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 takes place “in the context of” 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

Saturday, 10 January 2015

UNESCO TO HOLD CONFERENCE ON MEDIA FREEDOM

Following the attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed, the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO says it will host a conference at its headquarters in Paris next week dedicated to “the Right to Freedom of Expression”.

The cover of a 2013 book by Cartooning
for Peace and Reporters Without Borders
to highlight threats to  press freedom.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova will open the event, which has been organised “in solidarity with France and with the media worldwide” and which is also aimed at “demonstrating UNESCO’s mandate and commitment to freedom of expression and press freedom," the agency said.

Among those invited to participate are French and international media, representatives from UNESCO’s member states, opinion-makers and journalism schools. Well-known French cartoonist Plantu has agreed to participate and will speak alongside Bokova.

Plantu and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan are the founders of Cartooning for Peace, an organisation created in 2006 to promote dialogue, in the wake of the demonstrations and violent protests sparked by controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

He and many other cartoonists have strongly condemned the attacks of last Wednesday, when two hooded armed men entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting and opened fire, killing 9 media workers, a visitor and two policemen.

The perpetrators were in turn killed by police on Friday, after a massive manhunt in the French capital, where related assaults took place Thursday and Friday. In these other acts of violence, a gunman killed a young female police officer and later held shoppers hostage in a supermarket siege, where he reportedly murdered four people before he was killed by the security forces. 

Drawing for peace ... a cartoon by Plantu.
Bokova said that the “unprecedented and horrifying attack” on Charlie Hebdo was a “tragic reminder” to everyone that the right to freedom of expression is “fragile”, and that those who defend it may pay the ultimate price.

She referred to the sharp criticism that the magazine’s cartoonists had received when their work provoked and offended various communities, but she said the journalists had stayed “passionate in their conviction that freedom of expression must be defended against all odds”.

Bokova added that she was encouraged by the international reactions of solidarity. “The spontaneous demonstrations that this appalling crime has provoked across France and around the world - the outpouring of sorrow and anger expressed by citizens from all faiths - also reveal that freedom of expression is a right that is cherished, and understood by all as being at the heart of healthy, functioning societies,” she said.

UNESCO is the UN organisation with a mandate to promote freedom of expression as well as media freedom, and to promote and enhance the safety of journalists. Over the past decade, 700 journalists have been killed, and the protection of media workers will be one of the issues discussed at next week’s conference. The responsibilities that go with freedom of expression will also be on the agenda. 

UPDATE. To read an in-depth article on the discussions at this conference, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/press-looks-at-future-after-charlie/

Monday, 5 January 2015

FEEDING THE SPIRIT: EXPO HIGHLIGHTS ART OF EATING

The “Art of Eating - Rites and Traditions” is the latest exhibition at the Dapper Museum, a cultural space in Paris, France, that focuses on Africa, the Caribbean and "their diaspora".

Running until July 2015, the show takes viewers on a journey through the traditions as well as daily actions that govern the preparation and consumption of food, providing a contrast to the “sameness” of the global fast-food industry. 

One can observe the links between specific objects, food preparation and the offerings made to “ancestors, deities and spirits”, for instance.  These objects are made from an array of materials and come in different and fascinating forms, attesting to rich traditions and rituals. 

For more information, go to: http://www.dapper.fr/en/

Friday, 19 December 2014

REVIEW: A FEW GOOD BOOKS TO TAKE US FORWARD

This year has seen a bonanza of worthy books, covering various genres. But while best-book lists in many newspapers have focused on fiction, we’d also like to highlight some of the critical work produced by scholars in 2014. Here we select a short list of books that we hope will be widely read in the coming months. We’ve found them to be incisive, superbly written, and extremely thought-provoking.

From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life, ed. by C. Oberon Garcia, V. Ashanti Young and C. Pimentel

This collection of essays is a timely examination of “racial ventriloquism” in the United States - that is “when white authors appropriate the history and stories of black life”.

Edited by Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charlise Pimentel, the book looks at how “white-authored narratives are consistently used to structure perceptions of American race relations”, infiltrating our consciousness and perpetuating the current hegemonic power.

