Friday, 22 May 2015

ETHIOPIA’S FIRST MOVIE AT CANNES FESTIVAL IS A HIT

A scene from Lamb: Ephraim and his pet sheep head home.
A boy, a sheep and a stunning mountain landscape. These are the three stars of Lamb, a poignant film directed by 36-year-old Yared Zeleke that is Ethiopia’s first entry in France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

The movie was added after the announcement of the official selection in April and was warmly received in Cannes at its premiere on May 20, with the director and cast receiving applause. It’s slated for general French release later this year, Zeleke said.

Ephraim and Chuni
Shot in the highlands and forests of both northern and central Ethiopia, Lamb tells the story of nine-year-old Ephraim (Rediat Amare) and his beloved pet, a sheep named Chuni. The animal follows Ephraim around like a devoted dog, and plays the role of best friend, albeit one who can only say “ba-a”.

When the film begins, we learn that Ephraim has lost his mother in an on-going famine, and, to survive, his father has decided to take him to stay with relatives in a remote but greener region of their homeland, an area of intense beauty but increasing poverty. Ephraim will have to stay there while his father seeks work in the city, not knowing when he can return.

The relatives are an intriguing bunch. There’s the strict farmer uncle who thinks Ephraim is too girly (the boy likes to cook), his wife who’s overworked and worried about her small, sick child, a generous matriarchal great aunt who tries to keep the family in line with a whip, and an older girl-cousin - Tsion - who spends her time reading and with whom Ephraim eventually bonds.

Soon after arriving in their midst, Ephraim is told by his uncle that he will have to learn what boys do: he will have to slaughter his pet sheep for an upcoming traditional feast.

A poster for the film.
The news pushes Ephraim to start devising ways to save Chuni, and that forms the bulk of the storyline, while the film subtly highlights gender issues, the ravages of drought and the isolation that comes from the feeling of not belonging. Throughout it all, the magnificent rolling hills are there, watching.

We learn in passing that Ephraim is half-Jewish through his mother, whom the relatives refer to as “Falasha people”, but Zeleke says that this is not at all meant to signal division, as Ethiopians don’t generally identify themselves according to religion. In fact, the Christian relatives all seem to have admired the mother.

They attribute Ephraim’s skill at cooking to her teaching, and some of the most moving moments are centred on food – feeding and being fed by a loved one.

The film is dedicated to the director’s grandmother, and another striking element is how sympathetically women are portrayed. Tsion, played by the smoldering Kidist Siyum, is shown as smart and knowledgeable, but her love of reading is considered useless by the family since it doesn’t get the back-breaking household chores done. Ephraim’s ability to cook and sell samosas on the market is seen as more helpful, drawing attention to some of the hardships children face in poor countries.

The title could even be taken as a reference to the treatment of the world's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Director Yared Zeleke
Lamb shows Tsion being pushed to make a sad choice, leaving Ephraim more alone than ever, but the film ends on an upbeat note, with the possibility of acceptance. A simple and unforeseen act of kindness towards Ephraim by Tsion’s rejected suitor might trigger most viewers’ tears.

As a first feature, Lamb is a glowing success for Zeleke, who grew up in central Adisa Ababa - an urban environment where he says he didn’t have a pet and never learned how to cook - and who went on to study film-making at New York University. With the credible story and the feel of authenticity, the director shows that he knows his culture and people.

The loving attention to the landscape and the tight focus on his characters also reveal confidence and vision, and members of the cast equally turn in a fine performance. As Ephraim, Amare Rediat is affecting and sincere, with his huge expressive eyes, and Siyum has a coiled energy that conveys the frustration of a bright girl expected to marry and “breed” quickly because that is her only fate.

Produced by Slum Kid Films, an Ethiopian production company that Zeleke co-founded with Ghanaian colleague Ama Ampadu, Lamb was shown in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category. This section highlights daring, innovative, off-beat works, and Zeleke’s film certainly fits the bill. - A.M.

(Photos are courtesy of the film's producers.)

Saturday, 9 May 2015

ART SHOW CELEBRATES JAMAICA’S ‘NATURAL BEAUTY’

The recently opened north-coast branch of the National Gallery of Jamaica is hosting a new exhibition titled Xaymaca: Nature and the Landscape in Jamaican Art, scheduled to run until August 2015 in Montego Bay.

