Tag: African artists

No Artificiality

A recent blog post on the organization A Work Of Heart was met with huge interest, and proved very popular across the internet. People applaud the marriage of creativity and commerce, because it doesn’t smack of the patronizing attitudes that so often dominate the conversation around aid.

Far too often there is a kind of smug arrogance over the role one may’ve played in some do-good initiative or another; one becomes more interested in our laser-pointed act of generosity to The Less Fortunate (who always, it must be said, remain nameless and faceless in their poverty) than in providing empowerment to achieve a livelihood not unlike our own. Western aid is often characterized by an agenda of righteousness, utterly lacking in awareness of history or culture. Self-empowerment, self-determination, responsibility and accountability… what’s that?

FELA! may have some answers. The mega-musical, produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, revolves around the life and music of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. While Kuti may have passed away in 1997, his work -and the show itself – underlines his political and artistic legacies for audiences, both white and black, Western and non-Western, in the 21st century. Kuti’s life revolved around politics and art, the hows and why and wherefores of the two intersecting, and the power created therein to affect real change, both in his short time on earth, and past it, for all time, for all Nigerians. Kuti’s sound is a musical smorgasbord of influences; he liberally mixed the sounds of indigenous African beats (namely Yoruba drums) with big American-sounding horns and twanging James Brown-style guitars. His work even betrays Middle Eastern influence; there’s a distinctly Klezmer mood in “Mr. Follow Follow” mixed in with the funky beats and bleating horns.
In FELA! the songs as used both as plot points and party anthems, and perhaps, both; the party becomes political, and the political becomes a party. “Water No Get Enemy”, “Expensive Shit” and “Zombie” are seamlessly interwoven throughout the piece, providing dialogue and narrative drive, along with groove and timeliness. The work may take place somewhere around 1977, but FELA! is less a period piece than it is an evocation of the power of music to empower a people and a nation. One nation under a groove, indeed.
Groove isn’t something that Toronto audiences immediately respond to in the theater, however. FELA! opened at the city’s Canon Theatre at the end of October, brought to Canada by Mirvish Productions. The show’s charismatic lead, Sahr Ngaujah immediately sensed some Canadian shyness during a recent Friday night performance, and he wasn’t pleased. The accomplished build the energy, doing call-and-responses, storming off the stage James Brown-style, and getting us on our feet to dance. Ngaujah also showed off his able improv abilities when, during one of his character’s asides chatting up the wonders of igbo (or marijuana), an eager audience member shrieked “Pass!” as he lit up what looked like a gigantic joint. Ngaujah looked up with a wicked smile, clearly delighted, and began riffing on the ups and downs of reefer-sharing. It was a warm, off-the-cuff moment that underlined the human heart beating at the center of FELA! as well as the steely resolve of its title character to play by his own rules, come hell or highwater.
As in Kuti’s life, the enemy in FELA! is the violent Nigerian government of the 1970s (and arguably, beyond that time period). On a larger scale, it attacks the endemic corruption of worldwide governments by corporate interests. The decision to have an unseen enemy, rather than actual physicalized figures, renders their evil deeds -the rape of Kuti’s “Queens”, the murder of his mother -more horrific, even as it solidifies Kuti’s defiance. Giant screens on either side of the stage portray various shots from the time and from the musician’s own life; scenes of mobs, arrests, beatings, of newspaper headlines, of shots of Kuti’s compound and The Shrine (the interior of which is the setting for the musical itself) provide a history lesson, but it’s wrapped in the pulsing sound of Afrobeat, the sonic hybrid Kuti pioneered and perfected. The production’s onstage band, including the talented Morgan Price (who does tenor sax solos) ups the energy ante, and provides able solemnity where needed. Captivating performances by the work’s female leads balance out the machismo. British actor Melanie Marshall does a stunning turn as Fela’s mother Funmilayo Kuti, her coloratura soprano soaring as she inspires her son even past the grave. L.A.-based actor Paulette Ivory is a force of nature as Sandra, Fela’s American wife. Whether she’s standing with hand on hip, head cocked, or belting out “Lover” in her strong pop-inflected voice, Ivory’s presence is, as we suspect with Sandra, one to be reckoned with.
Interestingly, Toronto critics, amidst their praise of the popular Tony Award-winning work, noted the lack of portraying Kuti’s polygamy, and the fact FELA! is lacking in physicalized bad guys – but those criticisms ignore what this work is really about: one man using his art to fight for change. The finale encapsulates the twin impulses toward art and politics that characterized Kuti’s life, combinining his untimely passing with that of other key political figures. It’s eerie -and eye-opening -to witness coffin after coffin being carried onstage and piled artfully in one corner, each coffin bearing the name of either a murdered figure (like Ken Saro-Wiwa), or a company (like Shell Oil) who must die so that The Shrine (aka Nigeria) might live. One understands more clearly the legacy Kuti left, not only for his own country, not only for his fans, but for people who are fighting for justice, dignity, empowerment, and respect.
Those issues are crystalline in their presentation, but they aren’t delivered with any didacticism or smugness. FELA! is too smart for that. Instead, the show is education via entertainment, enlightenment through electrical musical energy. The Torontonians at the Canon knew some of the songs, and could be heard (softly) singing the words or humming along. The subtext was understood, but they couldn’t help but get lost in the music. That’s the power of art, well done and well-executed. If only this marvelous Mirvish Production was playing longer than two weeks -this is precisely the kind of entertaining, electrifying, timely programming Toronto theatre needs. If you’re in the polite Canadian city, make time between now and Sunday (its closing day) to see FELA! -and make sure you shout, dance, and make noise. Not to be charitable – just because it feels so damn good.
Photo credits:
Top photo: Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton
Middle photo: Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever ©Monique Carboni
Bottom photo: Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti and the Broadway cast of FELA! ©Monique Carboni

