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 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.
The concert will be broadcast as a one-hour primetime television special on Saturday evening, and streamed on the United Nations, UNESCO, U.S. State Department and White House websites. The concert will feature a range of artists from around the world paying tribute to what the organizers call the “truly American art form of jazz”.

Participating musicians include Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sting, Terri Lyne Carrington,  Buddy Guy, Al Jarreau, Zakir Hussain, Diana Krall, Hugh Masekela,  John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Marcus Miller and a host of other acclaimed artists. John Beasley, the pianist, arranger and composer, will serve as the evening’s music director.

Presented by UNESCO in partnership with the U.S.-based Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the special Day was conceived by legendary pianist Hancock and launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2012. That year also saw a sunrise concert in New Orleans (the birthplace of jazz) and a sunset concert at UN headquarters in New York. 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.

Musicians and jazz lovers are organizing events in more than 150 countries this year, including France which had dozens of shows in 2015. In Paris, the virtuoso American singer Denise King has some special events planned for April 30 and the months ahead. She talks to SWAN about International Jazz Day, the music, and what it all means for her.

Singer Denise King
SWAN: International Jazz Day is fast approaching and you’ve planned some related events in Paris. Can you tell us about them?
KING: International Jazz Day is set aside for all things jazz. I'm very happy and proud to be presenting, along with co-collaborator Brian Scott Bagley, two very exciting events. The first is a homage to Art Kane's 1958 iconic photo "A Great Day In Harlem" [which groups 57 acclaimed jazz artists of the time]. We hope to have jazz musicians and singers who perform in Paris gather at Trocadero overlook for this photo which will be titled “International Jazz Day 2016: A Great Day in Paris”. Not only do we want to remember the photo but also remind people of the part that Paris has played and continues to play as it pertains to jazz. While many of the jazz venues of the 40's through the 90's have closed, there remains a vibrant and creative jazz community.  The second event is “Denise King and Friends” - a concert that will take place at Très Honoré Salon in Paris, at 35 Place Saint Honoré, along with an amazing rhythm section: Julien Coriatt piano, Gabriel Midon bass and Baptiste Castets batterie, will perform classic jazz and standards. I have also invited special guest vocalists Sylvia Sanders Howard, Mathilde Prive, Marvin Parks and pianist Karim Blal. I'm excited to be able to present jazz in a venue that’s not typically known for it, but hope that this will be the first of many. 

SWAN: As a jazz singer, what does it mean to you personally that the United Nations in 2012 designated April 30 as International Jazz Day, to be celebrated annually?
King in concert. (Photo: McKenzie)
KING: I was actually very excited! It's clear that jazz has become less mainstream and seemingly caters to a very specific audience. I think that Jazz Day increases its presence and as well has the potential to expose more young people to the music. Jazz at one time was considered dance music. The music of fish fries and juke joints. I'd like to see the dance element return [rather than] the idea that jazz is intellectual music to be quietly enjoyed in a well-behaved setting. Because so many different types of jazz will be presented on April 30th, I hope it will give people a different perception of the music. Jazz Day, I believe, is increasing awareness and again defining what jazz is and the many ways it presents itself. I'm happy!

SWAN: Are you going to tune in to this year's concert at the White House?
KING: I might not be able to tune into the stream but I will certainly watch it later on the Jazz Day website or YouTube.

SWAN: When and how did you decide that you would be a jazz singer?
KING: I really didn’t decide to become a jazz singer...it all happened by "accident". Jazz found me. I was busy cleaning my sidewalk one spring day and singing as I swept. A friend who happened to play guitar and write music at the internationally renowned Philadelphia International Records heard me singing. He was struck by what he heard and insisted on auditioning me for a gig...whatever that was. He hired me and the rest is history. I always loved listening to jazz even as a young teenager. So it seems it was something life was preparing me for. It wasn't until perhaps five years from that fateful day that I actually embraced jazz, and called myself a singer. Up until that time I was a single Mom singing to make extra money to take care of her kids. Life is strange. Now I cannot imagine not doing this.    

SWAN: Who are your musical influences?
KING: First and foremost Sarah Vaughan. At one time I imitated, or tried to imitate her every riff, every nuance. I love her voice. To me it was everything that defined singing. But before I found her I was listening to Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Gloria Lynne, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Johnny Hartman and Nancy WIlson. I've been influenced by every singer that I've listened to. Some teaching me what to do and others what not to do. I also love blues singers. Etta James and KoKo Taylor. Ruth Brown. Then there are the instrumentalists Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker… I could go on.

