop artist’s partner – there is a lot they can take out of afrobeat as a vehicle for getting their message across.

Dele Sosimi´s Afrobeat Orchestra is performing at Africa Oyé in Liverpool this July. delesosimi.org; afrobeatvibration.com

African arts, culture + politics

Behind The Label: Vlisco´s Creative Director

vlisco-rogergerards

(ARISELIVE.com, March 2012) Words Carinya Sharples

Its high-quality, colourful designs have earned Vlisco a loyal following across Africa, and taken the Dutch company from textile empire to international catwalk brand.

Hot off the launch of Vlisco´s latest campaign, the Japanese-inspired Silent Empire, we spoke to creative director Roger Gerards about the creative process behind Vlisco´s unique designs, his role in the Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design exhibition and why Vlisco is (and isn´t) an African brand.

How did you come to work at Vlisco?
I studied fashion design in the Netherlands at Arnhem [Academy of Art & Design], which is quite a famous school, and I know Vlisco from that time – in the 80s. I had already visited Vlisco, because I thought their fabrics were exceptional and beautiful.

Five years ago I started at Vlisco as a design manager, head of the design textile department, and over five years I became more and more responsible for all the seasonal concepts we are making now. A year ago I became creative director of Vlisco… I was also in charge of implementing the new seasonal structure – we now bring a totally new collection to the market four times a year.

Did you use wax prints before or did you have to learn on the job?
Well, Vlisco is so exceptional and we are really the only ones who are using this [technique] in this way so I really had to learn from scratch. I had a lot of experience of fashion before but when you start working for Vlisco you have to start all over again, which is nice. It takes about a year to get used to all the techniques and the way of designing. And of course the design department is not based in the market we are working for, so you had to learn about that as well.

How did you learn about the cultural significance of Vlisco in Africa?
I travelled around to over eight countries in the beginning, to see all the places where Vlisco is sold. Benin, for example, is a country where we have a huge office and a lot of trade goes on there. Also DRC, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso…and of course London and Paris. I met a lot of consumers as well, and learnt how much the brand is loved. People love us, they love the fabric – they love to work with it.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
Everything! Just by living and looking around. But that´s not me – I´m head of the department and there are currently 14 designers who make those collections. I give inspiration to them: I give themes, words or thoughts, and we talk about it. I´m also responsible for the colour card, the colours we are using every season, and from that we start designing.

And you work with quite a few African designers as well?
Always. We sell not only product but also inspiration for African designers to design. Because from the collections they get ideas for fashion design as well.

Do you have any African designers in house or do you work with them on a collaborative basis?
Yes, all on projects. We have European textile designers, and now there are some designers who have an African background, but they are just good designers that we select.

You´re involved in the Netherlands exhibition Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design, can you tell us a bit about that?
When I started, Vlisco in Europe was seen as an exotic brand that has a lot of connections with Africa – or even is an African brand, and a lot of exhibitions until five years ago were in a museum of tropical art or colonial history etc. But I´ve always said Vlisco´s not an African brand, Vlisco´s a design brand which Africans love. And from that perspective I always thought it would be interesting to have an exhibition about Vlisco as a design brand in the Museum of Modern Art, and that´s happened now in Arnhem…The Suze May Sho artists collective told me they really liked the Vlisco brand and I gave them the key to Vlisco to make an exhibition around the brand. It´s not only about Vlisco, it´s also about African art and there´s a lot of fine art associated with the Vlisco products.

And there is a book associated with the exhibition?
There are two books, there is one about the brand, Vlisco, which is a small book meant for students. And the other is a limited-edition book about Vlisco fabrics. That for me was very important because it is really a book about the fabrics themselves; the colours, the techniques and the stories people are making around these fabrics on the market. We took a lot of effort on quality, so there are 200 designs which have been printed and the colours are quite exceptional. Each book has a different textile wrap so you really buy a unique piece – and there are only 1,000 for sale.

Traditional fabrics often have a lot of meaning attached to them. Is meaning something you consider in the design at Vlisco?
The designers take a lot of effort to design these patterns and I know they have their own ideas but we never communicate them. I always say that the designers are the father of the drawing and the consumers are the mothers, who baptise the cloth by giving it a name. And that´s really exceptional – you don´t have other products in which the consumer plays such a role. I always say we don´t sell a product but an inspiration.  We give the freedom to people to play.

Looking forward, what are you working on now?
I´m now with May/June 2013, so that´s second and third season next year. And we´re already thinking about 2014… Vlisco is different to other fashion brands. We really have our own inspiration and do our own thing every time. In that way we are a brand other brands are looking to.

Six Yards Guaranteed Design is at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, Netherlands, until May 7 2012. www.vlisco.com

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Blantyre

lomwe

(ARISE magazine, issue 15) DJ, rapper and Big Brother Africa 2011 contestant Lomwe gives us a whistlestop tour of the hottest spots in and around Malawi’s largest city

Mustang Sally
This is a really nice club on the way to town. It’s got a tropical garden, two bars and a swimming pool – you can’t use it but when it’s lit up at night it looks really cool. During the week they sometimes have a live band but I don’t go then – that’s for the mature crowd, the older folks!
CI

TJs
This sports bar is about five minutes’ drive from Mustang Sally. People usually go there to watch the Premiership games; anywhere you sit you can see a screen. They have good snacks as well – I particularly like the grilled beef strips called linunda. They come with this amazing hot sauce, which they make themselves. I don’t know what ingredients they use but it tastes real good.
Mahatma Gandhi Road

Club Makokola
This holiday resort, north of Blantyre and next to Lake Malawi, is a really popular place to go to get away from town. I last went there with Zeus [who Lomwe collaborated with on hit single Double Wowza] for a photo shoot and we went snorkelling – there are hundreds of different fish to see. You can also take a boat to Bird Island and see fish eagles in action. I’d suggest going on a Friday and coming back on Sunday – and if you go, you have to try chambo. It’s the most popular fish and only found in Lake Malawi. You can eat it in lots of ways; stewed, or served with nsima, which is made of maize.
Mangochi

Chichiri shopping mall
This is probably the main mall in Blantyre. It’s a good spot to meet someone: there are so many things at a short distance from each other – internet cafés, fast food places, restaurants. There’s a place called Café Rouge, which
is pretty cool, a sports shop, some clothing stores and a supermarket – a chain from South Africa called Shoprite – where you can get your groceries.
Chichiri

Casa MIA
This restaurant is in a nice, leafy area called Sunnyside. It’s got a cosy atmosphere and great food. The owner is English and there’s a mix of European food on the menu. I’m not really into wine otherwise I could tell you all the good wines they have. I’m more of a beer person, and if it’s not a beer then it’s probably a gin or a brandy.
Kabula Hill Road

Robin’s Park
This theatre recently opened and has only had a few shows so far. It has a capacity of around 2,000 with an arena that has the stage in the middle. I’m thinking of doing the launch show for my mixtape or another of my projects there.
Njamba

Protea Hotel Ryalls
I usually go to Ryalls to use the wifi. It’s a big, comfortable, modern hotel in the heart of town, with a small bar where you can use the internet. A lot of people go there and it’s a nice place to have a coffee or business meeting.
Hanover Avenue

The Blue Elephant
This bar has been in Blantyre ever since I can remember. It has a mini dance floor and a DJ every Friday, Saturday and Wednesday – on Wednesday they have a band and a DJ who take it in turns to play. During
the weekend lots of people go there – sometimes too many. They play a lot of African and international house music – a lot of people in Malawi like house music. The dance that goes with it is kwasa kwasa.
Kidney Crescent

Kamuzu Stadium
The stadium is named after the first president of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda. I go there with friends when there’s a big international game on – I don’t really follow the local league. It’s a good, fun day out and everyone really gets
into the football.
Near Mudi Estate

Lomwe’s new mixtape, License To Kill, is available now on http://www.lomwe.com

African arts, culture + politics

Icon: Yves Saint Laurent

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(ARISE magazine, issue 15) On June 6 2008, a star-studded cast of mourners assembled at Paris’s Saint Roch church to pay tribute to Yves Saint Laurent,  “the last of the traditional French couturiers” and one of the greatest names in fashion history. John Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood and Claudia Schiffer rubbed shoulders with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Saint Laurent’s former muse Catherine Deneuve and his 95-year-old mother – as always, wearing one of her son’s coveted creations.

Yet Saint Laurent’s final resting place was not to be a conservative Paris cemetery. Instead his ashes were scattered in the desert winds of Morocco, in recognition of the deep influence Africa had on the designer’s work and personal life – from his childhood in the Algerian city of Oran, to his two decadent homes in Marrakech, to which he regularly retreated in later years.