The show's poster, with a detail of Colin Garland's
"In the Beautiful Caribbean" (National Gallery).
“Xaymaca” was the Taino name for the Caribbean island, meaning “land of wood and water,” and the show celebrates the “spectacular natural beauty of Jamaica, seen through the eyes of Jamaican and visiting artists from the colonial period to the present,” according to the curators.

The exhibition features major works from the National Gallery's collection and comprises four sections: plantation era art; early and 20th-century photography; paintings and one sculpture from the nationalist school of the mid-twentieth century; and paintings and sculpture from the post-Independence generation.

The artists include well-known names such as Barrington Watson, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Edna Manley, Albert Huie, and Hope Brooks, all of whom have created works that are now considered national treasures. The exhibition is curated by Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery, and O’Neil Lawrence, senior curator.

Established in 1974, the National Gallery is the oldest and largest public art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean. It has a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art from Jamaica along with smaller Caribbean and international collections. A major selection of the artworks is on permanent view.

The National Gallery West branch, launched in 2014, is located at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre, Sam Sharpe Square.

Friday, 1 May 2015

A CALL FOR DIALOGUE AND PEACE ON INT'L JAZZ DAY

PARIS - The fourth annual International Jazz Day was celebrated on April 30, with events around the world, amid appeals for peace, unity and dialogue.

"Each of us is equal. All of us inhabit this place we call home," said American jazz legend Herbie Hancock. "We must move mountains to find solutions to our incredible challenges."

Some of the artists participating. (Photo: UNESCO)
After Osaka, Japan, last year, the 2015 Global Host City was Paris, and jazz lovers got to enjoy a daylong series of performances and education programs in different districts of the French capital. The presentations included workshops, master classes, jam sessions and panel discussions.

Coinciding with UNESCO’s 70th anniversary celebration, an “All-Star Global Concert” was the main event. It took place in a packed auditorium at the UN cultural agency’s headquarters and featured memorable performances from some 30 renowned and acclaimed artists.

Among them were pianists Hancock, John Beasley (the show's musical director), Antonio Faraò and A Bu; trumpeters Till Brönner, Ibrahim Maalouf, Hugh Masekela and Claudio Roditi; vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Al Jarreau, Annie Lennox, Rudy Pérez and Dianne Reeves; saxophonists Igor Butman, Ravi Coltrane, Femi Kuti, Guillaume Perret and Wayne Shorter; bassists James Genus and Marcus Miller; guitarist Lee Ritenour; drummer Terri Lyne Carrington; percussionist Mino Cinelu; harmonica player Grégoire Maret; and oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef.

The concert was webcast live to viewers around the world, and has been made available for on-demand viewing, according to UNESCO.

Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater (left)
and daughter China Moses
at the first Int'l Jazz Day, 2012.
(Photo: McKenzie)
International Jazz Day is the brainchild of Hancock and it's presented each year by UNESCO, in partnership with the U.S.-based Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The organisers say the Day is aimed at encouraging and highlighting the “power of jazz as a force for freedom and creativity”. It is also meant to promote “intercultural dialogue through respect and understanding, uniting people from all corners of the globe”.

At the launch, UNESCO’s Director-General Irena Bokova said: “Jazz means dialogue, reaching out to others, bringing everyone on board. It means respecting the human rights and dignity of every woman and man, no matter their background. It means understanding others, letting them speak, listening in the spirit of respect.

"All this is why we join together to celebrate jazz; this music of freedom is a force for peace, and its messages have never been more vital than they are today, in times of turbulence.”

Although speakers did not directly mention the civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, that followed the funeral of an African-American man who died in police custody, the protests were clearly on everyone's mind, with the themes of human rights, justice and equality being reiterated.

At the end of the concert, Hancock announced that the next International Jazz Day will be hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, at the White House in Washington, D.C. 


Annie Lennox rocked the house. (Photo: McKenzie)
Wayne Shorter (left) and bassist Ben Williams: sublime. (Photo: McKenzie)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

HUMAN RIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL SPARKS A MEDIA DEBATE

By Dimitri Keramitas

The annual Human Rights Film Festival in Paris normally features documentaries depicting rights violations, crises, and problems around the globe. This year’s program included films about pollution-exchange fraud in Denmark (The Carbon Crooks), water shortages in Ethiopia (The Well), the exploitation of agricultural workers in India (Cotton Dreams) and adolescent homelessness in the United States (The Homestretch).

L'Epreuve: taking photos through it all.
But for the first time it also included a fiction feature dealing with a topical subject: the role of photojournalists in conflict zones in Africa and Central Asia, and their responsibilities not only to their profession and subjects, but also to their families.