SWAN: How has living in Paris affected your career?
KING: Being in Paris has made it possible for me to tour and perform throughout Europe. I've performed in Italy, Belgium, UK, Belarus, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Africa, Luxembourg and more. It's so easy to travel between countries; I've been able to increase my presence, at least in Europe. It seems to be easier to get things done here perhaps because some of the
obstacles that exist in the US are less present. Various types of media seem to be more accessible - TV, Radio, print. It also feels like audiences are eager to come out and hear jazz. There's a reverence of the music that is different and an excitement. I work a lot here. My hope is to increase my visibility in the US.  

John Beasley, music director of the Jazz Day
Global Concerts. (Photo: Eric Wolfinger)
SWAN: As you travel throughout Europe and other regions, do you notice a difference in audiences?
KING: Absolutely. As I said, people really support the music. They are eager to attend concerts. They listen to every note and amazingly know the history of the music. It always makes me smile when someone comes up to me and shares a bit of history that I'm not familiar with. Also there exists a history of this music separate from the history in the US. You have to remember that because of segregation, many African-American musicians moved to Europe...many to Paris. 

SWAN: Fans say you’re excellent at improvisation. How did you learn this skill?
KING: I learned to improvise by listening to the musicians that I work with. Going with what’s innate. Going with a musical gut feeling. Trying things and flying or falling on my face. I'm happy to know people think I’m good at it because I really am operating as it pertains to improvisation on a wing and a prayer.

SWAN: What is your greatest hope for jazz?
KING: Jazz is resilient; it has survived, even though some have sounded the death knell. It has seen audiences and interest dwindle. My hope is that we are able to reach a wider audience and remind people that Jazz is FUN! That you can dance, you can have a good time! I hope that more young people embrace and lean toward this music. That they sit under the wings of elder musicians and learn that jazz is more than just technique, but also notes dipped in emotion. I hope they listen to music beyond 1960 and learn from the masters - even listening to records. That’s how I learned. I didn’t go to conservatory. I listened to as many singers and musicians as I could and learn. I hope that young singers learn that in addition to singing the words they MUST tell the story, otherwise they’re just singing words. I tell my students when theyre singing: I dont believe you. You’re just singing words. I make them read the lyrics and dissect what they mean. I hope that we can once again fill seats and have people clamoring for this music. I hope that jazz clings to tradition while also allowing room for growth and change. I hope that jazz begins to market itself in the same way that other genres do. To increase listeners and interest! That's my hope. © SWAN

For a profile of King (in French), see: http://www.jazzhot.net/PBCPPlayer.asp?ID=1740553

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

Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale

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

(The first concert featuring the album will take place in Paris in May. For more details visit www.sholajoy.com.) 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


The gripping Brazilian drama Mundo Cão (Dog’s World) has won the Public’s Prize at the18th annual Brazilian Film Festival in Paris, which took place April 5 - 12.

Two of the films' canine stars. 
Each year, audiences vote for what they consider the best film, and this year they choose the unlikely tale of a dogcatcher versus a sociopathic ex-cop.

Directed by Marcos Jorge, the film is set in São Paulo and tells the story of upright and amiable family man Santana, who works for the city, picking up stray animals.

But all goes desperately awry the day that he catches a huge dog and then has to contend with the wrath of the dog’s owner - a violent ex-cop - who has been informed that his "pet" has been put to sleep.

Viewers evidently felt a connection with some of the less-than-cuddly beasts shown in the flic, whose animal stars were just as compelling as the human ones (actors Lázaro Ramos, Babu Santana and Adriana Esteves). They all pulled viewers into a believable underground canine world.

Mundo Cão was one of 20 films shown at the festival, which since its start in 1998 has now screened more than 450 movies and attracted some 70,000 spectators in the French capital.

According to founder Katia Adler, the organizers this year wanted to increase the meetings between filmmakers and the public, and as a result, about 30 special guests – directors, actors and producers – were present. They introduced their films, took part in debates and helped to highlight co-productions between Brazil and France.

The festival closed with the inspiring Tudo que aprendemos juntos, Sérgio Machado’s story of a failed violinist who gives music lessons to disadvantaged children in the favela and discovers an exceptionally talented boy, whose life he manages to change.

There was, of course, live music as well, as the festival ended on a high note with the outstanding Teresa Cristina performing songs by one of Brazil’s best known samba composers, the late Cartola.

 Singer Teresa Cristina performed at the festival.