Download, Upload, Revolution

There was something about Rocky Dawuni’s thought about avoiding “preachiness” in Part 1 of this exchange that hit me as both amusing and wise; there are few things more annoying or off-putting than pure polemic in a song. I like a bit of poetry throw in for good measure -that’s just a personal taste thing.

But the busy singer-songwriter hit on something profound, political, and poetic when he wrote a song called “Download This Revolution“. Though he could’ve never anticipated the way social media would be used in Egypt to oust a President, the song shows a clear understanding of the ways technology is influencing people’s lives, particularly within his home country of Ghana. There’s a clever taunt -perhaps a sly commentary -on the state of modern culture and the power of people’s politics, too, as Rocky smoothly croons “upload this / download this… ” -as if sharing information, the miniscule pieces of data that come together across wires and networks and form “likes” and groups and tweets, is this generation’s sit-in, march, loud chant, and noisy protest. People can take to their mobiles or keyboards, and… change the world. At least sometimes.

Like the rest of the songs on Hymns For The Rebel Soul (Aquarius), it’s thought-provoking, groovy, and wise, all at once. The NAACP Image Awards happen tonight, and Rocky’s nominated for Outstanding World Album. We recently traded ideas about the themes in his work, tackling difficult subject matter, and integrating technology within organic musical sounds.

What’s the theme of Hymns For The Rebel Soul?

The theme of this album was to create an inspirational collection of songs that offered a spiritual and melodic snapshot of various cultures around the world. The album reflects on themes ranging from love, life, God and peace beyond war.

What’s your method for integrating soul and real-world issues? “Jerusalem” is a beautiful example of this integration: it tells a story of a conflicted region but is very soulful and poetic at the same time. How difficult was this song to do?

I basically submit to the feel and vision of the song and let it lead me to its final manifestation. This method allows me to combine the real world issues with soul. It’ s basically letting myself be inspired by my own unique observation. “Jerusalem” was written from the first wave of inspiration when I set my foot in the Holy City. There was a certain mysterious beauty about this place that I felt made it the spiritual crossroads for major religious faiths but elusively out of reach for any particular faith to possess. Its divinity lies within its power to provide spiritual refuge to all those willing to overcome their prejudice and submit to its magic…I opened my he art to it and the song came pouring out. It was a very special and effortless moment .

“Download This Revolution” is a fascinating start to the Hymns For The Rebel Soul: it addresses a technological bridge between change, access, and art. Why was it was important to open the album with it?

The song represents our current times so it was an appropriate tone setting song for the album. We are the first generation of the ongoing internet revolution and “Download the Revolution” touches on the issue of equalization of the playing field : the emergence of an age where technology will fuel drastic social changes. The old doors that used to keep mass consciousness from coming into the mainstream will be circumvented while outdated and oppressive political systems fall to the tech-fueled people’s revolution.