L’Epreuve (English title: 1000 Times Good Night) was made by Erik Poppe, a Norwegian photojournalist directing his first feature, and stars French actress Juliette Binoche. The “pre-premiere” in a Paris Left Bank cinema in April was followed by a discussion with Hubert Picard, a veteran French photographer (he preferred this term to photojournalist). It sometimes turned into rancorous debate that, like the film itself, called into question easy assumptions about truth and fiction.

Binoche plays photojournalist Rebecca. She has a loving family in Ireland, a marine biologist husband and two young daughters. She could easily have a cozy, privileged domestic life but her profession takes her into conflict areas where she records grisly events and puts her own life in danger.

At the beginning of the film we see her in Afghanistan, where she has seemingly embedded - not with US troops but with Taliban guerrillas. She follows a woman’s elaborate preparation to become a suicide bomber, and even the carrying out of her mission in a dusty village.

The poster for the film.
Rebecca has a burst of conscience at the moment the bomb detonates, yelling out warnings and being severely injured herself. Most of the film is about her return home and convalescence, her questioning her vocation, and most of all her tortured relationship with her spouse Marcus and daughter Steph. To try to repair her relationship with Steph, Rebecca takes her daughter to Kenya to visit a supposedly peaceful refugee camp.

The first issue raised by L’Epreuve is how genuine a film about human rights can be when it stars a celebrity actress, one who’s an Oscar winner and has modelled in glamorous photo shoots. Binoche takes the obvious route of other actresses, such as Jessica Lange and Charlize Theron, who have taken on difficult roles: she makes herself seem as plain and middle-aged as possible. This is mostly successful, especially as Binoche really is of a certain age, and also adopts an understated acting style. In L’Epreuve the other actors, notably Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the husband, and Lauryn Canny as Steph, more than hold their own, so that we believe in the characters as characters, not as roles or star turns.

A second issue is less successfully resolved, and that has to do with the directing. Taking on his first directing job, Poppe goes overboard in ways typical of neophyte filmmakers. The scenes that take place in Kenya have a well-scrubbed National Geographic sheen, while those in Ireland are often self-consciously gorgeous. The images make the film enjoyable, but they also shout “This is a film”, and more precisely “This is a first film”, distracting us from the subject.

A third issue concerns the production, and the subsidies the film presumably received from Irish authorities. While it’s fine to subsidize a worthy film, the ulterior reason is nearly always to promote a locale. There are many splendid views of the Irish landscape, and these certainly give one the desire to go visit.

Actress Juliette Binoche (photo courtesy of the film)
On a more serious level, there’s no reason a film cannot have an Irish setting. But one wonders about the setting more than necessary, especially as the director is Norwegian and the lead actress French. Viewers may also find themselves thinking of the socio-economic context: Do photojournalists really live in such beautiful House & Gardens-type homes? Can they really take their children to Kenya, just to help them with a class project on Africa? This may have been contextualization, or contrast, depicting the wide gulf between the Western world and that of war zones, but it comes at a cost in focus.

The post-screening discussion brought up other questions. Hubert Picard maintained that the excitement of war is what attracts him to conflict areas, not idealism. In the film the director depicts the dynamic aspect of war convincingly, especially a scene in Kenya, when the camp that Rebecca and Steph visit erupts in violence. Without overdramatizing, Binoche’s performance exudes the adrenalin high of a dangerous job, even in the midst of the awful violence perpetrated against the African refugees. But the script is coy about the subject, preferring to focus on the heroine’s idealism, and highlighting how her photos achieve a concrete result: the reinforcement of security at the camp. Some in the audience seemed caught up in the idealism and were put out by the real photographer’s supposed cynicism, as Picard kept stressing the difference between fiction and reality.

He also stressed the importance of money, and the competitive nature of many journalists, including women. But in the film, Binoche seems to be alone on the job. We don’t get the sense of a hotspot in the news attracting hordes of photographers, TV journalists and others, all vying for the scoop.

A scene from L'Epreuve. What motivates war journalists?
The photographer was more equivocal about the political dimension of his profession. Picard maintained that he was solely interested in exclusive, spectacular photos, and that his impartiality was not affected by being embedded with American forces. But he admitted being sympathetic to the American side, and expressed a preference for the right-leaning Figaro newspaper to Le Monde (which he sarcastically referred to as the world’s leading Arab newspaper). The young Egyptian woman who’d questioned him on this point criticized the confluence of money and political partiality that she sees in media coverage of her own country.