The editors state that despite the success of contemporary American writers such as Toni Morrison, “the most influential and widely disseminated narratives of black life are created by white people through the institutions and discourses dominated by white money, decision-making, and interests”.

Focusing particularly on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, and the film it spawned, the book discusses the critical controversies around these works and investigates the divided opinions about them in the Black community itself: from Oprah Winfrey’s embracing of the story to writer Touré’s slamming the film as “the most loathsome movie” in America.

The Help links us to questions that are not only literary or cinematic but also deeply social and political,” say Oberon and colleagues. Among these questions is: why does Hollywood constantly reward black actors and actresses “for playing subservient, violent, or hypersexual roles often created by whites”?

With the current racial crisis playing out in the United States, following the high-profile killings by police of African-American men and youngsters, these issues are more pertinent than ever. As the editors assert, “stories … create our realities”, and if we don’t question and challenge the sources of these stories, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

Claire Oberon Garcia
Oberon Garcia, a professor of American literature and a race and ethnic studies scholar, particularly wishes to “encourage readers, students, and teachers to be more aware of how works such as these perpetuate the racism that so many of us are committed to eradicating”.

The editors realize that some people will disagree with their views and pose the question: “doesn’t every artist, writer, producer, or director have the right to tell stories as he or she sees fit?” The answer to that would be “yes”, of course, in a world where equality is the norm. 

But sympathy and empathy are not the same as painful experience, and “racial ventriloquism” may be fundamentally doing more harm than good. Anyone who has doubts about this can skip directly to Chapter 4: “Taking Care a White Babies, That’s What I Do – The Help and Americans’ Obsession with the Mammy”, written by Katrina Dyonne Thompson.

Thompson was a doctoral student, sitting frequently in a café “armed with stacks of books” and her laptop, when one day “an older white gentleman” approached her and asked, “Are you here to interview for a nanny job?” As she says, she felt “the burden of hundreds of years of stereotypes in this one exchange”. Thompson’s essay goes on to illustrate how Stockett’s novel feeds these stereotypes. Like the other essays in the book, it may make some readers reconsider their take on the whole “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” genre.

But the editors aren’t necessarily recommending that these narratives not be written or read; what they are calling for is context. “Racial ventriloquism” should be given its appropriate framework, and should be taught alongside books by African American writers, in a comparative and critical space. The message here is that white-authored stories should not provide the prevailing and accepted view of black lives.

The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory

Shalini Puri’s elegantly written book comes 31 years after the United States’ invasion of Grenada and is the first scholarly work from the humanities on the subject of both the Grenada Revolution and the US “intervention”, according to the publishers. The author herself describes the book as “simultaneously a critique, tribute, and memorial”, and it fills all those roles in excellent fashion.

Puri, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, argues that the 1979-1983 revolution was a transnational event that had a great impact on the politics and culture across the Caribbean and on the region’s Diaspora, both during its short span and in the three decades since its fall. Her research includes interviews, landscape studies, literature, visual art, music, film, and newspaper accounts to give a gripping description and analysis of the revolution and its effects.

Her main premise is that the region has been participating in a kind of collective silence about the revolution, hence her subtitle “Operation Urgent Memory”, a play on the name of the American offensive - Operation Urgent Fury. “The degree to which Grenadian memories are silenced is especially striking in comparison to the loudness of pro-US narratives,” she writes, adding that on the Internet, “data on the US invasion, which lasted barely a week, far outweigh those on the Grenada Revolution, which lasted four and a half years”.

Puri makes it clear from the outset that this is not a history book, but a “meditation on memory, on its frailty and its survival, on the unexpected sites and manner of its surfacing”. As such, the book can be considered a literary work, fused with criticism and journalism. It even has photographs – some snapped by Puri and others taken from archives or provided by Grenadian sources.

Shalini Puri
Readers will gain new insights into the momentous events on the Caribbean island, from the overthrow of Prime Minister Eric Gairy in 1979 to the invasion by the United States in 1983.  Puri delves into the charismatic personalities of revolutionary leaders such as Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard and recounts the tragedy of Bishop’s execution in October 1983, before the age of 40. She provides compelling answers to the question of: what is the significance of a revolution on a tiny island measuring 310 square kilometres, smaller than many US cities?