(Watch this space for full reviews of some of the films shown during the festival.)

Monday, 21 March 2016


Despite the unprecedented security measures and the talk of doom and gloom in the publishing industry, the 2016 Paris Book Fair attracted thousands of readers of all ages who attended a bonanza of events featuring some 3,000 writers from around the world.

Korean writers discuss their work.
More than 40 countries were represented at the four-day event (March 17-20), with about 1,200 publishers displaying a huge variety of books, on subjects ranging from historical fiction to cuisine. The guest of honour this year was South Korea, as France and the Asian country celebrate 130 years of diplomatic relations.

Rebranded Livre Paris (from the former Salon du Livre), the fair welcomed 30 Korean writers who included novelists, poets, essayists and manga creators – presenting their work and discussing current literary themes in their region.

Livre Paris equally highlighted the literature and authors of two Congolese cities, Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, and turned the spotlight as well on the northern Algerian town Constantine, which has long been a symbol of culture and the base of many writers, according to the fair’s organisers.

Words and music at Livre Paris.
One of the most “animated” pavilions during the four days was that of the Congo Basin, where African music was an integral feature of the various literary events that saw authors launching new works and debating issues such as the relationship between art and literature. 

The 22 participating writers there included the outspoken Alain Mabanckou, a French-Congolese author who often writes about the African Diaspora in France and was a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. In a public lecture that coincided with the opening of the fair, he said that writers of his generation were determined to reject efforts to "compartmentalize" them.

Entertainers also linked music to words at the French Overseas Territory pavilion, where the promotion of children’s books and young authors was a notable aspect among the various activities.

Writer Alexandre Tellim
Alexandre Tellim, a Paris-based writer from Martinique, said the fair strengthened his belief that books do have a viable future, in spite of statistics showing that fewer people are reading.

“When you see so many parents bringing their children and giving them a love of books, it makes you feel encouraged,” he told SWAN. “The children are attentive and interested in what writers have to say, and they take something away from the fair which they’ll carry with them for a long time.”

Author of the Trempage Kréyol trilogy set in Martinique, Tellim added that through literature readers can “travel around the world without getting on a plane”.

Such feelings of optimism contrasted with some of the expressions of concern, however, as publishers pondered the future of the book in Europe and criticised what they reffered to as Amazon's "monopoly".

"They want to control everything, not leaving anything for anyone else," a French publisher charged, speaking of the U.S. giant.

The fact that visitors had to run a gamut of security measures to enter the fair (as Paris is still on high alert following the deadly November 13 attacks) could have dampened the mood, but it seemed not to affect book-lovers’ enthusiasm, as people overcame fears to express support for writers, literature, free expression and culture. 

“I’ve been coming to the fair every year for a long time now,” said Marie, a Parisian who had just bought several books. “C’est un moment magnifique pour moi (it’s a great event for me), and I plan to keep attending and discovering new writers.”

Tuesday, 1 March 2016


The American writer and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has won the $25,000 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

Toni Morrison
(photo: T. Greenfield-Sanders)
The prize, awarded by PEN America, was announced on March 1 as part of the organization’s 2016 Literary Awards, which span fiction, drama, sports writing, biography, translation, poetry, and other genres, and amount to more than $200,000.

“The works of Chloe Anthony Wofford, better known as Toni Morrison, have changed the landscape of American fiction,” said the judges in their citation. “Revelatory, intelligent, bold, her fiction is invested in the black experience, in black lives, and in black consciousness, material from which she has forged a singular American aesthetic. Toni Morrison not only opened doors to others when she began to publish, she has also stayed grounded in the issues of her time.”

Morrison, 85 years old, is the author of internationally acclaimed books such The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved.

Meanwhile, Lisa Ko won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an award founded by writer Barbara Kingsolver and worth $25,000 as well. This prize is given to an author of an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice, and it includes a publishing contract with Algonquin Books.

One of Morrison's books.
PEN America said that all award recipients will be honored at the 2016 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony which will be held April 11 at The New School in New York City.

Besides the awards for literary translation, sports writing, drama and poetry - also announced today - other prizes include the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, PEN Open Book Award, and the PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers Prize, the organization said.

PEN works to advance literature and to defend free expression. For more information,see: http://www.pen.org.

Thursday, 25 February 2016


Its goal was to bring together leading intellectuals and artists from Africa and the diaspora, and, 50 years ago, the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres (World Festival of Negro Arts, or FESMAN) did exactly that.

