Freedoms Crumbling

Freedoms Crumbling

VaderPilatoNo wonder that stability may trump Africa’s expanding democracies. Just look at Mosul or the Boko Haram held areas of Nigeria.

Today a popular rap singer was arraigned by a Lusaka magistrate for “defaming the president” of Zambia even though such a specific law doesn’t exist.

Pilato’s rap depicts the president as an oaf who spends much of his time drinking.

Pilato is very popular, very political and shows a definite sophistication of complex issues. This rap, for example, berates a political merger between two previously antagonistic political parties.

But the hook which gave his rap such a wide audience was the accusation of drunkenness. Drunken old men in rural Africa are the bane of their families, a condition closely associated with dementia.

It’s understood that age and dementia are not willful situations but nonetheless divine the good old men from the bad old men: prosecutor, judge and jury be damned.

So prosecutor, judge and jury respond, waging their own powers in equally questionable ways. A judge arraigned Pilato, today, but who knows for what. A prosecutor will now have to trump up charges, and a jury may assert its legitimacy by adjudicating violations of nonexistent laws.

From my untrained ears, Pilato doesn’t seem to be a specially powerful artist. Acting as if he’s a threat to society, makes him one and only because of that.

Last week at the inauguration of the new president in Nigeria, local journalists so accosted President Mugabe of Zimbabwe that his office later called them Boko Haram.

The video of the SaharaReporters’ encounter is particularly illustrative.

In my view, the so-called journalists were offensive. I’m hardly a supporter of Mugabe, who I consider one of the most devilish leaders Africa has ever seen.

I believe there are times when journalism should work with politics. I remain a devotee of Angela Davis and Herbert Marcuse. But this incident in Nigeria is not one of them.

These reporters had little interest beyond making headlines of themselves. “There is no democracy in Zimbabwe!” the woman journalist yells after persistently being unable to get Mugabe to answer her question, “Is there democracy in Zimbabwe?”

So with Pilato, no there’s not “too much” freedom of speech. But with the Nigerian journalists, yes they exercised “too much” freedom of speech.

There are ignorant rich, and there are ignorant poor, and technology is thrusting them backwards into the age old irresolvable battles between religions and tribes.

Neither side understands the facts, yet the IT technologies of iPads and iPhones present them constantly with situations requiring immediate reactions.

There is a reason that ISIS bans most technology. It wants to control the culture and the first step in controlling anything is to neutralize or pacify it. Many in Mosul as in the Boko Haram areas of Nigeria actually prefer such pacification to confrontation. My father did.

Democracy doesn’t exist without confrontation. Open societies need it. But when it reaches the level that technology brings it to, today, it’s like fusion. It expands under its own power and becomes uncontrollable and unpredictable.

When confrontation is such that it provokes a yearning for less freedom than more, when stability becomes society’s first priority, Darth Vader arises again.

Black and White

Black and White

Flip it, white man. What if you were, well you know, the other… color. They sang in London, but they were from Africa.

The difference between black and white, between slaves and slave masters, is the ultimate difference between race, although I agree with many that it isn’t that much different than between Kikuyus and Zulus. But it is the ultimate. You can’t go further down the spectrum.

My take of the many excellent bands and singers in South Africa is with this constantly embedded theme of difference, separation, oppression. From most of the rest of the world, it’s flipped. But today, in South Africa, it’s arguably the white who feels oppressed.

Last month in London the annual concert brought together contemporary music from South Africa to the white disaspora outside.

South Africa’s White Diaspora is one of the most interesting floating cultures in the world. Formed mostly by the 1800 people monthly that fled the country in the 1980s, it’s created huge footprints in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and England.

While some have returned, most have not, but unlike immigrants and refugees from other parts of the world, white South Africans find it difficult to integrate into other western societies.

I’ve often met, for instance, the children of those who immigrated speak with a South African accent even though they’ve grown up outside.

The tribalism of white South Africans is as strong as any black tribe on the continent.

Let the music tell the story:

Mama Africa

Mama Africa

By Conor Godfrey

Over the past week I’ve made it out to Silver Spring, MD, for a few great African films.

Opening night of the festival featured “Mama Africa” – a cinematic eulogy to the late great South African mega star Miriam Makeba. Find the English language trailer here.

If you don’t dance in your seat I would probably just give up the ghost.

As noted in this Reuters’ review, the worst thing one can say about the film is that it would have been even better had she been alive to comment on her own life.

Miriam was involved with the making of the film up until her death in 2008.

The rest is put together with help from archival footage and interviews with a dozen former band-members, friends and relatives.

Makeba with Nelson Mandela

In Miriam’s case, this includes many of modern Africa’s founding fathers like Sekou Toure and Julius Nyerere, famous Black panthers like Stokely Carmichael, and world-class musicians from all over the world.