Boy wonder

Oran was, Saint Laurent later picturesquely described, “a cosmopolis of trading people from all over, and mostly from elsewhere, a town glittering in a patchwork of all colours under the sedate north African sun”. Yet despite being born, in 1936, against such a scintillating backdrop and into a wealthy, privileged family, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent had a difficult time growing up in Algeria. Bullied for being shy, sensitive and gay, he retreated into the transformative world of fashion, designing clothes for his mother. “Whenever they picked on me, I’d say to myself, ‘One day you’ll be famous’,” he later remembered. “That was my way of getting back at them.”

At the age of 17, Saint Laurent moved to Paris and scooped first prize in the International Wool Secretariat contest. His winning asymmetrical cocktail dress design secured him a meeting with Christian Dior, who instantly hired the young designer. Yet despite his natural talent, Saint Laurent’s ascension came about sooner than anyone expected when Dior died in 1957 and the 21 year old took over as head designer at the US$20million-a-year fashion house. In his first collection he introduced the ‘trapeze’ dress. The fashion world went wild. “Saint Laurent has saved France,” declared Le Figaro.

In 1960, Saint Laurent unveiled his fifth collection under Dior. The ‘chic beatnik’ look was inspired by Rive Gauche (Left Bank) bohemians and featured alligator motorcycle jackets, mink coats with jumper sleeves and turtlenecks under tailored flannel suits. It left the world of haute couture scandalised. Things went from bad to worse when Saint Laurent was conscripted into the French-Algerian war. Within three weeks he suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a military hospital. His rescue came in the form of Pierre Bergé, an art dealer he had met at a party. Bergé, who later became Yves Saint Laurent’s partner in life and business, took the frail designer home and nursed him back to health.

African air
By then, however, Saint Laurent had been replaced at Dior by his former assistant Mark Bohan. When the fashion house refused to reinstate the designer, Bergé successfully sued for £48,000 and convinced Saint Laurent
to break out on his own. In 1961 the pair launched the first Yves Saint Laurent collection, featuring what Life magazine called “the best suits since Chanel”.

Success followed and in 1967, a year after opening his prêt-a-porter boutique, Rive Gauche, Saint Laurent unveiled his landmark Africa collection. Described by Harper’s Bazaar as “a fantasy of primitive genius”, the collection showcased revealing shift dresses made with wooden beads, shells and raffia. With it, Saint Laurent set the template for African-inspired fashion for years to come – including as recently as Dolce&Gabbana’s spring/summer 2005 and Gucci spring/summer 2011. It wasn’t the only time Africa was to thread its way into the designer’s clothes: there was the 1968 safari suit; his use of colours drawn from the north African landscape; and interpretations of traditional Moroccan clothing such as the djellaba, jabador and burnous. Even in the latest Saint Laurent collection for spring/summer 2012, Vogue found the colours of north Africa in the “sand, navy and khaki palette” of designer Stefano Pilati.

Africa’s influence perhaps also explains why Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to use black models. “It’s extraordinary to work with black models,” he declared, “the way they hold their head, the legs, the body, is very, very provocative and exhilarating. It gives meaning to the whole creation, and modernity too”. While today this makes for a somewhat outdated and exoticised view, it nonetheless opened doors for black models – including Katoucha Niane from Guinea and Somalian model Iman, who Saint Laurent described as his “dream woman”.

The pied piper of fashion

Today Saint Laurent is credited with having created a new wardrobe for the modern woman. His controversial tuxedo suit Le Smoking earned him a ‘bad boy’ reputation but simultaneously achieved its intention of empowering women. On being refused entry to Manhattan’s stylish La Côte Basque restaurant, socialite Nan Kempner simply removed her trousers and waltzed in wearing an Yves Saint Laurent tunic.

Although Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive over the years, battling with depression and drug addiction, his legacy had already cemented itself. In 1983 New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art held a retrospective of his designs. And in 1985 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. The 66 year old finally announced the closure of the Yves Saint Laurent couture fashion house in 2002, calling himself “the last of the fashion Mohicans”.

Although Saint Laurent’s huge collection of art, antiques and furniture was sold in 2009 (fetching a record £333million), he lives on through the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, based in his former couture house in Paris, and Jardin Majorelle, the beautiful Marrakech garden he and Bergé bought and restored to its former glory. The botanical garden also houses the couple’s extraordinary collection of Islamic art from Africa and beyond, and has become a peaceful and popular tourist attraction. And of course Saint Laurent’s legacy continues through his clothes themselves, and the sketches, designs and collections of all the designers he has inspired. As he famously once put it, “Fashions fade, style is eternal”.

African arts, culture + politics

My Favourite Things… Vieux Farka Touré

vieux

(ARISE magazine, issue 15) The Malian singer-guitarist and son of late blues legend Ali Farka Touré has just completed a new collaboration with Israeli musician Idan Raichel – The Touré-Raichel Collective – and tours America in April and May.

Zebulon, Brooklyn
This venue has the best energy. It’s where I played my first ever concert outside of Mali with my own group in 2007. It’s a small place, really cool and intimate. The crowd goes crazy there. Beautiful place.

WOMAD
It is always a really fun festival with some of the best music in the world. I played at WOMAD last year so I do not think I will play there again this year.  But of course, if they want to invite me I will be happy to play again.

The Source, Ali Farka Touré
The Source by my father, Ali Farka Touré. It is my foundation. I grew up listening to it and it is the one I put on the most when I have the choice. I cannot say why, I just love it.

The Banjo
I love the sound and I play some too. I got one when I first went to North Carolina. I associate it with bluegrass music, which is deeply connected to the music from Mali – it is very similar to our ngoni.

African arts, culture + politics · Homelessness

Far from home

stanley

(ARISE magazine, issue 15) After a starring performance in acclaimed film The First Grader, Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo could have lent on Hollywood for his next role. Instead the 63-year-old former journalist chose a part in a short film about homelessness. The Truth About Stanley centres around the eccentric Congolese homeless man of the film’s title (played by Litondo), who forms an unlikely friendship with runaway Sam, regaling the 10 year old with fantastic tales. “What he lacks in material possessions, he makes up for with his vivid imagination and an insatiable desire to tell stories,” explains director and co-writer Lucy Tcherniak. “This storytelling serves as a coping mechanism, a crutch that allows him to deal with the harsh hand life has dealt him.” Produced in association with UK street newspaper The Big Issue and homeless hostel Anchor House, the film was shot over five days in London and premieres at London arts hub Rich Mix on April 2.

http://www.thetruthaboutstanley.blogspot.com

African arts, culture + politics

Human zoo

jane

(ARISE magazine, issue 15) People with animal faces, towering security fences, mouthless mutants – the imagery used in South African artist Jane Alexander’s work is not always comfortable viewing. But it’s not her intention to unsettle says Alexander, as she prepares for a new exhibition at SCAD Museum of Art in Georgia, US: “I have responded to the social environment as I interpret it from observation and conventional research… and the images evolve from this. It would seem to me that life is often unsettling, and that South Africa has always been so.”

The exhibition, entitled Surveys (From The Cape Of Good Hope), features work dating from 1998 to as recent as last year – including the tableau African Adventure, developed during South Africa’s shift from apartheid to democracy. “I see the works as fitting into a broad project of African adventures,” explains Alexander, “referring to the continent as a site of discovery, mystery and pleasure; colonial adventure and intervention; economically driven social control and enterprise; and pervasive exploitation, discrimination and damage”.

Born in Johannesburg in 1959, Alexander grew up under the shadow of apartheid. South Africa was, she remembers, “very isolated, constrained, controlled, conservative and divided in almost every way.” And although the instruments of apartheid have long been dismantled, Alexander still finds injustices. “There is exceptional work being produced in South Africa but the art scene is still largely dominated by a privileged minority in terms of access…While this may be true of other countries, it still impacts primarily on those who were and still are discriminated against because of apartheid.”

Surveys (From The Cape Of Good Hope) is at the SCAD Museum of Art from February 21 to June 3. http://www.scadmoa.org

African arts, culture + politics

Spoek Mathambo: Culture Vulture

spoek-sean-metelerkamp
(ARISELIVE.com, February 2012) Words Carinya Sharples   Photography Sean Metelerkamp
ARISE can’t get enough of South African rapper and producer Spoek Mathambo. After hosting his first UK performance at our Afropolitans night at the V&A, we shot him in glorious technicolour for issue 13.
These days, Mathambo’s a very busy man. As well as fine-tuning his new album, Father Creeper, and rolling around for some suitably spooky promo shots (our pick above is one of the tamer versions), he’s been exercising his producing arm with vowel-deficient Danish producer and long-time collaborator Chllngr. Together they have whipped up remixes for Lana Del Rey, Seun Kuti and the enigmatic son of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Alekesam (Masekela spelt backwards. Not so enigmatic after all).
Before he launches into a whirlwind round of tours – with stops in the US, Canada, South Africa and Europe – ARISE got Mathambo to sound off on annoying labels, cool collaborations and not being a political poster boy – before mining him for his hot cultural tips.