As she points out, the Grenada Revolution was the “first socialist-oriented revolution in the Anglophone Caribbean; the assassination of Maurice Bishop was the first assassination of a head of state in the Anglophone Caribbean; it was the first time the United States invaded the Anglophone Caribbean.” Even now, the events still generate political debate in the region and there is disagreement about the revolution’s legacy.

Puri also examines the long-held silence of some of the participants, including noted writers, but what is most striking about the book is the compassionate tone throughout. It’s as if the author is herself moved by the story she is telling, and touched by the cast of unforgettable characters.

Stylistic Approaches to Nigerian Fiction, by Daria Tunca

One doesn’t have to know anything about the field of “stylistics” (analysing and interpreting texts through an examination of language) to appreciate Daria Tunca’s enlightening work on Nigerian literature. The Belgium-based researcher, who teaches in the English Department of the University of Liège, asserts that the “analysis of style in Nigerian fiction needs to be broadened to account for the range of linguistic techniques deployed by contemporary writers”.

In a clear and engaging manner, Tunca addresses issues such as the links between style and characterization and between aesthetics and ideology. She also casts light on the use of language and folklore in selected texts but goes beyond studies of the writers’ mother tongues to explore form and content.

In all of this, the figure that looms large is that of Chinua Achebe, the late “grandfather” of “African” literature. “Ultimately, beyond all criteria of differentiation, second- and third-generation writers have at least one major thing in common: everyone, from Nigerian academics to American radio hosts, obsessively compares them to their illustrious compatriot, Chinua Achebe,” Tunca writes.

Achebe played a defining role in the debate on language, and Tunca’s book addresses his influence and that of others including Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Among the issues: to choose or not to choose English as the means of expression?

For those who are fans of the current generation of celebrated Nigerian writers - Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others - this books provides accompaniment to the reading of their work. One will learn the names for an array of concepts and techniques used by these authors, such as “underlexicalization”: which is “withholding the usual term for something that is being described”.

Tunca says that every magician (or writer) has a trick. To discover it, “onlookers must not simply allow themselves to be dazzled, but rather observe and analyse – meticulously, systematically, and with appropriate technique. This is the aim of stylistics.” Of course, one can choose to be dazzled without any deeper observation, but then one would miss out on stimulating books such as Tunca’s.

(The three books above were published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

FICTION – THE SHORT AND LONG OF IT

It’s sometimes difficult to cut through the hype surrounding works of fiction, especially with everyone and his grandma now using social media to push their publications. The promotional screams can be deafening, but every now and then, amid the noise, the sweet calls of beguiling stories break through. That may sound a bit over the top, but it reflects the thrill of discovering truly memorable books, two of which are described below.

Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go, by Sharon Leach

Sharon’s Leach’s stories are mesmerising, to put it in one word. The range of characters created by this Jamaican author and journalist stays in one’s head after one has finished the book, with bits of conversation or description recurring. From a particularly poignant story, “Lapdance”, comes this, for instance: “I’m here because I love lapdances. They’re my poison. Chillin’ in the champagne room, son. I figure people would say I’m addicted to them. That’s a hell of a thing to get addicted to.”

Leach’s protagonists are “people struggling for their place in the world, always anxious that their hold on security is precarious,” according to the blurb, but they’re more than that. They’re the products of an inventive imagination that gets to the soul of things, without sentimentality or judgment. They’re people with secrets, with heavy pasts and, in some cases, without a future.

Underpinning the skilful, fast-paced writing is a sly sense of humour, as Leach highlights the absurdities of various sexual situations. Whether readers are meant to take at face value certain improbable acts is a question that will linger, but this doesn’t necessarily detract from the strength of the collection. It makes it somehow more unforgettable. (Peepal Tree Press)

Ryad Assani-Razaki and La main d’Iman (The Imam’s Hand)

Ryad Assani-Razaki
With his air of quiet assurance, Ryad Assani-Razaki just looks like a good writer, and his first novel bears out the initial impression.

Published in Canada in 2011, and in France a year later, La main d’Iman is a story of people caught up in a web of inequality in an African country, where the main characters include children sold by their parents into domestic servitude.