I believe there is already evidence of this in the current internet-inspired democratic movements sweeping across Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the world. The thing about change is that it can be either positive or negative. The song calls for the forces of good to seize the moment and take charge of all the mechanisms of this transformation.


How challenging is it to integrate traditional organic sounds with electronic ones?

Well personally I believe having the options of both approaches gives me flexibility to be creative and push boundaries. Live instrumentation definitely bring s that organic feel to music and it’s my first approach before I mix electronic sounds . Some songs work better when you approach them from the electronic perspective as well.

In the long run it all boils down to the artist and their objective. Organic sounds never get outdated so I personally use that as the basis for my creations.

If you could work with any artist, who would it be, and why?

It will be Lauryn Hill because her songs have such amazing emotional and spiritual depth!

Painted portrait of Rocky Dawuni (top) by John Robertson, from his blog What Art Did He Make Today?

Rocky’s Hymn

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and issues, and where the two -if the two -should intersect. Some say no, others say yes. I’m on the fence about whether the arts can and should, to quote a favorite musical, “take on the world’s greatest problems, from war to pollution / no hope of solution” -but I keep asking, could culture possibly provide one? Not a day goes by that I don’t happily stumble across one organization or another doing good in blending arts and social issues. And yet, I’m left feeling curiously powerless myself most days, wondering why I should have to choose between twin passions and asking if there might be a larger role in bridging the two through 2011.

Rocky Dawuni might have a few answers, for me, and for the many others grappling the arts/issues divide -because he doesn’t see a divide at all. The Ghana-born singer-songwriter’s 2010 release Hymns For The Rebel Soul (his fifth album) seamlessly, seemingly-effortlessly blends the two, with reggae-and-dance-tinged music delivering a one-two punch of sage wisdom, righteous rage, and ultimately, tuneful grace. Dawuni especially references the work of Bob Marley (to whom he’s been compared) and Peter Tosh, artists who, like him, blended the world of art with the world of the personal with … the world.

Rocky caught mainstream attention when he recorded a version of Bob Marley’s “No More Trouble” for Playing For Change in 2009 with a raft of talented international musicians, including the Oneness Choir from India, Jason Tamba from Congo, David Broza from Israel, and… oh yes, one Bono Vox from Ireland (aka Bono). The original’s moody, haunting feel gets a global makeover, as artists cross borders mental, spiritual, physical, and even creative to form something altogether more powerful than any collaboration project might suggest. This past summer, Rocky’s bouncy tune “African Reggae Fever” became “African Soccer Fever” and was featured on the FIFA World Cup 2010 soundtrack alongside tracks from Baaba Maal, Florence and the Machine, and Michael Franti. The tune also became the official song for the FIFA World Cup 2010 video game. Put it on as a dare to anyone who says they can’t dance; within 30 seconds, I guarantee you, they’ll be pogoing on the lino, cutting up a rug, and doing the watusi like no one’s business.

Alas, I missed meeting Rocky when he was in Toronto last fall Rocky to be part of the We Day event and concert, organized by Free The Children. But I’ve no doubt he rocked the worlds of the 18,000 students who were present. 2010 was a busy year indeed: months before We Day, he was part of the Vatican-sponsored JOSPfest, and later on, he played the well-regarded Freedom Fest in San Diego. 2011 is shaping up to be busy too; at the end of March he’s off to Kenya for Songambele 2011, put on by NGO March Forth Kenya Kids. He’s on the Board of Advisors for Jammin Java Corporation. In July he’ll be playing the Hollywood Bowl as part of radio station KCRW‘s Global Soul show -with none other than Stevie Wonder.

Now, you’d think a guy this busy wouldn’t have time for social media. You’d be wrong. Throughout the tours, appearances, and recording sessions, Rocky’s maintained an active online presence that positively (and I mean that in a true sense) brims with inspiration and excitement. It’s heartening to see his regular tweets & Facebook updates -not only is he excited about music, he’s excited about meeting people, hearing cool new sounds, exchanging ideas. Rock is excited about life, and it shows. When I interviewed him last summer for a morning radio show in Toronto, he was deep in the throes of football fandom, cheering on his home team as he fielded non-stop calls from friends and relatives. This is a man who deeply understands the meaning of “joie de vivre” and harnesses that optimism for a greater good.