On coining the label “Township Tech”…

It’s so weird how labels work; stuff getting slapped on. It’s something that I initially coined for a lot of South African music that I was a fan of. I did a lot of DJing and my work was kind of curating exciting new South African music – hyper techy, hyper house, which was very based in South African township culture. And I just clumsily stuck that together to make it township tech.

On the first album I was so hugely influenced by that. But if you listen to the new album it’s very far from those influences. Now I pretty much just do me. The goal is to make big enough sounds, which are accessible, interesting and beautiful enough that people will just appreciate them as Spoek Mathambo’s music, and not necessarily need a tag.

On collaborating with Sauti Sol

Late last year we went to Kenya to work with R&B group Sauti Soul [look out for the band in issue 15 of ARISE, out in March]. They’re incredibly talented. Through some friends we got the link up to work with them and produced some songs.

On scoring an operetta…

There is a performance artist from Cape Town called Athi-Patra Ruga who’s making big moves. He was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary African Art in New York and produced a performance piece, Ilulwane, in which he was suspended on a ridge above about 20 synchronised swimmers He’d written it as an operetta about Xhosa initiation ceremonies mixed with some stuff about the male body, and we scored a 50-minute piece for it. That was a good collaboration.

On making music on the road…

Touring is really boring. A lot of the time you’re just waiting for sound checks, and getting drunk. I’m used to having a mobile studio on tour with me and being fully able to work. That’s how Prince has done it for years.

On working with Chllngr…

Steven [Chllngr] is a saxophonist. His music theories are pretty like tight. I come up with a lot of rhythmic and conceptual stuff. And we meet in the middle. We just have fun, and have a nice rhythm of working together. The stuff we produced together for the album was made on the road. We’re totally used to this two headphones splitter and laptop style – we’re literally in the back of a car making beats with a keyboard on batteries.

On performing with live musicians…

I’ve been doing electronic music for a while, a couple of years. I don’t appreciate the staid, really strict format with a beginning and end to it and I think that’s why I got into more having more live musicians – to have it be new and to go into different directions, to have more possibilities.

On not sticking to one thing…

What’s the need? The people I look up to are Prince, Stevie Wonder – really well-rounded artists. Every day I am less and less a rapper. I’m moving more and more towards being a musician and learning that side of it.

On making the viewer the video artist…

We’re doing the second video from this new album for the track Kites. The point of it is to have a kind of mass collaboration, where we film a part of the video and then have the rest of the video made up of contributions from digital and video artists from all over Africa. As a viewer you generate original content – you basically generate your own video. So everyone who watches it will be watching a different video. I’ve never heard of a video like that so that’s exciting.

SPOEK MATHAMBO EPK from Romain Cieutat on Vimeo.

On South Africa’s ruling ANC party celebrating 100 years…

I am absolutely into politics and I believe everything is somewhat political but looking at the ANC as something absolutely to celebrate is a bit ridiculous to me. It’s a party that shouldn’t necessarily be running the country now, and is responsible for a lot of good and a lot of bad. So stuff should be looked at absolutely critically. I’m a musician…but to be a poster boy for a political ideal that I don’t necessarily believe in is tough. I mean a lot of people do it because its profitable but that profit is taxpayers’ money – it’s ugly, it’s dicey and it’s corrupt.
It’s not like people have to vote for them because of what they’ve done necessarily. A lot of people vote for them because if they don’t another white party might win, which might mean South Africa regressing back to what it used to be – and it was a very ugly place. So it’s like to defend their freedom. And that’s what the ANC plays on a lot: the “upholders of the liberation”, “the liberation movement”, “the revolutionary house” etc etc…

On bigging up South African dance…

In the video for Let Them Talk I wanted to represent South African dance culture – not dance music, actual dancing. It’s very vibrant, very vital scene. There are so many different styles – and I don’t think the video showed this as much as even I wanted it to, so it’s going to be an ongoing goal for me for a while; to meet with and work with different dancers. There’s always new styles emerging so it’s very exciting.

On future collaborations…

As far as future collaborations go, there’s a great group from Niger, Group Inerane – two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer – who just blew me away. I saw and met them in Malmö [Sweden] when they were touring Europe a couple of months ago. They put music out on the Sublime Frequencies label. It’s just really, really great. I appreciate what they’re doing and I’d love to work with them in the future. It’s not in the works now but like to put it out into the ether…

Listening to…

Dirty Paraffin: the group [made up of Okmalumkoolkat and DJ Spizee] is putting out something new soon. They’re really, really sick – great stage presence as well.
Soulfaktor: Really nice producer. I want to work with them [Soulfaktor is part of creative hub SHO!EPIC a lot more.
The Frown: The singer Eve [Rakow] is in Johannesburg. I love her voice, it’s really, really unique.
BFG: A rap group from Durban. Bra Solomon is a sick Zulu MC. As far as Zulu rapping, I really, really rate him.

Reading…

 Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami: I’m trying to get through this because I enjoyed Murakami’s book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It took me something like 300 pages to get to parts that I liked but I stuck it through. This time I’m not really winning. I’m still on page 150 and every page is work.
Forced Landing: Africa South Contemporary Writings, edited by Mothobi Mutloatse: This is a bunch of short stories from the 1980s from South Africa.
Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler: It’s about human life in relation to social networks. In terms of dyads and triads, and how society’s influence works across the digital realm. How the sickness of someone you’re in contact with can make you sick, how their unhappiness can make you unhappy or how they can make you buy certain things. It also talks about social hysteria. For example, there was a laughing fit that started at a high school in Tanzania in the 1960s and spread across thousands of people and into another part of the country…It’s interesting.
Father Creeper by Spoek Mathambo, out March 12.
African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Kinshasa

Detail from illustration by Christina K
Detail from illustration by Christina K

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Director of Congolese thriller Viva Riva!, Djo Tunda Wa Munga zooms in on the top hangouts in his native city – including locations from his award-winning film

Chez Ntemba
What I like about this nightclub is that it has a really African identity. Of course you have Congolese music but you also have South African music and music from West Africa… At the same time, Chez Ntemba is modern and contemporary. I think they’ve opened something like 10 of these clubs in Africa. I go there to hang out, stop for
a drink and watch the dancing.
Rond-point Forescom, Gombe

Chez Maman Colonel
This restaurant is known for its chicken – especially the chicken and plantain, which is very good. It’s my favourite place to go for something to eat. Kinshasa has a lot of restaurants but you don’t have many new places like this, where someone has said “we’re going to make chicken and it’s going to be delicious”, and that’s exactly what you get.
Avenue Bayaka, Kimbondo

Place Commercial
My office is right next door to Place Commercial and at the end of the day it’s nice to go out, sit there and have a beer or walk around. It’s in the suburb of Ma Campagne, where we shot many of the scenes from my film Viva Riva! It’s a cool and relaxed place with a lot of trees, but at the same time urban.
Ma Campagne, Ngaliema

Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel is this old, old hotel. Everybody knows it, everybody goes there – they go for drinking, showing off… making sport! All the city likes hanging around there. Located in the residential Gombe area, the hotel also has great views of the river and the city.
Avenue Batetela, Gombe

Le Bloc
You’ll find Le Bloc in a neighbourhood called Bandal. It’s like a long terrace with lots of bars where you can sit and drink beer. I love stopping by here. It’s pretty noisy any day of the week but at the same time it gives you a real flavour of Kinshasa.
Bandal

The Congo River
Kinshasa is built right on the Congo, which is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile. If you look across
it, directly opposite you can see the city of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. For the best views
over the Congo I’d always suggest a visit to National Museum of Kinshasa.

Place du 30 Juin
This new area in front of Kinshasa’s Central Station is a bit of a people magnet. It’s under construction at the moment – on one side you have a Chinese building, on the other a piece of Arabic architecture and then there’s the old Place de la Gare. The space has a nice atmosphere and I often go there with my daughter in the morning.
Central Station, Gombe

African arts, culture + politics

Aria code

opera

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) The success of novelist Alexander McCall Smith’s series The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency has spawned a film, starring Jill Scott; an entire tourism industry in Botswana, where it is set; and even an opera house. The No 1 Ladies Opera House was opened in 2008 in a converted garage, comprising a 60-seat theatre and a cafe. After a brief closure, it reopened last March and has re-established itself as one of the best coffee houses in the capital, Gaborone, according to the Botswana Guardian.
Of course music is high up on the agenda too; as well as training and providing a platform for young Botswanan musical talent, the opera house presents musical evenings, opera, films, exhibitions, even farmers markets.
Under the new direction of Rosalyn Beukes, also director of Gaborone’s Maitisong Theatre, the musical programme for 2012 features Cavalleria Rusticana in April and extracts from The Marriage of Figaro in November.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Word play

sudan

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) “All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare. Now all the world is taking to the stage as London’s Globe Theatre presents Globe To Globe, an Olympian series featuring all 37 of the bard’s plays staged by 37 international theatre companies in 37 languages. Africa is represented by five productions: The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Shona by Zimbabwe’s Two Gents Productions, The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba by Lagos’ Renegade Theatre, Venus and Adonis by Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble, The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili by Bitter Pill and Theatre Company Kenya, and Cymbeline (right) in Juba Arabic by the South Sudan Theatre Company, the first-ever adaptation of Shakespeare into Juba Arabic. The season runs from April 21 to June 9.

globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com

African arts, culture + politics

Kingdom come

gus

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) “It’s the continent with the oldest Christian traditions, oldest earth-built buildings, oldest ceramic  traditions – it completely blows you away”. For historian and presenter Gus Casely-Hayford, Africa was the obvious subject for a documentary series. So in 2010 Hayford, whose family is of Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean descent, and his team travelled through Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique into South Africa and Zimbabwe, and from Mali down the River Niger into Nigeria. The result of their explorations is Lost Kingdoms Of Africa. The four-part series aired on BBC Four in 2010 and received positive reviews (UK newspaper The Times called it “not only powerful but moving”). It’s now set to be released on DVD for the first time.