Also called into doubt were the riveting scenes showing Rebecca following the suicide bomber’s actions.  Picard said that while “anything is possible”, it’s practically unheard of for journalists to “embed” with the Taliban. Plausibility is further strained because of recent tragedies involving journalists falling into the hands of extremists. The director is not just content to open with an embed sequence - he has his heroine repeat it, when she returns to Afghanistan. This makes for effective symmetry, and also serves to show how her character has evolved. But here the film betrays an adherence not only to fiction, as opposed to documentary, but to out and out fantasy.

The film’s general release is on May 6, three days after World Press Freedom Day. Production: Paradox/Paradox Spillefilm/Film i Väst. Distribution: Global Screen (worldwide) / Septième Factory (France).

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based lawyer and prize-winning writer.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

CANNES: AFRICAN DIRECTORS TO SHOW FILM, JOIN JURY

The award-winning Malian director Souleymane Cissé will present his movie O Ka at the 68th Cannes Film Festival taking place in Southern France from May 13 to 24, while Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako will head the jury of Cannes' short-film category.

Director Souleymane Cissé
(photo courtesy of F. Ciss
é)
O Ka (Our House) will be shown in the “special-screenings” segment of the festival’s Official Selection of 42 films, announced in Paris on April 16. More films may be added before the event’s launch.

Cissé, who heads the Union of Creators and Entrepreneurs of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of Western Africa (UCECAO), won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1987 for Yeelen, one his best known films. Many of his other works have received awards at other festivals, including the Locarno International Film Festival.

At the time of writing, Cissé is the only African director in this year’s official lineup; in 2014, two directors representing Africa were selected - Philippe Lacôte of Ivory Coast and Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and brought up in Mali.

Cissé travelled to Cannes last year to support Sissako, who presented the moving and beautifully shot Timbuktu in the official Competition category. The film was seen as a strong contender for the top Palme d’Or award, but won the prize of the independent Ecumenical Jury, before gaining honours in other festivals.

Speaking with SWAN after the screening of Timbuktu, Cissé said that African directors faced special challenges in producing movies, and he called for increased national and regional backing.

Actress Fatoumata Diawara, who appeared in Timbuktu.
“Besides the issue of conflict, financing is still a huge problem,” Cissé said. “Even low-budget films have to fight for funding, and up until now there hasn’t been any political will to help because in Africa one doesn’t believe that cinema is an art and an industry.”

Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Frémaux announced that 1,854 films were submitted to the festival this year from around the world (compared with some 1,500 in 2014), and the high number has sparked questions about the seeming under-representation of Africa and Latin America.

Frémaux said it wasn’t true that the same internationally known directors get selected every year, and he stressed that the Festival was trying to stay fresh with first-feature directors and ground-breaking work.

“There weren’t many renowned auteurs whose films were ready,” Frémaux told reporters. “But there were several up-and-coming directors who presented us with works of quality, so we decided to go with them this time for the competition.”

Abderrahmane Sissako
In addition to the short-film category, Sissako will head the Jury for Cannes’ Cinéfondation section, which screens works by film-school students (18 works have been selected from the 1,600 submitted this year).

“Sissako crosses cultures and continents,” said the Cannes organizers of the director who did his film training in the Soviet Union. “His work is suffused with humanism and social consciousness and explores the complex relations between North and South as well as the fate of a much-beleaguered Africa.”

For more about African cinema and Cannes, see: http://newafricanmagazine.com/nollywood-just-single-plot/

Saturday, 11 April 2015

GUADELOUPE BOOSTS LIT WITH 4TH WRITERS CONGRESS

Following the nomination of several authors for prestigious international awards, Caribbean literature gets a further boost in April with the 4th Congrès des écrivains de la Caraïbe (4th Congress of Caribbean Writers), being held in Guadeloupe April 15 to 18.

With the theme of “Travel, Migration, Diasporas in Caribbean Literatures”, the congress features some 50 writers over the four-day event, hosted by the Regional Council of Guadeloupe and the Association of Caribbean Writers.

The authors will give readings, join panel debates and meet with students, according to the organizers. Participants will also pay tribute to Maryse Condé, the renowned Guadeloupean writer who was recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

“This biennial meeting is an occasion to place literature as the compendium of our Guadeloupean history, and equally to look at our international role and to examine our Caribbean culture,” said Victorin Lurel, President of the Regional Council.