Renown South African Trumpeter Hugh Masekala (Also Miriam’s first husband and lifelong friend) fills in a lot of her early history. (Find an upbeat anti-apartheid track from Hugh here.)

She was born into crushing apartheid township poverty in the 30s, and even spent six months of her first year in jail with her mother who had been sentenced for selling homemade beer.

Her rise was meteoric once discovered.

After being caught in the film “Come Back, Africa”, filmed secretly and smuggled out of South Africa by Lionel Rogosin, she was discovered by Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Belafonte went on to introduce her to the greats of the American music scene. She would eventually sing at JFKs birthday, and record with stars like Nina Simone, Desi Gillespie, Paul Simon, and tons of international stars.

She held seven passports and 10 citizenships at the time of her death.

Before the film, I really only knew her mega hits, like “Pata Pata.”

(Or find the song live in concert here.)

During the film, she actually says she wishes that some other song, with more meaning, had become her defining hit.

I suppose there is some irony in the vocal anti-apartheid singer who’s smash hit was, in her words, “a nonsense dance song.”

But there were plenty of more substantive hits as well.

Director Mika Kaurismäki featured songs like the Khosa wedding song “Qongqothwane”, known as the “The Click Song” by English speaking South Africans.

She introduced the song in the movie by saying that “the colonizers have to call it “The Click Song” because they have trouble pronouncing “Qongqothwane” with the right clicks.

One of my favorite pieces of concert footage was “Oxgam.” This particular piece shows her potent smile to good effect.

After all, she essentially had her pick (more like pickS) of husbands wherever she went.

Find the more emotional, slower Makeba in “Khawuleza.”

I also had the pleasure of seeing my old haunts in the Fouta Jallon region of Guinea when the film explored Makeba and her husband Stokley Carmichael‘s exile in Guinea.

After the two wed, all of Makeba’s U.S. dates and deals were cancelled in protest of Stokley’s activism.

At that point, a number of African countries, including Guinea, vied for Africa’s peripatetic daughter to come live with them as she still could not go home to South Africa.

In general, the film was a beautiful tribute to a pan-African hero, a tireless activist for justice in South Africa, and one hell of a voice.

Good luck finding it though – stay tuned here.

Africa’s Biggest Street Party

Africa’s Biggest Street Party

If you thought Rio’s Carnival or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras were big parties, take two: Nigeria’s Calabar festival’s climax is tonight and is the biggest music/costume/dance festival in Africa!

Calabar Carnival is the biggest gigantic collection of visual and sound culture in Africa. The scheduled events are so many that it takes 32 days of performances, which peak December 26 with the morning cultural parade and then December 27 with the Grande Finale.

Africa’s Biggest Street Party begins November 30 with the Holiday Tree-Lighting ceremony and ends with the Thanksgiving Ceremony on New Years Day.

Music and visual arts dominate, and everything is judged, prizes galore. About a dozen international musicians perform, and perhaps one of the most famous in the past was Haitian Wyclef Jean, who aroused the crowd by his impromptu performance “we have no terrorists in Nigeria” which unfortunately is not the case, particularly this year.

But with Africa’s other great festival, The Festival au Desert in Mali, essentially emasculated by area terrorists, Calabar now reigns supreme as West Africa’s greatest music festival. It’s significantly distant from the troubles in either Nigeria’s contested Muslim north or oilfields. Nevertheless it’s a pity that Africa’s extraordinary west African music has been so hampered by terrorism.

Preliminary contests earlier in the year shortlist 5 African bands which then come into town to perform in the grand finale contest. And these aren’t normal bands. Each “band” has up to 2,000 members!

And there are 10,000 “band members” involved in today’s Grande Finale march. The performances ends with individual performances by each of the bands, and then all 10,000 of them singing together!

Throughout the month-long event hundreds of organizations sponsor numerous other performances and activities including workshops and seminars focused mostly on all aspects of producing modern entertainment.

But there are also seminars on greening consumption, global warming, modern politics and virtually anything a sponsor wishes to do providing it can link to the current festival’s theme. This year, “Endless Possibilities.”

Up to 100,000 spectators and participants are in Calabar, today, although only 15,000 who can afford the ticket price of $30 get into the main stadium where the Grand Finale parade and blasting final band contest occurs. Watching separately will be 50 million views from around Africa broadcast by Nigerian television.



By Conor Godfrey on April 25, 2011

Before we talk about Fela! I feel like its only right that you put on some music from the larger-than-life band leader Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

If you don’t like that—try “Water Don’t Get No Enemy.”