Leopold Senghor, centre, at the start of the festival.
(Photo: from Jean Mazel. Collection PANAFEST archive)
Played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, with the United States and the former Soviet Union jockeying for influence in Africa, the three-week-long festival took place in Dakar, Senegal, in April 1966, initiated by then President Léopold Sédar Senghor.

It included some world-renowned headliners: writers Wole Soyinka, Aimé Césaire and Langston Hughes; musician Duke Ellington; dancers from the Alvin Ailey troupe; iconic singer and activist Josephine Baker; calypso star Mighty Sparrow – and many others, representing some 45 countries.

The festival showed the world the wealth of African art and culture, and people got a clear taste of the rivalry between the superpowers of the era, as Russia sent a steamship to Dakar with about 750 passengers who participated in a festival that was attended by a large American delegation, underwritten by the U.S. State Department.

That back story, and the history and impact of the festival are now being highlighted in an exhibition that runs until May 15, 2016, at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The show, titled "Dakar 66: Chronicles of a Pan-African Festival", presents film archives, posters, magazine articles and photographs, and it captures the ambience of the event and the times.

Dominique Malaquais (photo: McKenzie)
“We didn’t want to do simply a restaging of the festival,” says Dominique Malaquais, who co-curated the show with other historians Cédric Vincent and Sarah Frioux-Salgas. “How could you stage something that had all this extraordinary dance, music, poetry and colloquia? We didn’t want to do something static, we wanted to present something with movement and flux and people.”

The three experts had worked respectively on projects dealing with four of the major pan-African festivals to date, and on the role of Présence Africaine, the famed journal that began in 1947 in Paris and whose publishers helped to organize the Dakar festival. So they came up with the idea to focus on film, interviews and publications, with “specific entry points”, Malaquais said.

The exhibition begins with the official representations of the festival – such as the striking poster created by Senegalese artist Ibou Diouf, which later caused controversy because it was seen as an emblem of the Negritude movement – and it moves to videos of the speeches given by Senghor, Césaire and also André Malraux, the celebrated French writer and France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs.

An article about the festival, in a U.S. magazine.
Visitors can watch these speeches in their entirety on screens installed at the exhibition, and they can view two full-length films about the festival, one in black and white made by African-American pioneering director William Greaves, and the other in colour produced by Soviet filmmaker Leonid Makhnach and titled Rhythms of Africa.

“What happened was that USIA, the United States Information Agency – one of the diplomatic arms of the US government – in a very specific Cold-War bid to present abroad a positive image of the United States that would counter Soviet propaganda, commissioned this [Greaves' film],” Malaquais told SWAN.

“These films were never shown in the United States, they were only shown abroad, and this film was made to do something very particular from the USIA’s point of view, not Greaves’ point of view,” she continued. “The idea was to show a picture of the United States as open to the voices of the African American minority, which of course in 1966 – no comment, right?

A journalist watches the Greaves film.
“What happens, however, is that Greaves is asked to make a 10-minute film, and he just runs with it, and he makes a feature-length documentary, and it’s all centred on the African-American delegation that comes to the festival. Later on, he’s going to come back and say: you know, this was my one and only chance because I’d never received funding before to make a film from a black point of view – I’m quoting him there. And so he took and completely turned on its head what USIA felt it was doing,” Malaquais said.

Each film has its own ideological perspective as Russia was keen to highlight the United States’ history of slavery and its continued oppression of its black population, according to the curators. Carefully sub-titled in French, the Soviet film is being shown for the first time in France, and viewers can watch both presentations and draw their own conclusions.

A shot from the Soviet-made film.
The exhibition examines, as well, the significant world events taking place around the time of the festival: notably the coup d’état in Ghana against Kwame Nkrumah, one of the founders of pan-African politics; student demonstrations in Dakar; the birth of the Black Panther movement in the United States; and Cuba's hosting of the 1966 Tri-continental Conference of African, Asian and Latin American Peoples, a meeting of mainly leftist leaders and thinkers. 

“You can see the ways in which the festival was implicated in larger global and Cold-War issues,” said Malaquais. “People tend to think of these great pan-African festivals as something localised, and they weren’t. They were worldwide events with international repercussions. And that’s what we wanted to express with this exhibition.”

Museum-goers can see illustrations, too, of the huge colloquium held at Senegal’s parliament house, on the “Function and Significance of Black Arts in the Lives of the People and for the People”. This attracted hundreds of observers and international experts from the worlds of literature, art, film, music and other fields, under the auspices of UNESCO.