That good was recognized with a prestigious nomination; Rocky’s up for the Outstanding World Album at this year’s NAACP Image Awards, which happen tomorrow night in Los Angeles. The first part of our conversation, below, features his ideas on the responsibilities of the artist, the dangers of preaching in music, and how much he feels like a spokesman for contemporary issues affecting everyday Ghanians.

How much do you think musicians should feature social issues in their work?

Well, I think every artist has the right to express whatever they feel their art truly represents. When it comes to social issues, every additional voice can always be useful. The platform that a musician acquires is due to the projection and support of the public so I believe the artist has a moral obligation to wield this with a spirit of humility, gratitude and servitude. It also goes a long way when you give back.The art attains transcendence and realness.

In terms of music and politics, there is definitely a link. Whenever the music ventures to represent the everyday aspirations of people it intersects with everyday politics. In Africa most of us have a bigger responsibility to use the medium to articulate political issues and bring them to the fore of social discussions.

How much do you feel a responsibility to include social issues in your work in particular?

Growing up in Ghana, social issues are a constant part of everyday reality. My music strives to project these issues in a way that will inspire action among my audience.

I think it ‘s the core intent of my musical mission but the important thing is to always maintain a balance so as to avoid blatant preachiness.

How much did the Playing For Change collaboration change your career?

It definitely did, in so many ways. It gave me great exposure and also showed the power of music to cross all boundaries and nationalities.

Do you ever get bothered by outside perceptions about Africa?

On occasions yes I do get bothered. For example, when you meet folks who believe they have it all figured out about Africa solely on the western perspective without any knowledge of the cultural contexts.

Africa’s history is very complicated . The root causes of most current political and social challenges can be traced all the way to its history of slavery, tribalism, colonialism and modern schisms. The objective of my music and my work is to project the new Africa: an Africa whose greatness will be restored by a renewed engagement and reconnection with the diaspora . This new Africa will embrace all the promise of modern technologies and democracy while upholding its cultural identity.

Although the current political climate is rife with turmoil and unprecedented economic issues, I am part of an emerging conscious tech-savy intellectual generation who are rising in its wake.

How much do you feel like a spokesman for Ghana?

Well, it comes with the territory. There are so many great things to say about my country in terms of its functioning democracy and freedom of press. Ghana’s long term stability has also projected it as a shining example on the continent.

As a musician on the international stage, I always find myself in many instances playing the role of its spokesperson. It’s a role I always welcome!
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Part two of my conversation with Rocky Dawuni tomorrow, in anticipation of the NAACP Image Awards. We’ll be focusing on some of the tunes featured on “Hymns for the Rebel Soul” and Rocky’s methods of integrating soulful sounds and real-world issues.

Artists. Period.

After trying desperately -and unsuccessfully -to think up a suitable introduction for this blog, voila… The New York Times did it for me.

The grey lady of print featured an article relating to a highly contentious art exhibit in Zimbabwe. I had read the piece recently, but stupidly hadn’t bookmarked it for a second go-through. When I wanted to find it again, I looked, naturally, under the Arts section. And kept looking. And looking. A meticulous comb through the Art and Design section produced a frustrating zero. Forty minutes of fruitless searching came and went, and then, finally, I found it -in the Africa section. Because why would an Arts story that happens in Africa be classified as anything other than “African news“?

Teddy (TMS) Ruge is working to change this perception, one story at a time. Born in Uganda and educated in North Texas, Teddy’s impressive online presence, including his dedicated work with Project Diaspora and Villages in Action, has played a huge (dare I say life-changing) role in opening up my eyes to the complex realities surrounding trade, development, and the outmoded, dangerous perceptions of Africa as a gigantic, monolithic continent of pain, suffering, AIDS and poverty.

