Monday, 19 September 2016


While many literature festivals have become predictable in their line-up of bestselling authors, some innovative events have added a social-issues factor to their sessions, raising awareness about everything from climate change to the need for more diversity in publishing.

Nigerian-born, London-based writer Ben Okri
will be one of the speakers at the MLF
The Manchester Literature Festival (MLF), taking place Oct. 7 – 23 in northern England and celebrating its 11th edition, is one such event. This regional gathering of authors and book-lovers has increased its focus on global concerns since 2006, and its programme this year includes topics such as immigration, mental health and the urban experience.

“The Manchester Literature Festival is a place where authors, poets and broadcasters come together to share stories,” say the organizers. “Some of these stories enthral us with breathtaking plot twists and great leaps of imagination. Others are real-life stories that challenge and inspire us. Events like Refugee Tales, The Good Immigrant and Powerlines reflect the turbulence of the world we’re living in and remind us why we need to come together to fight discrimination and xenophobia.”

The participants for 2016 comprise regional, national and international authors, including Scotland’s Jackie Kay, Nigeria’s Ben Okri, Pakistan’s Kamila Shamsie, Canada’s Margaret Atwood and American writer Lionel Shriver. The latter recently caused controversy at a festival in Australia when she used her keynote speech to mock the movement against cultural appropriation, so her Manchester contribution will be particularly interesting for some observers.

The MLF's co-directors Cathy Bolton
and Sarah-Jane Roberts
The MLF is equally hosting writers from Sweden, Holland, Spain, Sudan, Bangladesh and North and South Korea, and it will “celebrate stories from the South Asian Diaspora in a special series of events curated in partnership with the Karachi Literature Festival”, the organizers state.

The MLF’s co-directors Cathy Bolton & Sarah-Jane Roberts discussed the festival’s direction with SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie in an e-mail interview.

SWAN:  How has the Manchester Literature Festival changed since its beginning in 2006?
Cathy Bolton: The festival has quadrupled in size over the past ten years both in terms of the number of events programmed and the audience we attract. The festival started out as quite a niche series of events largely showcasing regional authors but we now attract an impressive range of leading international authors and thinkers.

SWAN:  Some literature festivals in various countries have been putting emphasis on social engagement, rights and activism. Do you see this as a growing trend, and, if so, why?
CB:  It has certainly become an area of focus for MLF – we have found that there is a growing interest in activism and issues such as immigration, perhaps as a result of increasing disillusionment with mainstream politics and reactionary government policies. I think a great percentage of the population felt let down by the Brexit vote earlier this year and are understandably worried about what the future holds  - many are looking for an alternative form of leadership.

SWAN:  How did you decide on the programming this year?
CB: As always, we make a wish list of writers we would like to invite to Manchester (particularly focusing on those with interesting new books out).  We are always looking for high-calibre writers but also try and programme a balanced programme of established and emerging writers with particular programme strands showcasing literature in translation and events for children and families. We try to make the programme as diverse as possible so there is something on offer to suit the tastes of readers from all backgrounds and ages. We also work in partnership with a wide range of cultural partners including university writing schools and cultural embassies who feed in programming ideas. Over the past year we have been developing a partnership with Karachi Literature Festival which has resulted in a co-curated programme of events showcasing writers from the South Asian diaspora.

The MLF includes "An Evening with Jackie Kay",
with the writer who is Scotland's national poet.
SWAN:  One of the festival’s stated aims is to promote Manchester as a true hub for international cultural exchange.  Why is this important for the festival, and the city?
CB:  We are keen to open up our audiences’ reading horizons and programme events that reflect the lives and concerns of the city’s very diverse population. Manchester’s industry and culture has been very influenced by immigration – we want to celebrate the city’s unique history and diversity and hopefully attract increasing numbers of international visitors to the festival.

SWAN:  The festival also has a youth focus. How do literature events like this encourage reading among children, young people?
CB:  Literary performances by the likes of Michael Rosen and theatre adaptations of children’s books such as Hey Presto! really help bring books alive and make them more accessible for even reluctant readers. I think people of all ages get more out of reading if they’ve heard poetry read in the poet’s own voice or heard an author talking about the themes of their latest novel and what inspired their stories/characters.

SWAN:  The events include a presentation by Vivienne Westwood, a designer known for her activism and someone who is a part of the ethical fashion movement. How did her involvement come about?
CB:  We have been trying to persuade Vivienne Westwood to come and talk at the festival for a couple of years and luckily our persistence paid off this year. Her talk this October is very timely as her fashion designs are featured in the current Fashion and Freedom exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.