In a statement ahead of the congress, Lurel urged Caribbean populations to support literature, and he reaffirmed Guadeloupe’s commitment to promoting books and bridging the language divide in the region.

“Although honoured globally, the literatures of the Caribbean still need these kinds of international meetings to go beyond linguistic barriers and geographic partitions, and to try to build a common literary space,” Lurel said.

Writers from 21 nations of the Caribbean and the wider Americas are set to participate in the Congress, representing countries such as Antigua, Barbados, Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Haïti and Jamaica, among others.

Daniel Maximin
The Guadeloupean poet and novelist Daniel Maximin is the guest of honour, with the Congress paying homage to his long career as writer, professor and advocate of the arts.

Maximin will give the inaugural address. His last published work is the seminal Aimé Césaire, Frère-Volcan - recording 40 years of dialogue with the late Martinique-born literary icon.

Other writers hailing from around the region include Joël Des Rosiers and Yanick Lahens of Haïti; Carlos Roberto Gómez Beras, of Puerto Rico; Earl Lovelace, Lawrence Scott and Elizabeth Nunez, of Trinidad  and Tobago; Kwame Dawes of Jamaica; Yolanda Wood of Cuba; and Mac Donald Dixon and Vladimir Lucien of St. Lucia.

Lucien, a poet, comes fresh from being honoured in Trinidad, with his book Sounding Ground on the shortlist of three works for the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

The Congress will present its own prestigious award, the Prix littéraire de l’Association des écrivains de la Caraïbe, and the competition is tough, reflecting the great productivity of Caribbean writers over the past two years. Eighteen nominees come from French-speaking islands, 10 from the Anglophone countries and 14 from Spanish-speaking nations.

The list includes Dany Laferrière (Haiti), Simone Schwarz-Bart and André Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Sharon Leach (Jamaica), and Héctor Torres (Venezuela), just to name a few.

Participating writer Kwame Dawes
The Congress has grown massively since its launch in 2009, when Nobel laureate Derek Walcott was the guest of honour, and both writers and readers are increasingly embracing the richness of Caribbean diversity and history, say scholars.

As Earl Lovelace notes: The linguistic plurality of our geographic basin is considered, often wrongly, as an obstacle to exchange, to cooperation. But In truth, it’s an extraordinary source of wealth.

(UPDATE: The Grand Prix Littéraire was awarded on April 18 to Simone and André Schwarz-Bart for their work l'Ancêtre en Solitude, published by éditions du Seuil, February 2015.)

Monday, 6 April 2015

JAMAICAN SINGER JACK RADICS GOES BACK TO BASICS

Asked how he's doing, Jack Radics replies that  he is “tired but inspired”.

The Jamaican singer, whose voice buoyed the Chaka Demus & Pliers international hit Twist & Shout, has good reason to feel positive these days. Reviewers have praised his new album Way 2 Long as a great return to roots reggae, and he’s on the road to healing after more than “30 years of being exploited by record companies”, as he puts it.

When Twist & Shout reached number one on the UK Singles Chart, back in 1994, Radics’ name was hardly mentioned because the song was seen as a vehicle for Demus & Pliers, the top-selling Jamaican reggae duo. But Radics’ sonorous voice was unmistakable on the record.

“You needed a magnifying glass to see my name in the credits,” he laughs now. “I had to fight tooth and nail for recognition. Such are the travails of us the artists.”

Speaking from a beach-view apartment in Negril, in a long-distance video interview with SWAN, Radics describes how he “stepped off the damn merry-go-round” some years ago and almost turned his back on the music industry.

“Commercial exploitation of artists prevails,” he says. “Some people make music for a living, and some live to make music. But me nah look no money - my quest and motivation are not for money.”

Radics depicts a hotbed of dishonest deals and mistreatment in the entertainment sector, but he says that he couldn’t help missing the music when he was away from it.

“I missed the music, the creativity, but I didn’t miss the business,” he told SWAN.

Supporters and a new manager encouraged him to return, and the current album is a “collective” of the different styles he has pursued over the years, from blues-and-soul-infused rhythms to roots reggae.

The title song is a slow, mellow track, with gentle strings and Radics’ persuasive voice declaring, “I been away too long, I wanna put my feet in the sand again”.

This sets the tone for an album that includes autobiographical notes, political views, love songs and covers of hits such as Valerie, which Radics reinterprets, in Caribbean style.