Along with running a photography and design business, Ruge has an indigenous farmers’ business in Masindi, Uganda, and also advises a women’s jewelry-making co-operative in Kampala. I never fail to be astonished and inspired by his activities, whether it’s blogging, tweeting, or even interacting and commenting on others’ posts. I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging ideas with Teddy and have always been compelled by the thoughtfulness of his responses. The ones below, on the role of the arts in development, are no exception.
But a confession of sorts is in order before getting down to business. This blog has taken a long time to produce, partly because I was toying with the idea of starting another development-focused blog centering on women’s issues (something close to my heart), and partly because I worry about being seen as tokenistic in my interest. But I realize, after much soul-searching (that, I should add, is ongoing), it’s my wish to blend my passion for the arts with my passion for development issues.
And so it was that Teddy and I exchanged thoughts about the role of the arts in bringing about change. I’m going to post our discussion in two parts, because there are so many good ideas here, and it’s worth digesting them all fully. See what you think about what’s being said. You might look at those charity singles -and that big, monolithic thing we North Americans think of as “Africa” – a bit differently afterwards. You’ll want to know more about artists like Fred Mutebi too. I fully expect to see his name in the Arts section in future, by the way -him, and his fellow artists. Because that’s precisely where they belong.

The arts is my passion, as you know, and I was thinking a lot lately about culture’s connection with social issues: artists’ roles in trying to instigate change, if artists should feel compelled to make their work political, what kind of responsibility exists to their communities.

It leads me to question what role art might play as it specifically relates to the work you do with Project Diaspora.

I think artists are unnecessarily encumbered by social issues, and they bend towards that will for fear of not being accepted anymore. They are turned into mouth-pieces and spokespersons when their greatest weapon of choice should have been their unadulterated interpretation of what art is through their chosen medium.

Some artists choose social commentary as their subject matter, like Fred Mutebi here in Uganda. Others choose to be unbending in their adherence their artistic style like Bjork, Radiohead and hopefully Uganda’s Maurice Kirya.
I think the best thing artists can do is continue to focus on being the best you can be at your chosen medium of expression. Don’t be something you are not because you are looking to score cool points. It is okay if you are a movie star and you do a piece that highlights the plight of a marginalized population of the human race, but I think it is going too far if you are all of a sudden packing heat in Haiti, and trying to make a difference because you are trying to feel good about yourself. Some things aren’t your responsibility.
We had student performances at our first Villages In Action conference. Their piece dealt with the cultural perception of polygamy and its effect on children and their education. The kids did a really good job of expressing the current socio-economic pressures placed on the balance between tradition and the demands of modernity. It was topical and relevant, where as the band that performed later that evening was purely entertainment and added little to the topical conversation.

Why do you think there’s a Western insistence to keep referring to Africa as a whole, and to Africans as one giant collection of peoples and perceived problems?

Because it easier to say Africa than to name 53 countries or make the distinction between North Africa and where the sub-Saharan states begin. It’s that place over there full of famine, hunger, genocide, and militaristic genocide. Isn’t one poor malnourished African as true as the next? What does it matter what country they are from? They are from Africa, aren’t they?

I am not really sure how we got stuck with that homogenous identity, but if anyone is going to change it, we have to do that and demand that our voices be heard. Each individual nation has to stand up and say, “Our Identity Counts” and defend their country’s right to exist, not simply as an afterthought, but as an integral part of a whole.

You don’t simplify Europeans into one description or all of North America as Americans; Mexicans and Canadians have a problem with that. So why should we be ok with simply being African?
How do you think art can help to improve the economic development and social welfare of the community?

From an artistic stand point, I think it is important to show that those called to be artists are still able to create even without the access, the privilege, or the fancy tools. We had a kid that had a full-size replica of a motorcycle. I asked him what he needed to keep creating. He said, “I need an engine to put in there.”

This was topical social commentary on how life was going on around him. Because of economic development brought on by subsistent farmers turning to commercial sugar cane farming – a lot more of them were buying motorcycles.

As mentioned before, Fred Mutebi has great woodcut pieces that are basically two-dimensional documentaries on various social subjects. If VIA had happened in his village, I would have loved to have him give a talk about the life he documents.

____

The next blog with Teddy will feature more of Teddy’s thoughts on the West’s perceptions of Africa, how Villages In Action (which happened last November) might help to change ideas around development there, and why TED isn’t always as welcoming to new ideas as you might think. Stay tuned.

Artists works:

Top painting by Eria Solomon Nsubuga, Untitled.

Middle painting by David Kikuuba, “Proud Heritage”.

Bottom painting by Fred Mutebi, “Abannyunyunsi”.

Photo of Maurice Kirya courtesy of RFI Musique

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