The series explores the long-lost kingdom of Nubia, Judeo-Christian influences in Ethiopia, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and fine metalworking in Nigeria and Mali. “I’ve travelled a lot in Africa over some decades but what this offered was a kind of immersion, not just in local traditional practise but also African expertise,” says Casely-Hayford. “I spent most of the time with my eyes on stalks and jumping around in delight!” For the second series of Lost Kingdoms Of Africa, currently being aired on BBC Four, the team document the history of Zulus in South Africa, the royal Asante family of Ghana, as well as Morocco, Asmara and Uganda.

Lost Kingdoms Of Africa DVD [Acorn Media], out February 6.Lost Kingdoms Of Africa book [Bantam Press, £25], out February 16

African arts, culture + politics

One to watch

lorna

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Exactly one week after the announcement that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would go to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, three other inspiring women sat in the picturesque town of Deauville in France nervously waiting to hear if they, too, would be winners. The trio were the Sub-Saharan Africa finalists of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an annual competition giving much-deserved recognition to socially responsible women entrepreneurs from six world regions – including this year, for the first time, the Middle East and North Africa.

The 2011 winner of the Sub-Saharan Africa category was Lorna Rutto from Kenya, who left her banking job to tackle the mounting problem of plastic waste in Nairobi (“They call the plastic bags our national flowers!”) by turning the discarded material into plastic fence posts. Rutto’s company, EcoPost, now employs 15 permanent staff, while also drawing on the  services of some 300 other workers – including marginalised local women, who buy plastic from street ‘scavengers’ to sell to EcoPost. As well as removing unsightly plastic waste from the landscape – so far, more than 600 metric tonnes – the posts reduce deforestation.  “For every 25 posts we make, we save a fully matured cedar tree,” says Rutto. The economic benefits of buying EcoPost’s new product have not gone unnoticed, either. “Customers love them because they don’t rot,” Rutto explains. “They are resistant to termites; easy to work with, just like timber; and environmentally friendly.”

As one of this year’s six Women’s Initiative Awards winners or ‘Laureates’, Rutto will receive vital publicity, $US20,000 in funding and ongoing business coaching from Cartier and its partners INSEAD and McKinsey & Company. Already, she has been able to refine her business plan, which could see the scheme rolled out across Kenya.

Bikes, Bananas And Business Plans

One of the two runners-up in the Sub-Saharan Africa award category, Lauren Thomas also hails from a banking background – Wall Street to be exact. After moving to Mozambique from the US four years ago, Thomas (together with Rui Mesquita) founded Mozambikes, which sells high-quality, affordable bikes to low-income communities and NGOs in rural Mozambique.

Key to the bikes’ price tag is advertising. By branding the bicycles advertisers can reach low-income consumers in rural communities, while also allowing Mozambikes to sell the bikes at up to six times less than the market value. “The opportunities [the bicycles provide] for income generation and for minimising issues such as absenteeism in schools are huge,” says Thomas.

The Chinese-made bikes, carefully selected to suit Mozambique’s terrain and their intended use, are assembled and customised by Thomas’s experienced staff of six – which includes a member of the Mozambican national cycling team. There are also plans to partner up with a local basket-weaving organisation to make bicycle baskets, and an enterprising Mozambican has approached Thomas with a prototype for a bicycle trailer.

Healthcare boost

The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards is a joint project with the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, an annual conference attracting women from business, media, finance and beyond. Many of its key speeches and debates are filmed, giving those unable to attend an opportunity to discover new information and ideas.

This method of sharing knowledge via web-based videos is vital to the second runner-up, Zimbabwean Linda Ravenhill, a former intensive care nurse based in South Africa who founded the ground-breaking VideoLive. The company provides free web-based videos and information to healthcare professionals across sub-Saharan Africa.
Uniquely, its technology can be used on very low bandwidth, with videos designed to play for 20 to 30 minutes without buffering. Web TV and mobile applications are also offered. Besides filming medical conferences, speeches and the latest surgical techniques, VideoLive provides basic healthcare information. “This
is a very rewarding business to be in,” says Ravenhill. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s what you do with it.”

African arts, culture + politics

Ten Minutes With… Vieux Farka Touré

vieux-edit

(ARISELIVE.com, January 2012) Words Carinya Sharples  Image credit Zeb Goodell

He’s called the Hendrix of the Sahara and has wowed crowds around the world with his fresh take on the Malian music made famous by his father Ali Farka Touré.

Now, on the eve of an eagerly anticipated UK tour, Vieux Farka Touré tells ARISE about carving his own musical path in his latest album, The Secret; rocking WOMAD and the important legacy of his father in his music.

What can audiences expect from your tour? Or what do you hope to achieve?

It’s been a long time since I have toured in the UK, so I want to reconnect with the public there.  We had a great show with my new rock trio at WOMAD last summer, so I want to keep up that high energy on this tour.  Good energy – there’s nothing more than that when it comes to live music. I feel good about the energy of the rock trio.

On the tour you will play alongside Tim Keiper and Johann Berby, and you have collaborated with BLK JKS. Do you find fresh energy or inspiration playing with musicians of your generation? Or is age not important?

No, age isn’t important to me. If you’re 17 or 71 if you have the right feeling in music there is no problem, we can relate.

For your London concert, UK artist Oli Brown is opening for you. Will any other special guests join you during the tour?

Ahh, I never know what will happen!  I think there will be some special guests playing with us, but I cannot tell you who now

Is it frustrating that the crowds you will play to in the UK will not generally understand the words of your songs? Or is it enough that they will appreciate the music?

For me it’s enough if they get the feeling, feel the energy of the music. No one except the people in Mali understand the words in my music anyways. I’m very used to it. So the music must express the message just as much as the lyrics. It’s a good challenge.

The Secret was called a bold change of direction, mostly because of collaborations with American artists such as Derek Trucks and John Scofield. Was this an attempt to open up your music to new audiences or did you just want to play with them?

I just wanted to do an album where I collaborated with other guitar players so we could have an exchange between African music and Western music.  Derek, John, Dave Matthews – they are all guitarists I really respect and admire, so it was really just fun to experiment and make music with them.

Rolling Stone said these collaborations work because “the players come to his music [i.e. your music], not the other way around”. Did you feel this too? Or did you feel stretched into new musical areas?

Yes, I think in this case we were asking them to come to my style more than the other way around. In most cases we gave the guests the songs very well developed, then they did their part, and we figured out what to add or take away to make the sound its best.

You have said your music is now more mature, more evolved. In what way? Do you feel it’s less rough and unsure than before? That you’re getting closer to making the music you want to?

I think I am moving forward with every new project but I have always made the music that I want to – but what I want changes and gets deeper.

What was the response in Mali to this musical departure?

The people in Mali loved the new album.  When they heard the song with Dave Matthews people could not believe it.

Vieux’s latest music video, All The Same (feat. Dave Matthews)

Are there any artists from Mali or elsewhere in Africa that you’re itching to play or record with?

Yes – hundreds of them! I am very open to play with new people all the time, but I can’t think of one person in particular right now.

Are there any lesser-known Malian artists that you would like to champion? Who are we missing out on?

The son of Toumani Diabaté, Sidiki Diabaté, is a very good young kora player. You should watch out for him!

Femi Kuti was also discouraged by his father to become a musician but earned his respect and pride by pursuing his dream anyway. How important was it to get your father’s blessing to be a musician, before he sadly passed away?

It was enormous. It was everything. To have this blessing meant the entire world to me.

Do you feel your father’s presence or spirit when you play music? How important is his legacy to your music?

Of course I can feel my father though music. His legacy is very important. My style is my style, his style is his style, but of course we are part of the same tradition. I am the next branch on the tree, that is all.

Do you still live in Mali? How does the country influence or affect your music?