The CD might remind listeners of a certain era in reggae when accomplished singers like Jacob Miller, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown ruled the airwaves, and the songs told a story while still being “danceable”. This is the tradition to which Radics seems to belong, even though he released his first solo album in 1991, just as dancehall was going global. Way 2 Long shows Radics as a balladeer above all else.

He says that he was always singing as a child, so much so that family members thought he was “a pain in the neck”. Still, he got into the professional music business mainly by chance. After high school, he went to visit a friend in the Bahamas, only to find that the friend had moved to the United States. Stranded, Radics found odd jobs, and he was at a club relaxing one evening when it just so happened that the featured singer didn't turn up.

Radics in pensive mood.
Radics says he took the mic and after performing was offered the job to sing at the venue. On his return to Jamaica, he stopped in Miami, Florida, and bought musical instruments, and so his career was launched, with stints in England, the Netherlands and other countries to follow.

Now a father of six, he is back home, with a comfortable base in Negril, on the westernmost tip of the island. He emphasizes that he’s “Jamaican to the bone” and told SWAN that he feels inspired and relaxed by the birdsong he hears every day, and by the sight of the white-sand beach outside his window.

“I don’t like to go to Kingston at all anymore because everybody is a tough guy, and nobody smiles,” he declares, referring to the intense ambience of the capital.

Radics' rejuvenation seems a reflection of one of his hits, a song titled No Matter. The refrain goes: It don’t matter ’cause life has never been better … I’m free to be me, and as far as I can see, it’s much better. (© SWAN)

Monday, 23 March 2015

PARIS BOOK FAIR: BRAZILIAN LIT, FOOD AND A PROTEST

The Paris Book Fair advertises its guest of honour.
The aroma of Brazilian cooking, the poetry of the Portuguese language, and a spirit of protest pervaded this year’s Paris Book Fair, March 20 - 23.

Billed as “un pays plein de voix” (a country full of voice), Brazil was the guest of honour, with 48 writers invited. The world-renowned Paulo Coelho was supposed to be the star of this lineup, but he couldn’t fit Paris into his busy schedule, according to the Fair’s organizers, so others kept the words going.

Ana Paula Maia (photo: M. Correa)
These included Bernardo Carvalho, considered one of Brazil’s best contemporary authors, and the emerging writers Tatiana Salem Levy - author of the acclaimed novel A Chave de Casa - and Ana Paula Maia, who began her career with “short pulp fiction” on the Internet and now has numerous fans.

Maia's French publisher, Paula Anacaona of Anacaona Editions, told SWAN that the young Brazilian author gives voice to those who normally have no presence in literature - a slaughterhouse employee, a worker at a crematorium. 

At the Fair, Maia and her peers discussed topics ranging from the depiction of urban violence to dealing with memory and displacement. 

But food was also a part of the experience at the Brazilian pavillion, as chefs gave workshops on the country’s cuisine, presenting appetizing-looking concoctions alongside their cookbooks.

The smell of food intermingled with sounds of protest when, on the second day of the Fair, French writers demonstrated to highlight the dangers that all in the profession are facing: work insecurity, "derisory" income, and unfavourable state regulation, among other issues.

“No writers, no books,” the protesters warned via their placards.

Still, during the four days of the Fair, book lovers filled rows of sturdy white plastic chairs as they listened to the invited Brazilian authors as well as writers from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Writers from France's overseas territories.
The African presence has continued to grow, and the huge pavilion featuring “Livres et auteurs du Bassin du Congo” (Books and Writers of the Congo Basin) acts as a magnet for a broad cross-section of visitors.

African and Caribbean authors participated too in readings and debates at the pavillions of publishers from French overseas territories including Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Martin.

Guadeloupe’s Editions Jasor presented several writers including playwright Gerty Dambury, and the Guadeloupe Region’s Culture Service promoted its upcoming Caribbean Writers Congress, taking place on the island April 15 to 18.

Dominique Hubert
“We’ll have writers from all over the Caribbean, speaking French, Spanish, English, and showing the richness of the region’s literature,” said spokesperson Dominique Hubert. (SWAN will have a special report on the biennial Congress in April.)

Another highlight of the fair has been discovering off-beat, independent publishers that produce strikingly original books, both in format and content.

La Cheminante, a French publishing house headed by Sylvie Darreau, has launched a Harlem Renaissance collection, for instance, that emphasizes the links between African American writers and the Diaspora.

Beautifully produced, the layout of the books tells as much of a story as the words. Even the font and size of the page numbers are meant to evoke certain feelings among readers.