On April 21st, the musical “Fela!” brought the Lagos crowd to tears during the debut Nigerian performance of this headline grabbing and phenomenally reviewed Broadway hit.

Here is a sampling of reviews from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Associated Press.

After a two year run in New York on Broadway Fela!, will become the first Broadway show to be performed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This is one of the thousands of little signs that Africa is emerging on the U.S. radar like never before.

Fela Kuti was a bonified international mega-star for almost three decades, but was of course unknown to a Broadway crowd “where theatergoers’ idea of African music might begin and end with “The Lion King.” (New York Times)

Fela Kuti defined Afrobeat for an entire generation of musicians.

As for Fela’s musical genealogy, commentators have posited influences as diverse as Coltrane and Calypso, Sinatra, Ghanaian High-life Jazz, and native Nigerian Yoruba rhythms.

The main Fela! webpage lets you listen to a long list of songs performed for the show for free.

The real Fela Kuti was not simply a celebrity—the impression I get from reading about him and speaking to Nigerians is that Fela existed on a different scale—he proclaimed an autonomous republic in his club, he married 27 woman, he smoked and drank prodigiously, and he railed against the arbitrary and oftentimes brutal Nigerian dictatorships that had cowed most of the country—everything was in excess.

Whether you loved him for his brash unorthodoxy, or hated him for challenging the moral majority—you did so with a passion.

I do not have space here, but you should read this short biography of Fela to understand a bit more about the man himself and the passions he aroused.

He certainly aroused the passions of Muhammadu Buhari—the military dictator who beat, jailed and otherwise victimized Kuti, and who is now protesting the present election in the North.

Fela Kuti believed his primary goal was to resist European cultural imperialism. In this way, he echoed his contemporary larger-than-life star Bob Marley.

Pursing this mission, he blasted everyone and everything—he hated capitalist greed, and communist autocracy.

He hated the moral conformity of Arab-Islamic or Judeo-Christian values.

He hated corrupt African elites that imitated Europeans and undermined African values.

He even hated tribalism and traditional African social mores that he found constricting.

His remedy— a modern set of African values, taking some wisdom from the past, but mainly looking toward the future.

I love the fact that this extraordinary person finally washed ashore on Broadway, and get a bit of an emotional tug when I think of a sold out crowd in Lagos getting the chance to love or hate Fela Kuti one more time.

In some ways, Fela! allows the late great Fela Kuti to reach from beyond the grave and help the continent he loved engage the modern world on its own terms.

Acoustic Africa

Acoustic Africa

By Conor Godfrey on April 14, 2011
Last week I rounded up a few friends and saw a tremendous concert put on by Acoustic Africa at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

Habib Koite

The show featured three African music powerhouses—Habib Koite, from Mali, whom I have written about before, Afel Bocoum also from Mali, and Oliver Mtukudzi (goes by “tuku”), from Zimbabwe.

These guys—expecially Koite and Tuku—are household names in their regions, and in some parts of Europe, but they often have to play dive bars or cultural centers for 10 bucks a ticket when they hit the U.S. (Language being the major issue for the Malians)

Last time I saw Habib Koite was in Philadelphia at a local arts council for $10. This most recent concert was a step up—they sold out a 400-500 person auditorium at $40-$50 a ticket.

And they were worth every bit of it. I swear there is something about Malian music that makes you remember what is important in life.

Listen to Afel Bocum play Gomni, a song popularized by his uncle Ali Farka Toure, and tell me that your mind doesn’t drift to a better place.

Afel Bocoum

When Afel came to the microphone to play this song he said—“Gomni means happiness in Songhai (language spoken in Northern Mali)…it is very difficult to be happy, even though there is so much to be happy about…so try and be happy for just this one song.”

Well said Afel.

I did not know much about Tuku before the concert, but he did not disappoint either.

The sound from Zim was much closer to the Congolese Rumba, popularized by icons like Papa Wemba, than it was to the guitar driven modern Malian music that often sounds like storytelling set to music.

Real experts on Southern African music claim Tuku has a style all to himself. See for yourself.

Oliver Mtukudzi
Tuku and his band also taught me a bit about the Zimbabwean thumb piano.

You would be surprised to hear the sound that comes out of this little guy.

If you combined a Malian Balafon (xylophone) with a gong, it would sound something like thumb piano.

Listen to someone jam on the thumb piano here.

My favorite song from Tuku was Neria, about the strength of a woman; for this he turned the lights down low, kicked the Malians off the stage, and poured a hell of a lot of soul into this ballad.

If you listen to one song I link to on this blog—make this it.

And last, but certainly not least—we get to le Maitre, Monsieur Habib Koite.

I have now seen Habib three times and he has never had an off night.