Malaquais and Marie Laure Croiziers de Lacvivier,
Senghor's niece, with two visitors at the exhibition.
(Photo: McKenzie)
While some would prefer to consider the festival as a purely artistic initiative, the exhibition equally looks at the commercial aspects, which included the promotion of Senegal as a tourist destination, and the distinct merchandising of products such as postcards, souvenirs and other objects. Members of the public donated some of the 50-year-old items, while the curators bought others on e-bay or obtained them from friends and supporters.

“It’s a real mix,” Malaquais said. “We have an example of a medal that was given out at the festival, and there are key-chains that were publicity items, for instance. And there are advertising brochures for Air France and for the Russian steamship.”

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the slideshow of blown-up photographs, made available to the curators by a private collector named Jean Mazel and by a photographer who travelled to the festival as a young man. These pictures bring home the fierce motivation of the leading characters of the festival, many of whom today remain larger than life. –  A.M. Copyright SWAN. Follow us on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 11 February 2016


Two years after the death of influential theorist Stuart Hall, scholars will meet at a university in Dortmund, Germany, to examine his legacy, in a world where the cultural and media landscape has changed tremendously over the past decade.

Stuart Hall (photo: E. McCabe)
The conference, titled “Wrestling with the Angels: Exploring Stuart Hall’s Theoretical Legacy”, is being hosted by the Technische Universität (TU) from Feb. 25 to 27.
Participants  will “engage with, examine, use, question, criticise, develop and transform Hall's many concepts and ideas”, according to the organizers - professors Gerold Sedlmayr, Florian Cord, and Marie Hologa.
Hall was one of the founding thinkers of “cultural studies”, an inter-disciplinary field that focuses on the political dynamics of contemporary culture, and on how power-relations play out between producers and consumers.
Scholars generally focus on analyzing the social and political contexts of culture, and, in this, Hall was primarily concerned with the impact on both individuals and communities, vis-à-vis society’s structure. But some current theorists are moving away from the “power and political” aspects, Prof. Cord said.
Prof. Florian Cord
“We still feel a belief in the relevance of Hall’s work, but has the field nowadays become too de-politicized? That’s something we’d like to examine,” he told SWAN.
As a long-time director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall wielded major influence both within academic circles and in wider public discussions of politics, race and media.
Born into a so called middle-class family in Jamaica in 1932, he went to England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951 to study at Oxford University. He continued on a PhD route (which he later abandoned), became a central figure of the British New Left, and co-founded the journal New Left Review.
For Hall, “intellectual practice was politics, and questions of culture were political questions,” say the meeting’s conveners. The conference’s title is in fact inspired by Hall’s own stated view that theoretical work meant “wrestling with the angels” and that the only theory worth having was one for which you had to fight and with which you had to struggle.
Author Caryl Phillips (photo: Daria Tunca)
British-Caribbean author Caryl Phillips has described Hall as a “sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist” and said that the theorist’s achievements were an extension of the work of a man Hall greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.
Outside of the academic world, Hall developed into “Britain’s most insightful media critic on matters as wide-ranging as film, literature, race migration and class”, Phillips wrote in an article.
He considered Hall to be unique in his ability to “move between the worlds of the academy and the popular media with both elegance and authority”, he added.
“One day he is on television interviewing Spike Lee, or presenting a documentary about Derek Walcott, the next day he is delivering a guest lecture on [Italian theoretician Antonio] Gramsci’s political thoughts to a university audience, and the day after that writing a paper on the role of the modern black photographer in British society to be read at a gallery opening,” Phillips wrote in 1997, in the introduction to an interview with Hall.
It is this multi-faceted nature that makes Hall’s work so engrossing, according to professors Cord and Sedlmayr.  But his achievements and personality could be overshadowing his ideas.
Prof. Gerold Sedlmayr
“Hall is still very relevant - he is mentioned in almost every paper about cultural studies,” Sedlmayr told SWAN. “But there’s often no deeper engagement. He seems to be canonized, yet no one deals with his ideas anymore.”
The conference will not only address this anomaly, but some participants will offer theories on how Hall would have viewed the rampant development of social media, or the current political language in Europe, where governments are struggling to develop a coherent and humane response to the refugee crisis.
One scholar - Nina Power of London’s Roehampton University - will look particularly at “why the 21st century needs Stuart Hall”.  - A.M.
For more information, see: www.stuarthall-dortmund.de.You can follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale