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

nina

(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

Word games: Talib Kweli

talib

(ARISE magazine, issue 18)

Such is the power of social media that before Talib Kweli had even touched down in South Africa this August, to judge the Sprite Uncontainable Hip Hop Talent Search, the US rapper was already embroiled in lively debate with his SA Twitter followers. On being told that Africans hate the term ‘the motherland’ he tweeted, “[It] could come off as corny, but for us struggling with the effects of the slave trade saying motherland is a point of pride.” When another fan declared African-Americans “not real Africans” he diplomatically replied, “I disagree but, hey, to each his own.” And when accused of referring to Soweto as a country he quickly, and indignantly, responded, “I’ve BEEN to Soweto. Did a show in the street with Black Thought, Dead Prez, Boots & Jeru.”

Kweli was referring to his 2001 visit as part of the Black August Hip Hop Project, which saw several US rappers tour Durban, Joburg, the Cape Flats, Cape Town and Soweto to promote Black August’s work fighting for the rights of political prisoners. The trip had a lasting effect on Kweli. “[It] defined my role,” he told Charise Cheney in her book Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics In The Golden Age Of Rap Nationalism. “I had access to food, shelter and education [growing up], I have to use those resources to help people all over the world. If I can’t see that after trips to all those places then I’m a fool.”

On Push Thru, the first single off his new album, Prisoner Of Conscious, Kweli proves he’s no fool, delivering lines such as “fighting for freedom like the people in Tunisia/ spread to Sudan and Egypt, this is the music for the movement”. “My aim was to make an album of love songs but it ended up being deeper,” he admits. “There are a lot of songs dealing with the opposite sex though.” He describes the album as “lush and romantic”, which is perhaps less surprising given some of his collaborators: Seu Jorge and R&B singers Melanie Fiona and Amber Strother (Nelly and Busta Rhymes also feature).

Prisoner Of Conscious is Kweli’s second release in recent months, coming off the back of his free mixtape Attack The Block. “People in this generation expect free music, period,” he says. “To work against that as an artist is to work against yourself. God willing the mixtape will drive up a buzz for the album, and I also wanted to do a mixtape with a real DJ like Z-Trip, that had actual mixing.”

TEAM PLAYER

Collaborating with established artists and discovering new talent are skills Kweli has nurtured throughout his career – from teaming up with Mos Def, Hi-Tek and Madlib to co-founding record label BlackSmith Music (with Corey Smyth). In SA he drew on this experience to decide the three winners of the talent contest: rapper Hydrochloric, graphic designer Dane (aka Stops) and b-girl ShamRock. “Cape Town was incredible,” he enthuses, “The performers were great and I look forward to seeing the winners in NYC [where he will mentor them]”.

Kweli took to the stage too, putting on killer shows at Cape Town’s Trinity club and Joburg’s OST. But SA is not the only pin on Kweli’s map of Africa. He’s also been to Nigeria (see right) and Tanzania (for the MTV show Tripping). “People of African descent have Africa running through their bones,” he says. “It’s a connection that slavery and colonialism could never erase. So when I touched down, even the distant felt familiar.” Kweli has expressed an interest in genealogical testing – but, he says, “the science I’ve seen behind tracing one’s roots past the slave trade is hokey at best”.

From the moment his professor parents named him Kweli (‘true’ in Swahili), Africa has been ingrained in the rapper’s life. “My parents’ generation came of age in 1960s America when black consciousness and pan-Africanism was on the rise,” he says. “Those values were taught when I was young, then reinforced when I listened to hip hop.” In terms of African music, Kweli namechecks MC Tumi, Seun and Femi Kuti and is keen to hear more. “African music, other than our popular music influenced by African rhythms, is not mainstream in the US at all. We have a long way to go with that.”

As well as an album, Kweli’s also been busy motivating his fellow citizens to vote, taking to Twitter to scorn Nicki Minaj for seemingly showing support for Mitt Romney (“Just heard a dude on Hot97 say he won’t let his daughter listen to Nicki Minaj cuz she endorses Romney. Really? That’s what it took?”). ARISE spoke to Kweli before the election took place, but he had no doubt what the result would be: “Obama will win for sure, no question. The election seems like a distraction, because it’s a popularity contest. And Obama is definitely more popular.” How right he was.