He and Afel jived very well with Tuku on stage, and everyone seemed to be enjoying some genuine pan-African good cheer while they swapped songs and made an effort to sing in each other’s languages (at least for the choruses).

Habib didn’t play too many of my old favorites this time around, but I did enjoy N’Teri, and a bunch of newer songs that I wasn’t familiar with. (I would recommend checking out the Album Afriki if you are looking to buy a Habib CD.)

Habib also just looks and acts the part.

His clothes are stylish takes on traditional gear, his speaks just enough English to make it clear that there is a lot going on inside his head, and he radiates positivity.

Oh—and my favorite part—they went for 2 hours and twenty minutes with no intermission. Lets see U.S. pop icons put in that kind of performance.

The last tour date I can find for Acoustic Africa is actually for this week: Apr 14th 2011, Clarksdale, MS USA.

Africa’s New Roaring!

Africa’s New Roaring!

Wanna sample of some jewel-pierced slate singers outshining our own olay skinned yolders and King Kole-wannabes like Eminem? Links below to Africa’s 2010 music awards!

Deep Dark Africa is Hip Hop Hopping. Next month’s annual MAMA music awards show how fast the deep dark culture is merging with Nashville.

I’m a bit old for the hiphop generation. But dare I say that the African versions of hiphop and rap soar above our own? OK. The African versions of hiphop and rap soar above our own!

The nominees were announced yesterday, and Kenya dominates the east and Nigeria dominates the west, but the deepest darkest The Congo may give us the greatest star!

(Yes, you noticed, nothing from South Africa? Nothing from Graceland? Nothing from that country whose music industry’s sales are about twenty times the rest of the continent? That’s because South Africa runs its own and separate music awards from the rest of the black continent. Those awards, known as the SAMAS, are given in March.)

The annual MTV Africa Music Awards will be held in Lagos. The buzz this year is for The Congo’s only nominee. Outsiders who think of the Congo as Coltan wars, child soldiers and merciless rape in the Heart of Darkness must think this frivolity absolutely amazing.

But anyone who walks into a music store anywhere in East Africa, right over to the Indian Ocean on the boulevard of Mombasa, will see CDs lined up endlessly from The Congo. Now admittedly most of this comes from the far west near Kinshasha, a century away from the troubles in eastern Kivu.

But it’s a start!

Mindful that my music reviews are widely criticized by my wife, friends, children and colleagues, which essentially means I like what obviously no one else can stand, here are my picks for the December awards:

Standing head and shoulders against the onslaught of Nigerian competition is Kenya’s P-Unit (video above). Although this song isn’t being contested this year, I think Hapa Kule is their best! It’ll get you dancing and is an extraordinary mix of disco, rap and hiphop. GO KENYA!

I’m sure that Fally Ipupa of The Congo is going to win something. In fact some music circles call him the star of stars. He’s one of the few to sort of buck the trend of hiphop/rap with an extraordinarily beautiful male voice.

Nigeria dominates the nominee list, which is understandable. The country is sub-Saharan’s power house in practically everything from oil to PhDs. And a lot of the singing could be misinterpreted by my generation as south Phili.

The group with the most attention is P-Square, also the most successful with world tours already under its belt.

Ghana’s twin duo, 2Face, got two nominations. It’s interesting that though they were born in Accra, Nigeria now claims them! Here’s their newest video:

The above doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but it’s extremely interesting music. They’ve integrated very traditional beats with some reggae and western love tunes. I think there’s too much in the ratatouille.

If ever I were to be converted to rap, it would be by nominee Wande Coal.

Bumper 2 Bumper is great African rap, sounds extended longer and more beautifully than in the west.

So to Nigeria. The trendiest dude in Lagos has for some time been Banky W. He’s nominated for Lagos Party:

Some consider the biggest award is “Song of the Year” and the one I think will win is D’banj’s “Fall in Love” whose music video, Suddenly, strikes me as close to a western clone as you can find.

The Ugandan club scene in Kampala is a kind of shady subculture. Like much in Uganda nothing is done with the verve that it’s done in Kenya, but Good Lyfe certainly rules the stage there.

His video Ability is one of the most entertaining and creative.

And the other nominee from Uganda, also institutionalized in that Kampala club scene, is Mowzey and Weasel. Their video Bread and Butter is a great traditional African rap with great comedy. Listen closely to how they’re baiting their great rival, Good Lyfe.

Now here’s a real sign of the times. The last nominee from Kenya is Daddy Owen. He rose to fame as a gospel singer! How things have changed… I really like his System ya Kapungula. Outstanding rhythm and fast moving.

Don’t hesitate to criticize my music criticism. I’ve lived with it all my life. I am rocked to sleep every night by Bjork and CocoRosie.