Yes I still in Mali and I will always live in Mali.  My music does not exist without Mali, period.  It is my inspiration and my motivation.

What do you think of the title “the Hendrix of the Sahara”?

That is nice if people want to compare me to Hendrix. He was probably the best ever. But I play my style and he played his.

What would you like to do next?

I would like to go cook a steak!… No, but seriously, I am working on the new idea for my next album, but I should keep it a secret for now.

You recently went to the Festival au Desert. How was that?

It was very fun. So many great musicians, everyone happy… Also every year the organisers do a better job.  Soon it will be one of the biggest festivals in the world.

Finally, will you be following the African Nations Cup? Do you think Mali have a good chance?

No no, I do not follow sports really.

Vieux Farka Touré is on tour in France on February 2, 3, 17 and 18, and in the UK from February 5 to 16. Later in the year, from April 3 to May 4, he will be touring the US. For more details visit www.vieuxfarkatoure.com.

African arts, culture + politics

Wonder women

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(ARISELIVE.com, October 2011) Pictured Winner of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award for sub-Saharan Africa, Lorna Rutto, with Jury member Nigest Haile, founder and executive director of the Center for African Women Economic Empowerment

Words Carinya Sharples

Gatherings of influential women are increasingly common in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold the majority of parliamentary seats. But for participants of the 2011 Women’s Forum, the occasion was an all-to-rare treat.

The Women’s Forum is an annual assembly of inspiring, influential and innovative women from around the world. Over three days, 1,250 delegates from 80 countries participated in workshops, debates and discussions on everything from tweeting to social entrepreneurship.

ARISE went to the event in Deauville, France, to meet the nominees for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. This was the fifth year Cartier has held the prestigious awards, which recognise and support “audacious and promising women entrepreneurs from all over the world”.

The winner of the Cartier Women’s Intiative Award 2011 for Sub-Saharan Africa was Lorna Rutto from EcoPost in Kenya. EcoPost tackles waste and deforestation by collecting the plastic waste that litters the Kenyan landscape and recycling it to make durable, affordable fence posts.

Receiving her award from a tearful Wendy Luhabe, the South African author and winner of 50 Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, an equally tearful Rutto called the recognitition “a great opportunity for men and hundreds of women in Kenya”, referring to the women she hires the services of to collect the plastic.

The two runners-up from sub-Saharan African were Linda Ravenhill, founder of VideoLive – a low bandwidth online education tool, which gives healthcare workers across Africa up-to-date information, training and news – and Lauren Thomas, whose company Mozambikes sells affordable, quality, branded bicycles in Mozambique.

Outside of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, the programme was no less inspiring. Highlights of the Women’s Forum, for example, included the debate Will the Arab uprisings truly become Arab springs? The knowledgeable panel included human rights activist and former Minister of State for Family and Population of Egypt Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, the executive editor of the International Herald Tribute Alison Smale and Tunisian cyberactivist Amira Yahyaoui. Watch the full debate, including the remarkable call to arms speech by human rights lawyer and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IEeEfbKMUhs

As well as keynote speeches and debates, the Women’s Forum programme included smaller discussions and workshops, which took place in the more informal Discovery Hall. Here delegates networked over coffee and champagne and took advantage of sessions such as Becoming a 21st Century Leader and What if we all stood up for African mothers?

In one eye-opening debate on violence against women, Vice-President of the Italian Senate Emma Bonino declared “women’s rights have no borders”, and while many at the Women’s Forum recognised the different needs and battles of women in every country, there was a  united sense throughout that women’s rights can and must be universal.

For more information, videos and inspiration visit www.womens-forum.com and www.cartierwomensinitiative.com.

Look out for ARISE’s full report on the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards and the Women’s Forum, including interviews with the three nominees from sub-Saharan Africa, in the next issue of ARISE magazine – out later this year.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Senegal in London: Sabar Dance Classes

diene_sml

(Visit London, 10 October 2011) Senegalese director and choreographer Diene Sagna moved to the UK four years ago to run his own dance company, Yaye Dib Sabar. He also holds sabar dance classes in London:

“Sabar is the drum, and also the dance – they go together. Of all the dances in the world that I know, it’s only sabar where you have to be in the air all of the time! You have to be light but also energetic and powerful. In the past it used to be just women who danced but now men are dancing sabar too.

“I’ve been dancing for a long time. When I was six years old I won a competition and after that, even though I was also going to school, dancing was my focus. When I was 17 I started to work professionally, going to Europe and working with big artists. I’ve worked with Youssou N’Dour, dancing on his video for 4444. I’ve also toured and performed with [bestselling Senegalese singer] Coumba Gawlo Seck.

“There are a lot of different African dance classes in London. They used to be mainly from Ghana or Nigeria, but now I can see the interest in Senegalese dance is increasing. It’s hard to make African dance respected in Europe – people think it’s just for fun. You can find contemporary and hip hop dance in the big theatres, but not this West African dance. I want to bring it onto the stage, that’s my fight.

“In London this June we held the first Yaye Dib Sabar International event, a weekend of Afro-dance workshops called Jump for Joy! We will be holding this every year in memory of my mum (who died in 2009) as a way of celebrating not only her life but also West African culture and in particular Sabar dance and drumming.

“I invite all students, from London and the UK as well as Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Belgium where I do workshops every year. I also organise an annual two-week dance training holiday in Dakar, Senegal, called Kaye Fecc, meaning Come Dance. The next one will be from 23 January to 4 February 2012.

“When my students see sabar they say it’s powerful, fast, fun and energetic also. But some people also say sabar is harder because they cannot understand the timing, the breaks. People also say sabar is the most difficult West African dance because it’s changing every week in Senegal. If I stay in UK for two years without going to Senegal I’m going to be lost! That’s why I go every year and spend two or three months there, finding out what’s new.”

The next Yaye Dib Sabar dance and drumming class in London is on Sunday 23 October 2011 at Studio 68 dance studio. More information

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2011/10/senegal-in-london-sabar-dance-classes/

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Nigeria’s No 1 Samba School

ekosambaband_edit

(ARISELIVE.com, October 2011) Pictured Seyi Ajeigbe, founder of Eko Samba School in Lagos, with his growing bateria

Words Carinya Sharples

It’s the national music and dance of Brazil, yet the roots of samba stretch back to Africa – from the semba rhythms of Angola to the Yoruban agogô bell. Now one musician is completing the circle by setting up Nigeria’s first samba school.

Seyi Ajeigbe moved to the UK from Nigeria ten years ago and it was in London that he discovered and learnt to play samba. “I was amazed and dazed at the same time,” he remembers. “I had never seen anything like it … the energy was so gripping I had to get involved immediately”.

After performing with many groups – from the London School of Samba to samba reggae band Eri Okan – Ajeigbe decided to share his expertise with young children in his home city, Lagos.

Through his new project, Eko Samba School (named after the traditional Yoruba name for Lagos), Ajeigbe aims to teach samba to kids in disadvantaged communities in the Nigerian city. “The children just love being able to play drums, a lot of them would love to but haven’t got access to anything like it,” says Ajeigbe. “Samba for them is something they’ve never heard of, but they are willing to learn something new, they truly enjoy it and I think it makes them feel like they’re part of an international community.”

On the ground, setting up Eko Samba School has had its obstacles. “We’ve had a lot of difficulties getting any support or recognition from within Lagos itself,” says Ajeigbe. “We couldn’t get into the Lagos carnival… it was also impossble to get an audience at the Brazilian Embassy. No one really knew or understood what we were trying to do except us”. However, he adds, the music has made it all worth it. “The best part so far has been the music itself. It brings a lot of satisfaction to hear the samba swing in the middle of a slum in Lagos, it’s as if the souls of those slaves taken via Lagos to Brazil are returning.”

After returning to Nigeria earlier this year to set up the school, Ajeigbe is back in London to raise capital for the project – to buy much needed resources and instruments. A night of live music will be held on October 30 at East London music venue Cargo to kickstart fundraising. Ajeigbe will perform at the one-off event with his band Agemo, alongside Maracatudo Mafua and a special samba bateria.

For more information on the Eko Samba School fundraiser on October 30 and details on how you can donate to the fund visit www.gandaia.org.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Ten minutes with… Mayra Andrade

Mayra_1v2

(ARISELIVE.com, July 2011) Words Carinya Sharples

Her rich, earthy voice and beautiful lyrics have captivated fans across Africa, Paris, London and beyond. On the eve of her first performance at London’s legendary jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s, we spoke to Cape Verdean singer-songwriter Mayra Andrade about her freedom fighter father, living a nomadic lifestyle and singing The Beatles.

Did you already know about Ronnie Scott’s before coming to London?

To be honest not really but everyone around me knew about this place… For example my boyfriend’s dream, when he was a child, was to go and see a show in Ronnie Scott’s! So I’m happy because I understood how important this place is.

Will you be performing songs by other artists too?

Yes, Michelle from The Beatles – I recorded it on my last CD – La Javanaise, Serge Gainsbourg, a song from [Brazilian singer-songwriter] Caetano Veloso, and other Cape Verdean composers. I also have my own songs but I’m composing for my new album [out in 2012] so I’m not playing any of the songs yet.

You’re very connected to your roots in Cape Verde.  Now you live in Paris, how do you find life there?

I arrived in Paris when I was 17 so I’m very connected to that city – Paris saw me becoming a woman and growing and making my career. But you know, I’m very nomadic. I’ve lived in five different countries [Andrade was born in Cuba and raised in Cape Verde, Senegal, Angola and Germany]. I’ve never stopped more than six years in a country and I’ve been in Paris for nine years so I’m already looking for the next place. [ARISE: Where might that be?] I’ll tell you when it’s decided! I have my little ideas…

In your songs, you often mention freedom fighters from Cape Verde’s history.

Yes, my father is one of them you know. He went to Guinea Bissau when he was 15 years old because Cape Verde and Guinea fought for independence together. So I’m very concerned about this – recognising what these people did for us.

Is the connection still strong between Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde?

No because it’s also political. We had the PAEGC, which was the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde. When the two countries got independence they didn’t agree with what they wanted to do or how to move on so they split and the Cape Verdeans did their own politics and so on. The situation in Guinea is quite complicated.

Do Cape Verdeans think of themselves as from Cape Verde or Africa?

You have these two sides. I consider myself as an African woman – I don’t have any doubt about this, because Africa is so many things together. We are a mixed country, because when the Portuguese arrived nobody lived there… But some Cape Verdeans like to say ‘no, I’m not African. I’m Cape Verdean, because we are too mixed to say that we are African’. So I say, ‘OK, are you European?’ ‘No, not exactly’. ‘But you try to be, right?’ ‘No I’m Cape Verdean’.

We are ten very, very small islands – separated just by ourselves. So it’s not only a racial aspect it’s also a geographic thing. In Africa you can walk and go all over Africa, in Cape Verde you can’t. It’s a particular mentality – but a good one. We are very open to people and friendly. I love to be with people when they are going to Cape Verde for the first time because I’m like, ‘Oh I know, I know! I know it’s wonderful. I know every woman is beautiful here. I know they all say welcome to my home’. I feel proud.

You’ve collaborated with many African artists, including Angélique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour and Asa. How did that happen?

I met Angélique about nine years ago; I was opening for her. Since then we’ve met so many times in so many festivals and we’ve sung together – she invited me and other African singers to join the last song of her show.

I met Asa when she spent two months in Paris four or five years ago. I was preparing my first CD – I already signed with Sony – and was invited to a conference to talk about my culture with other guests. Asa just came to sing two or three songs at the end and I was like, ‘Introduce me to her, I want to meet her!’ and then we became friends. I tried a little bit to present her demos to the labels but they didn’t pay attention. But when she came out with [French music label] Naïve, I called that guy and was like ‘you see!’ And then she invited me to sing in a show, which is on her live DVD, with Yael Naïm.

Are there any new, Cape Verdean singers you would recommend?

Yes, Sara Tavares; Carmen Souza, a Cape Verdean singer here [in London]; Tcheka, Tito Paris, who is not so known unfortunately… There are so many.

Mayra Andrade is performing tonight at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, before heading to Festival Nuits du Sud in France (July 21) and Luanda Jazz Festival in Angola (July 30)

African arts, culture + politics

New build

china

(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Still buzzing from the reactions to their award-winning  documentary about Ethiopia’s coffee industry, Black Gold, brothers Nick and Marc Francis explore equally hot waters in When China Met Africa. The film explores Chinese investment in Africa and was filmed in Zambia. It captures the difficult, often uneasy, relationship between Chinese project managers and African employees. But Nick says this is not exclusive to Africa: “You could be on a construction site in Beijing and the way workers are treated there isn’t so different. But it’s often misunderstood as being just in Africa.” Tension is caused by cultural and lingusitic differences. Says Nick: “I think in ten years that will change. There’ll be more Chinese speaking English and more African employees speaking Chinese.”

The Francis brothers chose Zambia because its ties with China stretch back to a 1964 diplomatic agreement. The Chinese constructed the Tanzal railway between Zambia and Tanzania and Zambia was the first African country to create China-Africa economic zones, in the copper-belt region and in Lusaka.The brothers hope their film will raise both debate and understanding around the China-Africa relationship. “What’s interesting is when you show the film in the US or the UK,” says Nick. “In this story the West are spectators and that throws up massive insecurity issues. They talk about China’s insatiable appetite for resources but so much of that is driven by our consumer need to have cheap goods”.

whenchinametafrica.com
ariselive.com/articles/new-build/98782

African arts, culture + politics

Search and enjoy

(ARISE magazine, issue 13) What do you do when you need to look up something in Afrikaans, Swahili or Malagasy? Google Soek, Tafua na Google or Fikarohana Google, of course. After high demand from Africa, the search giant is recruiting volunteers to its Google In Your Language project to translate its interface. Said program manager for African languages, Denis Gikunda, “For so many people in Africa, with technology, there’s this idea that I have to master English first, and then I can be good at it. But if you see a user interface in Swahili, you feel like you understand the product more.” Somalia is the latest beneficiary of the Google Africa community translation program after receiving its Google domain name on June 3. The standard interface was translated by volunteers and then verified by a group of native speakers, language specialists and journalists in Nairobi – where Somali is also spoken. Other 2011 additions include Ghanaian dialects Ewe and Ga, Northern Sotho from South Africa and Seselwa Kreol from Seychelles.

google-africa.blogspot.com

African arts, culture + politics

The revolution will be digitised

revolution

(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution that swept North Africa earlier this year, artists around the world have been creating works of resistance. Responses range from Soviet-style graphic posters, as seen on Flickr, to a dedicated exhibition at Cairo’s Safarkhan gallery entitled To Egypt With Love. Egyptian artist/designer Marwan Shahin created an image entitled The Dictator after participating in the revolution: “I was so inspired by what was happening. After the crisis and Mubarak stepped down I created another piece called The 2Vth.I was told it was such a powerful image, I took time to graffiti it on a wall here in Alexandria.”

Online creative platform African Digital Art (ADA) compiled a gallery of graphic art inspired by the uprisings using submissions from its own creative community. Editor Jepchumba explained: “The Egyptian revolution was all over the news, all over the world, so it was no surprise to see that being reflected in artists’ creative portfolios. This was an important thing for us to show at ADA.”

www.africandigitalart.com

African arts, culture + politics

Wants list

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(ARISE magazine, issue 13) He’s on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, as well as his own website. And now newly re-elected Lagos state governor Babatunde Raji Fashola is encouraging his constituents to go online – to share their visions for Lagos.

At the time of writing, 332 Lagosians have logged on to I See Lagos to upload their photos and requests. Many dream of a constant power supply, affordable housing and good transport. Others have more specific wishes: from an end to the “illegal collection of money from bus drivers and conductors” to simply “C-Train. 15min 4rm Ogba to Aja”.

“What was really the driver behind this project was that we were in a political campaign period and just felt
we need to get people better engaged in what they want a government to do for them,” explained one of the project’s coordinators, Moji Rhodes. The I See Lagos team will be monitoring feedback over the next four years and inviting those who share their visions to high-profile events, such as Governor Fashola’s recent inauguration.

http://www.iseelagos.org.ng

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: July 25 1992 South Africa returns to the Olympics

olympics

(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Draped in flags, two exhausted but exultant women – one white, one black – embrace each other and raise their joined hands aloft. Out of context it’s an uplifting picture of racial and sporting unity, but to spectators at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona it was an affirmation that the long, bitter fight against apartheid was over.

The shot was taken moments after Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu won the 10,000-metre women’s race, becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold. Yet instead of revelling in her own glory Tulu waited for her South African challenger, Elana Meyer, to cross the finish line in second place. The pair embraced then embarked on an emotive joint lap of victory around the stadium, hand in hand. “The scale of the response was unexpected, overwhelming,” Meyer later remembered in an interview with Running Times. ”People, white and black, still stop me to this day to tell me where they were when that race was run.”

Before its long-awaited return, South Africa had not competed in the Olympics since 1960. Its application for the 1964 Games in Tokyo was turned down after it submitted a white-only team roster and refused to amend it. Later a swathe of African nations ensured their neighbour’s absence with a threatened boycott in 1968 and with a real one in 1976, involving some 22 African countries. Finally in 1970 the International Olympics Committee (IOC) banned South Africa from competing – the first major international body to impose a sanction on the nation.
The Olympics wasn’t the only arena in which South Africa was shunned. International rugby, cricket and football contests were also made off limits – hitting sports-mad South Africans as hard as the economic, trade and music sanctions already in place. Some complained sport was being unfairly politicised. Yet South Africa had arguably already done this with its discriminatory sporting regulations. Black and white athletes were forbidden from competing together, for instance, and resources for black athletes were scarce.

South Africa’s return to the Olympics was the result of slow political wrangling. In 1988 the IOC set up the Apartheid and Olympic Commission and in 1990, following Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, sent a delegation to meet with Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other members of the African National Congress (ANC). Having initially pushed for South Africa to be banned from the Olympics, the ANC now saw the potential for change its readmittance offered.

And change did come. On June 17 President de Klerk began repealing the core laws of apartheid, starting with the Population Regulation Act, which classified South Africans by race. On July 9 the IOC elected to allow South Africa to return to the Olympics. But it laid out a number of conditions; including the abolishment of all remaining instruments of apartheid, an end to segregated sporting competitions and better sporting facilities for all.

The road back to Olympic competition was not smooth. The unveiling of a new team anthem and an alternative flag – a replacement to the orange, white and blue standard, which was felt to be too associated with the minority white administration – ruffled the feathers of many white South Africans. Sports minister Louis Pienaar called it,
“a slap in the face of South Africans”. Others had more practical concerns. After years away from the starting line, would South Africa’s athletes be up to the job?

Despite rumbles of discontent and concern, on July 25 1992 the world watched South Africa’s hopefuls join Barcelona’s glitzy opening ceremony. Of the 95-strong team, only eight were black – even though black South Africans constituted 81 per cent of the population. Mandela, who led the team, commented: “I would have liked it to be a reflection of our population, but there has to be a starting point. Let bygones be bygones. Let’s concern ourselves with our presence here”.

Although the ghost of apartheid haunted South Africa long after 1992, the Games inspired change and unity across the country – and Africa. Tulu’s victory helped advance women’s rights in Ethiopia, while Meyer went on to run the JAG Foundation organising sports programmes for disadvantaged children. “Running transformed my life,” she said. “My dream is to give the same opportunities to young kids in South Africa. I really believe in the power of sport.”

African arts, culture + politics

Inside An African Election

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(ARISELIVE.com, 2011) Words Carinya Sharples

“What we do we know about African elections other than they mostly go wrong?” It was this rather depressing question that drove director Jarreth Merz to go behind the camera and find out what an African election – the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, to be specific – really looks like on the ground.

The remarkable thing about the resulting film, An African Election, though, is not what goes right or wrong but the unprecedented access Merz and his team have to the two main candidates, their people and (a first for any film crew) the Strong Room – where all Ghana’s election results are sent, where accusations fly and where presidents are made. Eventually.

How easy was it to get the politicians on board? “I think they are hungry to be shown and seen in a different light, bottom line,” says Merz. “They understood very early that this was different … We were embedded in all the major political parties and we built trust over time. So I think they got this sense of ‘they’re not in here to make us look bad’. That wasn’t the case but at the same time I told them they had no control of the footage … I didn’t want to make a political movie, so to speak.”

Director of An African Election, Jarreth Merz

Another point in Merz’s favour was his Swiss-Ghanaian stepdad’s connections to Ghanaian society and family links to the king of Ashante. Merz himself grew up between Ghana, Germany and Switzerland, later moving to the US to study directing and go in front of the lens in hit US TV series ER (as Charles Baruani) and The Passion of the Christ. But it was the death of his Nigerian father in 2007 that put into motion the chain of events that would lead to An African Election.

“I was the first born so I had to attend the funeral otherwise he couldn’t be buried … my brother [Kevin Merz, co-director of An African Election] came and we started a diary – just a family diary – which turned into a documentary called Glorious Exit. And I just realised I didn’t know anything about Nigeria. And then I wondered well, what do I know about Ghana where I spent my childhood? What do I know about Africa? The debates are always about colonialism and neo-colonialism… what about day to day life?” Returning to Ghana in search of his “roots”, Merz instead found a country on the brink of an all-important presidential election – and, quickly, the idea for the film was born.

An African Election begins with just 28 days to go until the elections. The two main candidates are swiftly introduced – John Atta Mills of the NDC and Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP – and the boxing match begins, each contender trying to knock out the opposition and give the crowds something to cheer about. It is the fifth election since multi-party democracy was re-introduced in 1992, so the Ghanaian people are not new to this sort of thing. Yet they’re anything but apathetic – something clear throughout the film, from the initial rallies to the vote counting, when crowds of observers watch the election officials hawk-eyed to make sure not a single vote is miscounted. “Politics is embedded in families [in Ghana],” explains Merz. “People speak about politics, they’re engaged. There’s an amazing political sensitivity. They understood very early on that they were the ones to decide, they wouldn’t let the politicians decide.”

Perhaps inevitably – for a documentary, not for Africa – the film cranks up the tension as accusations are made about electoral fraud. A car is suddenly pictured in flames, crowds gather on the darkened streets, rumours spread of “macho men” on motorbikes snatching ballot boxes before they’re counted. Is it real or exaggerated for impact? For Merz, his presence as a filmmaker obviously made him more aware of events: “This was like wow, the shit’s going to hit to fan. Other people were in their homes, they were having dinner. People watched the film and said there was no violence. I think that’s dangerous – we cannot take democracy in Ghana for granted.”

Now the film is out, Merz’s focus is getting it seen – not just at Western film festivals and cinemas but across Africa. When we spoke, Merz had just got back from Zimbabwe where An African Election had passed the censors and was being screened. “Harare Gardens open air was packed,” says Merz. “People were laughing. It was just insane. I think they thought it was an inspiring story, an African success story. It wasn’t just the good, it wasn’t just the bad – people recognised their own political leadership.”

The important role played by the unshakeable Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, has also been commended far beyond African. “I got an email from a Superior Court judge in California who said he was a hero to him and his colleagues,” says Merz.

The focus now is on sourcing funding to take the film to Ghana and planning a “political safari project” to engage people at a grassroots level, using the film as a platform to start debates about democracy in, for example, universities. Then there’s Merz’s planned biopic on the famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (who was of African descent) and a documentary on how love is seen across Africa.

So how does Merz think the presidential winner, Atta Mills (surely not a spoiler?), is faring. “I think he’s doing pretty much the right things, he’s trying to stop this conscience of vengeance. He’s not the most sexy politician on this planet, the most charismatic, but he’s trying to reason with his party to consolidate.”  With the next round of elections due next year, Atta Mills’s got another fight on his hands.

An African Election is out in UK cinemas now. For more information visit anafricanelection.com

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Ghana in London: Nzinga Dance

Credit: Ludo des Cognets
Credit: Ludo des Cognets

(Visit London, 11 March 2011) For the latest in our World in London series, we put on our dancing shoes and spoke to Deanna Michel-de Sousa, leader of African performing arts ensemble Nzinga Dance, which teaches African drumming and dance at south London’s Horniman Museum

What does Nzinga Dance do?

Our main remit is bringing African history, culture and tradition to life – telling its story with dance and music. The classes are about coming along and learning traditional dance and drumming – and about their importance in African culture – but in a fun and creative way.

We do lots of performances at the museum and elsewhere too – for Refugee Week, Adult Learners’ Week, at summer festivals… We’re not just at the Horniman!

Are all the Nzinga teachers Ghanaian?

There’s a mixture of people, mainly Ghanaian and a couple of us from St Lucia – the one person that isn’t is from Pakistan, so there you go! We’re an African-Caribbean group but a lot of what we teach and perform is from Ghana.

Ghanaian dance is a big part of what we do. In terms of African dance culture, Ghana has prolific dancers and musicians. You have one country but within that country so many different nations – whether it’s Ewe, Ashanti or Ga – and each has their own style. You find literally hundreds of dances and that’s what’s quite unique about Ghanaian dance and drumming – there’s a lot to learn and pick from as well. So within one course, we may say to people we’re teaching Ghanaian dance but that can include completely different styles.

Who comes to your dance classes? Ghanaians living in London or a mixture of people?

We get a mix of people, although we do have Ghanaian students who come along that haven’t learnt so much about their culture in that respect and just feel that they really want to touch base and learn.  It’s nice that people want to come along – both Ghanaian and non-Ghanaian – and learn about African culture in a creative way, and in a really social atmosphere.

What do your students think about the course?

Most of them say they enjoy coming along because it’s a non-competitive atmosphere and they feel that what they’re learning is authentic. We can be specific – we can say you’ve learnt Kpanlogo dance from this place in Ghana – and they like that feeling of knowing what they’ve been taught and the significance of it in history and culture. For example, that when I’m dancing this step, it means this or that.

I think we get lots of students, too, because of the live drumming [the djembe drummers who accompany the dance classes]. Not knocking anyone who uses a CD, but I think it being authentic is a big part of drawing people. I think that’s why we’re still going strong.

See Nzinga Dance (and their students) perform at the Nzinga Dance Ensemble Concert on 27 March 2011 at Horniman Museum. The next term of Nzinga dance and drumming courses for adults and children at Horniman Museum begin on 1 May 2011.

Do you know anywhere else you can experience Ghanaian culture in London? Let us know in the comments below.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2011/03/ghana-in-london-nzinga-dance/

African arts, culture + politics

Vote with your tweet

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(ARISE magazine, issue 12) How do you inspire apathetic young voters? By getting them to fill in their Twitter status. That was the idea behind a campaign by Vote or Quench that urged young Nigerians to tweet about how the upcoming election could change their country, using the hashtag IfNaijaVotes.The one-day action in January provoked a chorus of tweets; as well as trending locally, it was covered by Yahoo and USA Today while celebs such as US rapper Nas and Nigerian singer Nneka tweeted about it. Young voters also joined in via Facebook, smartphones and BlackBerry Messenger.

“We wanted people to donate their status, something that was easy,” says Vote or Quench founder Nosarieme Garrick. “We wanted people to be creative, to have fun with it.” It may have been fun, but there was an important message behind IfNaijaVotes: 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population is under 30, which could mean serious electoral bargaining power, if they take advantage of it.

Through its lively online hub of debate and information, Vote or Quench’s aim is for more 18-35 year olds to become aware of their voting power. “We’re not saying social media is the answer to all our problems,” says Garrick, “but it’s helping to fan the flames. It changes the idea of social activism.”

Vote or Quench is now recording video diaries of first-time voters and calling for a presidential debate on youth issues. In Nigeria’s last ballot, less than half of the electorate voted. With the help of Vote or Quench, that might be about to change.

http://www.voteorquench.org

African arts, culture + politics

Size matters

map

(ARISE magazine, issue 12) Africa is bigger than you think, and software pioneer Kai Krause has produced a map to prove it. Named The True Size Of Africa, Krause’s representation neatly undermines our preconceptions by demonstrating that Africa is considerably larger than it’s commonly believed to be. In reality, it takes up the same area as the US, China, India – what we think of as the world’s biggest countries – as well as much of Europe, combined.

Krause blames our bias, in part, on popular mapping projections, such as the Mercator, which dramatically distort the size of land masses. He even has a phrase for our geographical ignorance: ‘immappancy’ – as in illiteracy or innumeracy – and calls his diagram “a small contribution in the fight against rampant immappancy”.

Krause’s map has been criticised for not representing accurately the different countries’ shapes and proportions. However, the calculation was worked out using the area mass of each country (taken from Wikipedia) and comparing the total to that of Africa. As Kai himself points out in the accompanying explanation: “the graphical layout of this map is meant purely as a visualisation… the map purposefully uses the familiar shapes, as if you are ‘moving pieces’ in Google Maps”.

Now we just need someone to remind the world that Africa’s a continent, not a country.

African arts, culture + politics

Double vision

winnie

(ARISE magazine, issue 12) She’s been admired, vilified, imprisoned and tortured, now Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is to be immortalised – on screen and on stage anyway – with both a film and an opera about her set for 2011. Winnie The Opera, a sequel to 2007’s The Passion of Winnie, previews at Pretoria’s State Theatre on April 28.

It explores the dark period in her life when she appeared in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, accused of involvement in murders and beatings carried out by her then-bodyguards. In contrast, upcoming biopic Winnie promises to be “the ultimate women’s movie” (according to its South African director, Darrell Roodt), focusing on the love story between Winnie and Nelson.

Despite initially facing legal threats from Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyers, Roodt is now confident she will “love” the film – although he stressed it won’t shy from controversies. Although critics are concerned this is exactly what will happen. The filmmakers have also received fierce criticism from the Creative Workers Union of South Africa for casting African-American stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard in the leads, instead of choosing local talent.

Whether or not you agree with Roodt’s assertion, reported in UK newspaper The Telegraph, that Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the anti-Apartheid movement was “as extraordinary, if not more” than Nelson Mandela’s, there’s no denying this is going to be Winnie’s year.

http://www.winnietheopera.com

African arts, culture + politics

Voices in exile

Razak

(ARISE magazine, issue 12) The concept of ‘home’ can provoke feelings of displacement and guilt in many migrants. The Last Gift, a new book by Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah, explores this issue through the tale of Abbas, a migrant father struggling to hide his past from his English-born children.

Migration, post-colonialism and identity are recurring themes in Gurnah’s books. They’re also matters of personal interest; Gurnah was forced to flee Zanzibar, aged 18, after a bloody revolution in 1964. It was 17 years before Gurnah was able to return, following an amnesty. “Being away has a guilt to it: you’re out of touch, you can’t help people. Going back was terrific because you are able to renew things.”

Gurnah, professor of English at the University of Kent, now visits Zanzibar regularly. But his past is never far from his mind – or books. “I often have characters thinking back to other times. Many people who live this migrant life live both in reality and in their imagination.”

The Last Gift [Bloomsbury], out May

African arts, culture + politics

Out of this world

sansa

(ARISE magazine, issue 12) It’s one small step for man, but for South Africa the launch of its own space agency is a giant leap, uniting the country’s fragmented space organisations that have been surveying the universe for 50 years.
The new South African Space Agency (SANSA) is not the first of its kind in Africa – there are others in Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria – yet its ambitions are just as stellar.
At the official launch in December, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, declared: “Our medium-term goal is for our country to have a fully operational space programme within the next five years, and to be globally positioned within ten.”
The new space agency, set to start operations on April 1, will bring together existing space bodies such
as the prominent Satellite Applications Centre in Hartebeeshoek, and focus its expertise into six key areas: earth observation, space operations, space science, space engineering, human capital development and science advancement.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Pandor, with critics objecting to its estimated first-year budget of R400-500m, which they argue would be better spent on alleviating South Africa’s continued healthcare and poverty concerns. However supporters argue the space agency will help do both. At the launch, Pandor declared: “Our efforts in enhancing space science and technology will also assist in addressing the persistent challenges of healthcare provision, water resources, agricultural mapping, urban planning and communications.”

As well as launching SANSA, South Africa is vying with Australia to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array. And with a number of key space projects already under its belt, such as the microsatellite SumbandilaSat, South Africa has a good chance of success.

http://www.sansa.org.za

London culture

Into The Wild: Heaven & Earth at Menier Gallery (review)

Gibello-LeopardCub

(Visit London, 22 October 2010) Yesterday I popped into Heaven & Earth, a striking new exhibition of African photography at the Menier Gallery.

Snapped by Cape Town photographer Caroline Gibello, the sundrenched, over-exposed photos show the wildlife, landscape and people of Botswana and Namibia in a new light – literally.

Instead of lush greenery and the bright colours we usually associate with Africa, the photos have a stark, dried-out feel. This is intensified by the choice of subject matter – the cracked texture of elephant hide, dry grasses and local people walking through clouds of dust.

The photos reminded me of the increasing water shortages in Africa, and beyond. However, the unusual beauty of the wildlife and landscape, plus joyful photo names such as Courage, Spirit and Reverence, can’t help but lift your spirit.

Judge for yourself by stopping in at the exhibition. Make a night of it by nipping next door to Menier Chocolate Factory for dinner or to catch Samuel and Timothy West in A Number, the downstairs theatre’s thought-provoking new show.

Myerson Fine Art presents Heaven & Earth at Menier Gallery until 30 October.  Entrance is free.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2010/10/into-the-wild-heaven-earth-at-menier-gallery/

African arts, culture + politics

The Write Stuff: Kwani Trust

kwani

(ARISE magazine, issue 9) Nairobi’s literary scene is buzzing, and much of the excitement can be attributed to Kwani Trust – a local, literary network and publisher.

Kwani Trust began as an informal group for local writers who had returned to Kenya after years abroad and were looking for a platform to showcase their work. “We returned from Canada, the US and South Africa to find the same African Writers Series books we’d grown up reading [still] on the shelves,” recalls author and Kwani Trust managing editor Billy Kahora.
Determined to move beyond post-independence issues, the group set about championing writing that
dealt with modern issues, such as changing generations, insecurity and HIV/Aids. Their project gradually gathered steam and, in 2003, was officially launched as Kwani Trust.
Since then, the group has published journals and books, mostly by Kenyan writers. About half of the contributions are local, the rest come from across Africa and the diaspora. The Trust also holds poetry readings and a book festival. Later this month they’ll publish three books – a reissue of The Stone Hills Of Maragoli by Stanley Gazemba, Tale of Kasaya: Let Us Now Praise A Famous Woman by Eva Kasaya with Jackie Lebo and Cock Thief by Parselelo Kantai – as well as a poetry anthology. And later this year they will publish Kwani 6, a short-fiction anthology of young African writers, as well as a graphic novel and a visual, collaborative narrative of Nairobi. South Africa and Nigeria may have spearheaded the continent’s literary revolution, but in Kenya the writing’s on the page – not the wall.

www.kwani.org