The rapper’s also been working on his autobiography and has already shared one chapter, That One Time When I Was Atheist, And The Influence Of Malcolm X, on his Tumblr. Coming from a man who once bought a bookshop in Brooklyn with Mos Def it’s not a surprising move. “I would like to create industry around myself rather than waiting for an industry to support me,” he says. “The book is part of that. I feel my story can be as inspirational as the music.”

Prisoner Of Conscience [Javotti], out Feb

[BOXOUT] LIGHTS, CAMERA, AFRICA!

Talib Kweli shot his video for Hostile Love in Lagos. But he’s not the only one repping Africa on MTV.

Rick Ross, Lagos (2012)
Rick Ross caused a Twitter storm with his Hold Me Back video, in which the rapper swaggers through the ghettos of Lagos State, dishing out dollar bills.

Solange, Cape Town (2012)
Solange roped in a troupe of snappily dressed sapeurs for her Losing You video, shot against the barbershops and streets of Langa township.

MIA, Morocco (2012)
In MIA’s Bad Girls, gun-toting, headscarved women strut the dusty streets of Ouarzazate. After the redhead genocide of Born Free it’s almost tame.

Westlife, Gauteng (2011)
Bafflingly beloved across Africa, Westlife shot their video for Lighthouse in SA’s Cradle of Humankind heritage site. Cue swaying grasses and safari tents.

African arts, culture + politics

Dangerous mind

mia

(ARISE magazine, issue 18) You’re as likely to find MIA in the news as the charts. but after last year’s storms, she begins 2013 with new projects that’ll make headlines for the right reasons

“There’s nothing that can touch me now. You can’t even break me down”, sings MIA on a preview for her new track Come Walk With Me. It’s trademark MIA: obstinate, single-minded and resilient. At the start of 2012 she summoned a storm at the Super Bowl by flashing her middle finger. The same month she was widely criticised (and also defended) for her Bad Girls video, shot in Morocco and described by Asian-American magazine Hyphen as “just a hipper, high-definition stereotype of Arabs as desert-dwelling, sword-wielding, horse-riding and dangerous”. And in March she got into a Twitter spat with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, tweeting “@AndersonCooper called me a terrorist for speaking out [about Tamil civilians dying in Sri Lanka]” (although after defending their positions the two called a truce).

Of course, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And that’s just as well, with a raft of MIA projects landing soon. She has a new, eponymous book on the shelves; newly commissioned art works on show at India’s first biennial Kochi-Muziris Biennale; a new album, Mathangi, poised for release; and a documentary about her in production. She also inadvertently revealed another ongoing venture – a design collaboration with Versace – in November while speaking at New York’s MoMA PS1. Her personal laptop was hooked up to a giant screen so the singer could share some of her works and indulge in some collective Googling, leaving folders labelled Versace Prints, Bootleg Versace and Versace Outlines clearly visible on her desktop.

The 37-year-old rapper describes the new album as “Paul Simon on acid”, but also as “basically all my other albums… like an anthology”. The same could be said of her characteristically colourful self-titled book, which is part art portfolio, part discography, part autobiography. Inside the London-born, Sri Lanka-raised artist (real name Mathangi Arulpragasam) shares her DIY works of art, drawing on Google Search, stencils, video stills, Photoshop, typography and her formative years studying at Central St Martins. There’s also an intro by designer Steve Loveridge, her friend and collaborator, as well as song lyrics and fascinating explanations from MIA herself of the stories and inspirations behind each of her three albums – Arular, Kala and MAYA – plus her free mixtape Vicki Leekx, released in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

It’s a fascinating documentation of a career and life, and a demonstration of MIA’s global outlook – in which India, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and Africa figure as much as London, LA and New York. Consider the African connections of her recent output alone: the video for Come Walk With Me borrows pre-existing YouTube footage of Congolese coupé decalé dancers, while her muses for Bad Girls include the female bikers of Marrakesh (see right). Bring on the next chapter, MIA.

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

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(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

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

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