The MLF hosts the Black and Asian Writers Conference
SWAN:  In addition to South Asian writers, the festival is putting focus on Black British writers. Can you describe the themes of the Black and Asian Writers Conference taking place Oct. 8?
CB:  Themes for this year include Afrofuturism, flash fiction, immersive poetry and new directions in theatre. You can read a full description of the various panels at:

SWAN:  Is the international component of the festival expected to expand, with more authors from abroad?
CB: We hope to continue to attract an exciting range of authors from abroad but this will be balanced with appearances from UK authors.

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.
SWAN:  What is your greatest hope for the festival this year?
CB:  That thousands of people have a wonderful mind-expanding experience and discover some new favourite authors!

SWAN: How do you see it evolving in the future?
CB:  We would like to develop collaborations with more international festivals and develop a bigger and more ambitious programme of new commissions for the festival that could then be toured nationally and internationally.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Tuesday, 16 August 2016


Visual Voice is a must-see exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum (RAM) in California.

Covering Southern California Black artists’ ascent to the mainstream, the show is co-­curated by acclaimed Jamaican-born artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes and American visual artist and entrepreneur Charles Bibbs, with the assistance of Lisa Henry.

Visual Voice’s starting point is the Black art scene in LA of the 1980s and 1990s, and the show comprises two segments: “Influential Masters” and “Independent Trendsetters”.

According to the curators, the exhibition aims to shed light on the continuity from Masters to Trendsetters as they “set a national trend towards self-validation and reshaped how artists worked, exhibited, traded, and collaborated”.

Woman in the Field by Samella Lewis,
one of the 19 artists featured.
“Working as an independent visual artist, I saw this exhibition as an opportunity to tell the stories of other artists who achieved their individual goals to become successful, regardless of the odds against them, and to give voice to the silent majority of artists who achieved when others said they didn’t have the qualifications or standards of education to qualify as being a ‘successful’ visual artist,” said Hoyes.

He added that the artists involved didn’t “wait around” for the world to catch up with them – instead they began manufacturing, publishing, and distributing works of art using modern media and business practices.

This full-scale museum presentation brings together 19 artists who played an integral role in what will be recognized as the first fully African-American Art Movement coming out of Southern California during the last three decades of the 20th century.

The artists include Ernie Barnes, Varnette P. Honeywood, Bernard Stanley Hoyes, Charles Bibbs, Nathaniel Bustion, Synthia Saint James, Kathleen Atkins Wilson, Kenneth Gatewood, Charles Dickson, Joseph Beckles, Charles White, Samella Lewis, William Pajaud, Richard Mayhew, Artis Lane, Jacob Lawrence, Noah Purifoy, Barbara Wesson, and John Outterbridge.

The exhibition runs until Oct. 5, 2016, with various workshops and debates taking place during its course at the RAM – an instititution that says it strives to "integrate art into the lives of people in a way that engages, inspires, and builds community".

For more information:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Friday, 10 June 2016


Ahmad is a Syrian refugee who passed through the infamous Calais “migrant” camp in France and is now rebuilding his life in Britain. His portrait, painted by a young British artist named Hannah Rose Thomas, is just one of the compelling pieces of artwork in an exhibition now underway in London.

Titled Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond, the exhibition comes as countries prepare to observe World Refugee Day on June 20 and Refugee Week from June 20 to 26.

It features the inhabitants of the infamous Calais camp, which the show’s organisers say has become “a potent symbol of Europe’s migration crisis”.

In encampments around this port town in nornthern France, some 4,000 to 5,000 migrants have been living in squalid conditions as they try to reach Britain, although the French authorities this year set up shelters made from shipping containers to house about 1,500 people.

Regarding the “Portrait of Ahmad”, the artist Thomas has this message with the artwork: “I first visited the Calais ‘Jungle’ in December 2015, to volunteer as a translator. The inhumane treatment of the people stranded there shocked me profoundly, and I painted many portraits of the Calais refugees to share their stories. In my painting of Ahmad I wanted to portray his remarkable resilience and courage …”

Hannah Rose Thomas, Ahmad and the portrait.
Ahmad was one of the scheduled speakers at the exhibition’s celebratory launch on June 9. He previously said of the painting, “I think if I got a hundred thousand people listening to my story – and if the portrait succeeds in changing one person's attitude – then that’s a great achievement. And that’s it.”

The exhibition, which runs until June 22, is presented as a multi-media experience, aimed at exploring the “complexity and human stories behind the current migration crisis,” with a particular focus on Calais, according to the organisers.

“Public opinion on this ever-evolving shanty-town and its inhabitants is polarised: to some a threatening swarm seeking entry to our already overstretched island-nation, to others a shameful symbol of our failed foreign policy,” they state.

“Amid such debate, it is easy to lose sight of the thousands of individuals who have found themselves in limbo in Calais, each with their own story and reasons for wanting to reach Britain.”

Sophie Henderson
The exhibition is taking place in a “momentous month”, when there is both the EU referendum in Britain as well as Refugee Week. It follows the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, which was held in May in Istanbul, and comes after the controversial agreement between the EU and Turkey on how to stem the flow of people fleeing war and poverty.

“Migration is probably one of the most talked-about issues of the day, but it’s often just seen as an issue or a problem,” says Sophie Henderson, director of an organisation called the Migration Museum Project, which has presented the exhibition and is working to have a permanent migration museum for the UK.

“Yet if you look back, there’s a great story of migration both to and from Britain, and it goes back hundreds of years. So a way of contextualizing and considering the current issue of migration, in an intelligent, calm, well-informed way, is just to take a step back and look at the big picture. And to consider that actually even the Angles and Saxons were immigrants. And so were the Vikings. And the Normans, and the Huguenots [French protestants who fled persecution in their homeland].”

(Photo by brandingbygarden)
Henderson, a former lawyer who now works with a group of part-time staff and volunteers on the Migration Museum Project, pointed out that Britain was itself a country of net emigration until 1982, with some 20 million citizens going to live abroad between 1650 and 1950.

Call me by my name features works by established and emerging artists, refugees, camp residents and volunteers. The installations include art by a group called ALPHA using materials from the camp.

There is also art and photography by camp residents, and an installation of lifejackets embedded with the stories of their wearers. The organizers say it will serve as a forum for discussions – involving poets, authors, academics and the public – while side events will comprise films and performances as well.

According to the curator Sue McAlpine, “Visitors will journey physically and emotionally through the space, seeing refugees and migrants emerging from a nameless bunch to named individuals, neither victims nor angels but each with their own story to tell.”

She hopes that “visitors will come away with a heightened sense of empathy for the individuals behind the headlines, an enhanced understanding of the history and evolution of the Calais camp and broader migration developments, and questioning their response and responsibilities towards current refugee and migration developments.”

In other events, artists will also be involved in Refugee Week in Britain, where cultural programmes are one means of celebrating the contribution of refugees and fostering greater understanding between communities.

Refugee Week started in 1998 as a “direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers” and it is now one of the “leading national initiatives working to counter this negative climate, defending the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities,” say the British coordinators.

In France, Refugee Week events are being planned by a group called SINGA, formed in 2012 to “mobilise French society around projects developed by refugees – be they cultural, social, artistic, civic or entrepreneurial”.

They and other groups have lined up a series of concerts, exhibitions and debates to highlight both the contributions of refugees as well as the problems faced by the nearly 60 million people that the United Nations says are forcibly displaced in the world.

In Calais and elsewhere, however, long-term answers remain elusive.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 25 May 2016


He wrote fiery novels and essays that decried injustice and racism, and now nearly 30 years after his death, Paris is hosting a conference dedicated to the “expatriate” African-American writer James Baldwin.

The conference poster.
The May 26-28 event, titled “A Language to Dwell In”: James Baldwin, Paris, and International Visions, has attracted some 230 scholars and artists, who will examine Baldwin’s legacy and global impact.

“The most important thing for us is that this is about James Baldwin – about his life, his work and his impact on readers around the world,” says Alice Mikal Craven, a professor at the American University of Paris (AUP) and co-organizer of the conference with her colleague William Dow.

“Baldwin is an academic subject matter, but at the same time he had and continues to have a great impact on people’s lives,” Craven added in an interview at a Parisian café, close to where the writer spent some of his time during his many years in France.

The author of novels including Go Tell it on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, Baldwin was a prolific writer and activist who also produced searing essays, plays and poetry about racism and the effects of inequality.

Born in 1924 in New York, he had a tough childhood as the stepson of a harsh Harlem preacher, and he experienced racial discrimination first-hand growing up in the city.

He became a preacher himself in his teens, but then was disillusioned with religion and finally found his calling as a writer. After a difficult adolescence, during which he realized he was gay, he left the United States and moved to France in the late 1940s.

A 2004 postage stamp, honouring Baldwin.
 he produced internationally acclaimed literature, made friends with other expatriate or exiled writers and artists, and remained actively engaged in African Americans’ struggle for equality.

He also spent time in other cities such as Istanbul, but he returned “home” to America several times to take part in civil-rights marches. Through speeches, lectures and press interviews, he was uncompromising in his condemnation of the racial situation of the time and the hypocrisy of certain leaders.

“Paris had a big impact on his writing and on his life,” says Craven. “Paradoxically, it made him want to reject the United States but also go back and help. He was less constrained in Paris than in the United States.”

Craven – a white professor who grew up in the southern state of North Carolina – said she was 12 or 13 years old when she first read Baldwin’s books and felt supported in her own discomfort at what she saw around her.

Professor Alice Mikal Craven (photo:  M / SWAN)
“The books spoke to me because I was from the South and unhappy with things as they were, and upset at hearing from adults around me that what I was witnessing was the way things should be,” she said in the interview.

According to its stated aims, the conference “hopes to be an international point of intersection for all those interested in Baldwin’s writing, from literary and cultural critics, to political activists, poets, musicians, publishers and historians”.

The numerous presentations, from a roster of renowned experts, will take place at AUP and at other venues in the city. They include debates about Baldwin and his relationship with “Art, race and Black Power”; an examination of his short stories; a look at how his work is taught today; and how his writing ties into the “Black Lives Matter” movement – which has been sparked by cases of police killings of African Americans in the United States.

Baldwin’s writing on homosexuality, and later gay rights, will also be the subject of discussion in a panel titled “Sexuality, Homophobic Masculinity and Sexual Paradoxes,” while his links with the church will feature in “Baldwin, Religion and Black Liberation Theologies”.

Artists form a key component of the conference, which equally explores the “responsibility of the artist in contemporary society”. Here, artist-scholars and performers such as Abby Dobson, Kendra Ross, jessica Care moore and Imani Uzuri will put forward their views about their own activism through the arts.

Actress Gladys Arnaud.
Up for debate, too, is the issue of who has the right to tell whose story – a question that Baldwin perhaps transcended, with stories that reach across racial, national and gender lines.

The France-based “Collectif James Baldwin” (founded by French-Caribbean theatre director Samuel Légitimus) will stage a performance, for instance, at the iconic American Church in Paris, the site where some civil-rights marches wound up in France during the 1960s.

Gladys Arnaud, a Martinique-born actress and member of the Collectif, will read a monologue from Baldwin’s 1954 play “The Amen Corner”, and she says that the author’s work has particular significance for her both as an actor and as an individual.

“For me, James Baldwin represents tolerance,” she said in an interview. “He was a great humanist, and he helped me to realize that you shouldn’t accept things as they are but to try to understand how you can effect change, without letting yourself be overcome by anger and bitterness.”

She added that through acting in plays that Baldwin wrote, her comprehension of character complexity has also deepened, because no one is ever “fully a saint or a demon – you can be both right and wrong as a character”.

Baldwin’s legacy, she said, is the idea that we should all “accept one another, in spite of our differences”. - A.M.

See INPS news agency for another version of this article:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


For the third year in a row, France is hosting a Latin America and Caribbean Week, with the aim of highlighting historical and diplomatic links and showcasing the culture of the regions.

The Semaine de l’Amerique latine et des Caraïbes runs from May 24 to June 5 – a “false week” that comprises 13 days, according to a spokesman for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“But when you like something, you don’t count the days,” he added.

Some 300 events will take place across France, including film screenings, concerts, exhibitions, literary presentations, and workshops. Universities are playing an active role with lectures on Latin American literature and cinema for instance, while UNESCO will host a round-table discussion about the influence of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario, who lived for some years in Paris.

“We want to draw attention to a relationship that runs very deep,” said the Ministry spokesman, who spoke on “background” and so can’t be named.

“Most people don’t know about the deep and historic links between France and this part of the world. And we want to emphasize that this is not a region that’s inaccessible or dangerous as some people might think.”

He said that another message of the week is that France would like to “welcome more students from Latin America and the Caribbean”.

A Bolivian cultural presentation during the 2015 Week.
However, some critics say that Europe is not making it easy for students from the Caribbean to apply for visas and that this is an area where the French government needs to take concrete action.

In addition, the Week could include more English-speaking Caribbean countries, according to observers, as the emphasis seems to be mostly on Latin America and the French-speaking islands.

The spokesman conceded that Anglophone countries are “less present than others”, but said that this was a result of some states being represented by “non-resident” ambassadors. “It doesn’t help,” he said, adding that he hoped people would “spread the message” so there can be greater inclusion in the future.

The number of events this year – a 50 percent increase from 2015 – shows how popular the Week has become, despite its drawbacks. “There’s a spirit of spontaneity and mobilization, with many volunteers taking part,” the spokesman told reporters. “It has exceeded our expectations.”

The Semaine was created by a French Senate resolution in 2011 and is coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. French President François Hollande would like to see the project reach the largest possible audience, according to the Ministry spokesman.

About 45 towns will be participating over the 13 days, with involvement from the private sector, public bodies and community groups. For more information on the programme, see:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Un Monstruo de Mil Cabezas), the Mexican film directed by Rodrigo Pla, falls in the melodramatic “mad as hell” sub-genre, which many viewers might not consider particularly original. But the movie - which has been nominated for several awards - contains relevant, intriguing elements that will touch a chord, especially among those who’ve found themselves up against medical-insurance bureaucracy.

The film's English-language poster. 
Here, social iniquity provokes the protagonist’s rage, in the tradition of Paddy Chayevsky’s films Network and The Hospital. Pla’s work is a social drama, exposing in this case the inhumanity of the health-care system in Mexico, and it’s the sort of subject that makes for powerful, brick-in-the-face filmmaking. But Monster is much more mesmerizing than that.

Partly this is because of the performance of Jana Raluy as Sonia Bonet, the wife of a seriously ill man whose treatments have been stopped by his insurance company. She sets out to find out who has authority over the matter and to force them to reverse the decision.

Sonia gets more and more desperate, but she is astonishingly persistent in the face of the impediments thrown before her. She also maintains a balance with her more human side, especially as she is accompanied throughout her search by her son Dario, a teenaged Sancho Panza constantly calling into question the Quixotic actions of his mother. Raluy’s face, attractive yet stolid, expresses the obdurate spirit of Sonia’s character.

Impressive as Sonia is, she’s ultimately no match for the Kafkaesque labyrinth she finds herself in. When she goes to the hospital to meet with her husband’s doctor he refuses to see her. She chases him down and makes him tell her the name of the insurance company official who cut off the medication. She’s somehow gotten hold of a large pistol to force the issue, but one person leads to another – everyone is responsible but no one is responsible. As in the myth of the Hydra, when you cut off one head of a corrupt system, another takes its place.

A still from A Monster with a Thousand Heads.
The director is skilful in evoking the Kafkaesque atmosphere. The film is filled with little dissonant moments (a sudden blurring of the action, jarring cuts, slightly askew angles) that add up to an off-kilter universe. When violence occurs it happens fast, erupting out of nowhere. From time to time we hear the proceeds of the heroine’s future trial (which provides some of the film’s suspense). This represents not only a teasing flash-forward but also another Kafka reference, though only as a haunting voice-over.

Although the film presumably is set in Mexico, it really takes place in an unidentifiable gray urban-scape (reminiscent of the nightmare city of John Boorman’s surreal thriller Point Blank). Everything looks washed out and drably lit. What’s also unsettling is that while we see various denizens of the creepy settings, we never see or hear the husband who is the raison d’être for the long trek of Sonia and her son. This is normal enough, as he’s supposed to be unwell, but there’s something premonitory about it as well.

Director Rodrigo Pla
It would have been interesting to see what sort of man the husband was, what sort of marriage he and Sonia had - what motivates her. Instead, what emotional texture there is in the film comes from the relationship between mother and son. Dario (serviceably played by Aguirre Boeda) seems like a typical adolescent caught up in his parents’ ordeal. Yet when things get out of hand at one moment, it is he who goes over the edge.

Still, Sonia is the real centre of this fable-like movie. She embodies a sort of female principle up against a male-dominated bureaucracy, peopled by various feckless men. It’s perhaps symbolic that she wields a large pistol to do battle with them, and not a coincidence that even the males in her family pale before her determination. Ironically, when Sonia finally confronts the shareholder at the top of the capitalist food-chain, it turns out to be a woman.

Pla’s oneiric approach shouldn’t detract from the very realistic context of his film. Health care continues to be a critical issue in many, if not most, countries. In the United States, despite President Barack Obama’s health-care reform, nightmarish experiences with the system still occur (in a country that spends more on health per capita than any other). 

Even countries with socialized medicine or national health insurance are making decisions with grave implications in the face of budgetary constraints. A Monster With a Thousand Heads shows that the distinction between calculating and killing is just a question of perspective.

Production: Buenaventura. Distribution: Memento Films (France) / Canibal Networks (Mexico) / Music Box Films (US).

Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and prize-winning writer based in Paris, France.

Friday, 29 April 2016


The fifth annual International Jazz Day will be celebrated around the world on April 30, with U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosting the main event – an All-Star Global Concert  at the White House on April 29, a day ahead of time.

The official 2016 Jazz Day poster.
According to the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, which first designated the day in 2012, the concert will be broadcast as a one-hour prime-time television special on April 30 evening, and streamed on the websites of the UN, UNESCO, U.S. State Department and the White House.

The concert will feature a range of artists from around the world, paying tribute to what the organisers call the “truly American art form of jazz”.

Participating performers include acclaimed musicians Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sting, Terri Lyne Carrington, Al Jarreau, Marcus Miller, Hugh Masekela and a host of other stars. Pianist, arranger and composer John Beasley will serve as the evening’s musical director.

“We’ll probably be reaching more people this year than ever,” Beasley said in an interview.  He told SWAN that the concert will see some interesting artistic link-ups that will bring musicians together “across musical genres and geography”. For instance, R&B legend Franklin will be performing with Hancock, and English singer and bassist Sting with vocalist Jarreau and other artists.

In response to a question about the main issue of directing such a concert, Beasley said the key challenge was “dreaming up scenarios” for people to play collectively.

“I try to be creative and think of people that haven’t normally played together – something that takes them out of their comfort zone – and also adding the international element, to put people from all over the world together,” he said. “That’s the beauty of jazz; it’s a conversation. We can talk without words and find commonality.”

John Beasley (photo by Eric Wolfinger)
Last year’s concert at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris – one of 80 events in the French capital – saw Scottish singer Annie Lennox, more known for rock music, belting out jazz standards from a recent album, accompanied by Hancock on piano. It also placed the talented young bassist Ben Williams alongside veteran saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for one of the high points of a concert that had audience members dancing at the end.

According to Beasley, the event can “exemplify global kinship without borders, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or political affiliations.”

Since the first Jazz Day, the international audience has grown to 2 billion people participating in many varieties of jazz-themed events, Beasley told IDN.

Presented by UNESCO in partnership with the US-based Thelonious Monk Institute, International Jazz Day was conceived by Hancock and launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris as well as at venues in New Orleans and New York in 2012. The aim was to highlight the power of jazz as a force for freedom and creativity, and to use the music to promote intercultural dialogue and respect.

Tom Carter, president of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, told IDN that the 2016 edition was shaping up to be most successful one so far. “Our country is the birthplace of jazz, from its origins in New Orleans … and we’re proud that it has been embraced in all corners of the globe,” he said.

Herbie Hancock
The first International Jazz Day comprised events in 80 countries and has now grown to 195 countries – “all the UN and UNESCO member states”, Carter added.

As part of the celebration, the Thelonious Monk Institute launched “Math, Science & Music” on April 26, an education platform with free curricula, games, apps and other online elements “that use music as a tool to teach maths and science to students”.

The platform will address the growing need for students to gain skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and learn to think creatively, the Institute said

In a statement, Hancock – who also serves as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador – said: “We are thrilled that President Obama and Michelle Obama are hosting the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert at the White House, and are truly grateful for their commitment to jazz and its role in building bridges and uniting people around the world.” 

The Day will also see musicians and educators participating in a series of free jazz performances, master classes, improvisational workshops, and other events, he said. Additional key activities will include community outreach initiatives at schools, embassies, arts centres, hospitals, and other venues. These will be taking place all over the world, but with a focus on Washington, D.C. Meanwhile in Paris, where the Day started, singers including Denise King will be giving concerts and participating in various arts activities.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 24 April 2016


The 12th annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, taking place April 25 to May 1 in New York, puts Mexico in the spotlight this year, with authors from the country being featured alongside an international roster of more than 150 writers and thinkers.

The decision to showcase Mexican literature was taken long before U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump made his infamous remark about Mexicans and touted his desire to build a wall between the United States and its southern neighbour.

Festival director Jakab Orsos.
(Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)
But Trump’s comment, stereotyping immigrants as “criminals”, has given impetus to the scheduled cross-cultural discussions at the festival, the only one of its kind with a human rights focus, said the festival’s director László Jakab Orsós.

“When I selected Mexico, I felt this thing in the air – it’s the gypsy in me,” said Orsós, who is from Hungary. “Then that whole narrative made it clear that this ridiculous negativity was there. After I heard it, I thought: oh yeah, now we’re going to be talking.”

Orsós said that from its start, in 2005, the festival hasn’t shied away from difficult or uncomfortable issues – whether that involved political, social or philosophical topics, and he said the public seemed to appreciate this.

“Literature can be a communal activity: after you spend time reading or writing, you come out from that room and exchange information and ideas, and that’s what we try to do with the festival … which is really a festival of ideas incorporating different genres,” he added.

Entitled “Renegotiating the Narratives”, the event will explore Mexico’s “rich culture and burning social issues through a series of events that invite audiences to rethink widely accepted narratives on topics such as national identity, the border, migration, as well as systematic corruption and free expression in today’s Mexico,” PEN said in a release.

Some of Mexico’s leading thinkers and authors will provide insights, including Carmen Boullosa, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Lydia Cacho, Yuri Herrera, Elena Poniatowska and Sabina Berman. The latter, a playwright and essayist, will be co-curator of the Mexican program alongside Orsós.

“This year’s focus on Mexico allows us to present new perspectives on some of the urgent sociopolitical issues of our time - perspectives that are often absent from mainstream cultural forums,” said Orsós.

He told SWAN that politics relegating Mexico to a “dark corner” were “hypocritical” especially when one considers that Mexican culture and history are so “amazing”.

Yudai Kamisato 
The festival will open with a reading of new and original works written for the occasion by several writers, and events will also comprise an exploration of the breadth and beauty of Mexican landscapes with literary artists; a conversation about the uncompromising role women writers play within the Mexican cultural ecology; and a “multimedia crash course” on contemporary Mexican poetry.

In addition to the Mexican focus, audiences will be treated to a "globally inspired array of conversations, readings, performances and workshops" by leading and emerging authors from around the world, according to the organizers. The line-up includes Caribbean-born novelist Jamaica Kincaid and the Peruvian-born Japanese playwright Yudai Kamisato - whose work explores the problems that immigrants face.

Overall, however, the main theme of the festival will be freedom of expression, Orsós said, as PEN is an organization that works to protect the rights of writers and artists to freely express themselves.

“The most important core value is to promote and advocate for freedom of expression,” he said. “This is why I came on board [as director six years ago] because of my background, growing up in Eastern Europe and being a former journalist.

“We all believe that without freedom, without the essential idea and concept to be able to express yourself freely … then everything becomes corrupt and twisted,” he added. “In order to straighten things up and live a fuller life, you have to have that basic right.” - A.M. / SWAN

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Thursday, 14 April 2016


It’s been a long time in the making, but Lost Myself, the debut jazz album by Shola Adisa-Farrar, is well worth the wait. The young Jamaican-American singer is launching the CD on April 15 from her base in Paris, and some fans got a preview when she gave a “listening party” this week at a hotel in the popular Pigalle area of the French city, famed for the Moulin Rouge cabaret. In an area rich with history, these lucky spectators got to see and hear how Adisa-Farrar incorporates her multi-cultural heritage into her music - giving a new flavour to jazz, reggae and calypso.

The cover of Shola Adisa-Farrar's debut album
Born in Oakland, California, to a Jamaican mother (writer Opal Palmer Adisa) and an African-American father, Adisa-Farrar has also lived in New York, where she earned a degree in music. She has called Paris home for a number of years now, even as she travels to perform.

For the album, she worked with the Florian Pellissier quintet, led by an accomplished Parisian pianist and composer known for the up-tempo inflections he brings to jazz.  With the 10 tracks on the album - including the joyful bonus tune “Fall in Love”, the two aimed to “blend New-York’s hard-bop aesthetics and reggae-inspired elements with modern jazz, for a fresh spin on classics and original compositions”, according to the album notes. Adisa-Farrar (Shola) tells SWAN more about this musical voyage in the interview below.

SWAN: How long did you work on the album?
SHOLA: This project has been in the making for two years. We began our collaboration June 2013 and we finished the last recording June 2015.

SWAN: Are there particular stories, personal history, behind the songs?
SHOLA: Being that this album was created over a span of two years, my inspiration and my awareness of myself as an artist evolved. From the original compositions "Flow" is the song that is probably the most meaningful to me as I wrote it as an affirmation to myself. 2014 was a very transitional year for me and so this song was/is a reminder to let go of what is not meant for me, so what is, can flow more easily into my life. 

The singer in Paris
"Evolution" and "Spirit" are mostly lyrical free styles where I sang and spoke whatever words and sounds came to mind at the moment of recording. "Evolution" speaks to my being in France, how I got here, who I have become and what I want my next passage to be.

"I Have A Dream" is really about the seasons of change and being patiently optimistic that positive change can and will occur in your life, in society, elsewhere.

The inspiration for "Blue Chords" came about as I was in the studio composing with Florian and noticed blue cable chords on his piano. Somehow this made me think of the connections between people, places and origins. This song talks about my identity as an American and as a Jamaican, using the colors of the flag to describe the country and some of the ways I feel these cultures/ identities are perceived.

"Going Nowhere" talks about the beginning of a previous relationship - the unknowingness of where it was going but ultimately feeling good in that unknown space and making the decision to go wherever it (the relationship) took me without constraints.

Adisa-Farrar with Florian Pelessier (right)
"What a Night" came about after listening to a lot of Monty Alexander, of whom I am a fan. I've long had this desire to incorporate reggae into my music and a song that my mom taught me among others when I was a child was "Linstead Market". So I thought what if I were to use the "what a night" lyric of this Jamaican folk song and flipped the meaning on its head. The original intention of that lyric was something bad: the woman didn't sell much, if any, of her products at the market and so it was a bad-money-earning night for her. But we often use "What a..." to describe something really great too; like "what a voice she has... what a meal... ", etc., so I wanted to make this song about something positive. I imagined the feeling of finally getting out of the funk of a failed relationship, deciding to go out, get dolled up and actually being attracted to someone once out and feeling confident enough to do something about it.

SWAN: How important is your background - Jamaican mom - to your music?
SHOLA: It's funny: my older cousins who recently came to visit me in Paris and who grew up in Jamaica, in Spanish Town, told me of one of their first memories of meeting me when I was a young girl in Jamaica. They said when I talked to them about what foods I liked to eat at the time, ackee n salt fish, stewed peas and rice and dumpling...they thought "ey ey aye ah who dis Yankee girl talkin bout stew peas n dumpling." It was at this moment they realized that even though I was born in California that my Jamaica-ness was very much present and evident. This is obviously due to my mother who is a griot, really, and who makes it her business to collect our family history and to infuse her children with as much family culture and Jamaican traditions as she knows and practices. So this is a part of my identity that I like to celebrate and of course music is so important to Jamaica and Jamaicans that if I can use some of the mento/ reggae/ soca / dancehall elements in my music it's a great pleasure for me to do so.

SWAN: As you perform a range of styles, how would you define yourself as a singer?
SHOLA: This album is considered a jazz album, but I say as an artist that I like to mix jazz, soul music and reggae to create music that feels good, is poetic and is honest in describing aspects of human emotion and situations: conflict and struggle, joy and angst, curiosity and discovery.

SWAN: You've travelled to several African countries and taken part in various festivals and workshops. Has this had an impact on your art?
SHOLA: Absolutely. Since October 2014 I have travelled to four different African countries because of music, and each of these countries has a distinct musical tradition and sound. Having the unique opportunity to work closely with various artists from these communities and bringing home instruments from some of these places has informed how I think about music and what and how it is communicated to various audiences. I would love to create a project with an artist from each of these places where we mix our musical traditions and put together sounds that might not so often be associated.

SWAN: You also give special tours of Paris and teach English. How do you manage to combine all this?
SHOLA: It has been quite a juggling act and sometimes a scheduling nightmare, but I managed it the best I could for 2 plus years. However, I have recently made the decision to make pursuing my artistic career as my only professional activity for the time being. Being an artist and creating art takes time and freedom from too many mental and psychological constraints, so I am taking a real chance on myself now - jumping without a net, trusting that now is the right time to go for it!

SWAN:  What are your music plans for the coming months?
SHOLA: I would like to tour within France and abroad with this album project. Simultaneously, I am beginning collaborations with different artists and producers to continue developing my sound and creating new music. © SWAN

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