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

Pulling the strings

puppet

(ARISE magazine, issue 16) After providing the lifelike neighs and nuzzles that have charmed audiences of theatre-hit War Horse, Cape Town’s Handspring Puppets could be forgiven for dismounting for a while. Instead, the team is busy reviving their 20-year-old puppet drama Woyzeck On The Highveld for a US tour and organising a platform for their home town’s Out The Box Festival next year. “It’s a good time for puppetry,” says Basil Jones who co-founded Handspring with Adrian Kohler.

Creating the War Horse puppets was an epic undertaking. First came the research. “We watched videos, visited museums, talked to people who’d seen horses die, listened to recordings of horse sounds,” lists Jones. “We also spent time with the King’s Troop in England, one of the few military regiments that still work with horses and draw gun carriages like they did in WWI.”

The attention to detail paid off. On stage the puppets – made out of carefully-curved strips of cane – are seen whinnying, braying and cantering across the stage like the real thing. To make a full set of War Horse puppets
– including horses, a goose, two or three swallows, crows and cavalry officers – takes around nine months. And with shows pulling in crowds in London, New York, Toronto, Australia, Berlin, not to mention the ongoing UK and US tours, the Cape Town workshop rarely winds down.

Where there was once just Jones, Kohler and a few freelancers, there are now 20 full-time employees and part-time puppeteers touring shows abroad. Recruiting is an organic process thanks to the training programmes Handspring runs for people with no previous experience of making puppets or, sometimes, even working. “We’ve got guys that have come through from the bottom and are now making horse heads, which is highly sophisticated and skilled,” says Jones. “We’re really proud of them.” A new non-profit arm, Handspring Trust, is also reaching out to townships and informal settlements around Cape Town.

handspringpuppet.co.za

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

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

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

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