Darreau and Boum
La Cheminante also publishes French-based African writers such as Hemley Boum, who presented her third novel Les maquisards (The guerillas) on March 22. Through a family saga, the book shines light on little-known aspects of the fight for Cameroon's independence.

This year the Fair additionally launched a “Talented Indies” programme, “starring” up and coming French-speaking publishers from cities such as Algers, Brussels, Marseille, Casablanca, Geneva and Tunis.

"This is  a space where we can come together, and we need that more and more, in light of all the incidents that have taken place since the beginning of the year," said Darreau, referring to attacks in France, Tunisia and other countries.

Monday, 2 March 2015

CARIBBEAN PLAYWRIGHTS CONVERSE AND PROVOKE

“I think Afro-American theatre comes out of protest. It is a violent reaction to untenable conditions. Caribbean theatre has all the same reasons for the anger, but our memory is not the same kind.”

This remark from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott is just one of the frank and provocative comments in Visions and Voices, a captivating book by Olivier Stephenson that comprises interviews with 14 Caribbean playwrights.

The 435-page volume includes conversations with Jamaica’s best known dramatists Trevor Rhone and Dennis Scott, Montserrat’s Edgar Nkosi White and Trinidad’s Errol Hill - “widely recognized as the father of the English-speaking Caribbean theatre”. And, off course, there is St. Lucian-born Walcott, the Caribbean’s most celebrated poet-playwright-artist. But only one female dramatist,  Jamaica’s Carmen Tipling, is featured in the collection, which detracts from its completeness.

Stephenson, a Jamaican-born, United States-based journalist and playwright himself, conducted the interviews in the 1970s and 1980s when he was actively involved in theatre in New York as a founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre.

Many of his peers (and “elders”) were also living in the U.S. or visiting at the time, which was a crucial period for the genre, full of new plays and a sense of community. After Stephenson’s interviews were completed, it would take more than 30 years for the book to be published, however. 

“Some publishers said it was too academic, while others said it wasn’t academic enough,” Stephenson recalls. Finally, England-based Peepal Tree Press stepped in and the book came out last year, with a preface by prize-winning writer Kwame Dawes.

Olivier Stephenson (photo: C. West)
In the interim, Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and several of the playwrights have died; but their words still give a riveting picture of the Caribbean theatre world, with all the experiences, visions and goals. Walcott, now 85 years old, delivers some of the most insightful comments, positioning the Caribbean artist in an international context and criticizing the lack of state support for art and culture in the region.

“The body of Caribbean literature in the theatre, I think, is still minuscule,” he tells Stephenson. “And I think the reason for that is that there is not enough encouragement given to the development of the Caribbean actor and dancer in his or her native island.”

Since Walcott said those words, some things have naturally changed, with high-quality arts festivals now taking place across the Caribbean and several home-grown awards being launched. But much more needs to be achieved in the area of cultural policy.

“What stultifies and cripples in the Caribbean is the absence of that machine (to get plays made),” Walcott says. “So what you find is a lot of people having to give up writing plays because they can’t get them done.

“The total amount of unproduced plays in the Caribbean must be very, very large and God knows how many are good,” he adds.

Stephenson, in an interview with SWAN, said he completely agreed with Walcott’s assessment. “There is unquestionably not enough support,” he said. “A lot of lip service is paid to promoting the arts, but nothing is really done because that is how governments work.”

An interesting aspect of the interviews in Visions and Voices is the way Caribbean dramatists respond to comparisons between them and others in the sector. Of the criticism by some African-American playwrights that Caribbean - or West Indian - writers aren't angry enough, Walcott has this revealing response (worth repeating in its entirety):

Derek Walcott
Well, you see, I don’t think that a West Indian gets up in the morning saying, “I am black.” There is not an American Black who doesn't get up in the morning and think, even subliminally, “I am black and I have to face the day.” They get up in the morning with the feeling that something’s going to happen to them simply because they are black. That goes on in this country (the U.S.) still. It does not happen in the Caribbean. One does not get up in the morning and say, “Jesus Christ, I am black and some mother is going to be out for my ass today!” And that’s the difference. And because the Caribbean writer does not wake up in the morning with that kind of burden, he has the advantage of being able to develop a sense of universal anger, a certain perspective on the conditions of the Black or any Third World disadvantaged race.

