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: www.RiversideArtMuseum.org.

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: http://www.international-press-syndicate.org/index.php/arts-culture

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: http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/dossiers-pays/ameriques/evenements/article/semaine-de-l-amerique-latine-et-des-caraibes-24-05-05-06-16

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 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

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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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