One of the reasons why Caribbean plays are so banal - so many plays are just jokes, comedies, or backyard farces - is because that problem, the weight of being Black, does not exist for them; there’s no fight against “The Man”, against a visible oppressor. If anything, the Caribbean tendency is toward a political anger rather than a personal anger - towards a socialist or a Marxist perspective. You can’t help but be leftist in the Caribbean if you’re a writer - you have no choice, really.

When Stephenson asks why Walcott says this, the grand master of Caribbean letters replies: “Because of the poverty, of the violent contrast between the rich and the poor. And anybody with a simple sense of justice realizes that the system in the Caribbean is unjust for the majority of the people. So that kind of anger is there.

Whether one agrees with Walcott or not, Stephenson's book does give readers much to think about, and perhaps it will also encourage the public to see a Caribbean play the next time one is presented in their area. - A.M.

For more on Caribbean literature, see: https://caribbeanbookblog.wordpress.com

Friday, 6 February 2015

NINA: SINGERS PAY TRIBUTE AND CAST THEIR OWN SPELL

Autour de Nina ('Round Nina) is both a joyous and poignant tribute to Nina Simone, nearly 12 years after her death at the age of 70. This French-produced CD brings together top vocalists from different countries to re-interpret some of the songs that Simone made her own, which is quite a tall order.  But the singers deliver, for the most part, backed by intelligent and captivating arrangements.

The album starts with a very modern, “ultra-cool” version of Baltimore by the 25-year-old British artist Lianne La Havas and then moves into a scorching gospel-rock adaptation of Sinnerman, performed by the Nigerian-born musician Keziah Jones. They both manage to give the songs an individual flavour that most listeners will appreciate.

On the sixth track, French singer-songwriter Ben L’Oncle Soul stands out with his rendition of Feeling Good, sounding almost like a reincarnation of Simone with his passionate and dramatic delivery.

Composed in 1965 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, this song was one of Simone's masterpieces. Critics have hailed Feeling Good for bringing together classical music, blues and soul, and launching what would become a jazz standard, and Ben L’Oncle Soul does this musical history justice.

In contrast, his compatriot Olivia Ruiz might have opted for a different song because she has the insurmountable task of making something individual from My Baby Just Cares For Me, one of the pieces most closely associated with Simone. Ruiz doesn’t quite succeed, despite the “extra jazziness” of the music.

Singer Ben l'Oncle Soul (photo: FPT)
American singer Melody Gardot, meanwhile, brings new gravity and beauty to Four Women, composed by Simone in 1966 and first released on the album Wild is the Wind. She is matched by Swiss-born jazz artist Sophie Hunger, who lives up to her adopted name with a searing performance of I Put A Spell on You, probably the most memorable interpretation on this tribute CD – all hungry, tormented vocals, wailing instruments and an extended finale. One will want to listen to it again and again, along with the track by Ben l'Oncle Soul.

The other songs feature South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah, the Franco-Moroccan performer Hindi Zahra, American jazzman Gregory Porter and French singer-actress Camille. Their performances are all enjoyable and touching in particular ways, even if one can’t help feeling that they don’t quite measure up to the “original” versions. But how could they? Simone took everything she did to an inimitable level.

Still the CD is a fitting tribute, especially when one refrains from comparing the singers to an incomparable star and pay attention to the superb instrumentation of the backing musicians. (Label: Verve. Produced by Maxime Le Guil and Clément Ducol.)

Thursday, 15 January 2015

MADNESS IN CARIBBEAN LIT: SCHOLARS & WRITERS MEET


The University of Liège in Belgium will hold a symposium titled “Altered States: Configuring Madness in Caribbean Literature” in April, with renowned international scholars and Caribbean writers participating.

The event is being hosted by CEREP (Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherche en Etudes Postcoloniales / Centre for Teaching and Research in Postcolonial Studies), one of the first research units in Europe to focus on postcolonial and formerly Commonwealth studies. Founded in 1968 by Prof. Hena Maes-Jelinek, an acclaimed academic and author, the Centre frequently organizes seminars, lectures and conferences at the University of Liège.

Current director Bénédicte Ledent says that the symposium takes as its main starting point the "ubiquitous representation of various forms of mental illness, breakdown and psychopathology in Caribbean literature" and the fact that this topic has been relatively neglected in criticism, especially in Anglophone texts, apart from scholarship devoted to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

“While acknowledging a small number of recent publications on the topic … we believe that much remains to be done to rethink the trope of ‘madness’ across Caribbean literature by local and diaspora writers,” she said.

Those interested in attending the sympsium can find registration information here: http://www.madness.ulg.ac.be/programme.html