The book is told from several points of view, and pulls one in from the first few lines because of the beauty and sophistication of the writing. The author’s particular talent is in describing the unspeakable, not in crude terms, but in poetic prose - much like Toni Morrison, whom he cites as an influence.

We spoke with Assani-Razaki this year in Paris, when he attended the biannual Festival America literary event. We wanted to know more about this talented writer, who was born in Benin in 1981 and currently resides in Montreal, Canada, after studying in the United States.

SWAN: What was the inspiration for La main d'Iman?
A-R: Following a long period away from my home country, I eventually returned to Benin when I could afford the trip. Upon my arrival, one of my most puzzling impressions was the feeling people gave me that they all wanted to depart. At every level of society, the eagerness seemed the same. The question of why it was so important for people to leave was my inspiration. Some people are ready to go to the furthest extremes, to achieve that goal, even risking their lives. That was puzzling to me.

SWAN: Who are your influences?
A-R: My influences are multiple. Having been educated in two languages, my influences are both French and English. But in any case, I always favor authors and works that focus on character development. My French influences would be such as Annie Ernaux for her treatment of language, Nathalie Sarraute for her thinking. The English-speaking writers that most influenced me are Toni Morrison for her courage to tackle the most disturbing themes, Jumpha Lahiri for the beauty of her words. I have also read Anchee Min, hanan al-shaykh, V.S. Naipaul. I like to travel with literature

SWAN: Do you think that francophone writers from Africa get the same attention as their English-speaking counterparts?
A-R: I think francophone writers from Africa get a lot of attention in the Francophone community. However, to cross over to the English-speaking word with translations is a bit of a challenge.

SWAN: Do you also write in English?
A-R: I do write in English.

SWAN: As someone who left his home country, is identity an issue as a writer?
A-R: I think identity is the central issue for every human being on the planet, whether they are writers or not, and even for those who haven't travelled. We spend our lives, constantly redefining ourselves. Which is why a book such as La main d'Iman that deals with the theme of improving one’s condition as a human being can resonate with anybody, regardless of their life experiences.

La Main d'Iman won the Prix Robert-Cliche, a Canadian award for first novels.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

HAITI CELEBRATES ITS ART WITH PARIS MEGA EXHIBITION

Paintings in Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation (Photo: McKenzie)

Nearly five years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a wide-ranging exhibition of the country’s contemporary art began Wednesday in Paris, a testament to survival and a bold move to shatter misconceptions about Haitian culture.

Going far beyond stereotypes of naïve painting, the show aims to “transcend the magico-religious and exotic vision too often simplistically associated with Haitian art”, according to the curators.

A visitor views work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
(Photo: McKenzie)
“We didn’t want to repeat what has been done before, so this really is contemporary work with a glance to the past, or a dialogue between the past and the present,” said Mireille Pérodin Jérôme, director of a museum in Port-au-Prince and co-curator of the exhibition with Régine Cuzin, who heads a France-based artistic events company.

“The works include all styles, and the artists were chosen for the force of their expressions,” Pérodin Jérôme told SWAN. “The impact of the earthquake is of course present, with some of the artists addressing issues of continued poverty, of people still living in precarious conditions.”

The exhibition, titled Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation, will run for three months at the landmark Grand Palais national galleries. It’s already generating a buzz in the French capital, especially because of the range of the 56 artists represented and the level of the 160-plus works displayed.

Jean-Ulrick Désert stands before his artwork.
Alongside creations by celebrated figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hervé Télémaque and Robert Saint-Brice, one can find striking works by acclaimed “contemporary artists of all generations”, living in Haiti and abroad.

The Berlin-based architect-artist Jean-Ulrick Désert has two pieces in the show that immediately capture attention. His huge wall installation, labeled The Goddess ConstellationsSky Above Port-au-Prince 12 January 2010, 9:53 pm, is particularly poignant.

Rather than focusing on the physical destruction, Désert shows the constellations at the precise time of the catastrophe, evoking destiny, religion, astrology, power, powerlessness and the immense human toll. The artwork, measuring 300 x 300 cm, comprises hundreds of metal disks pinned into nine polystyrene panels covered in red velvet.

Each orb represents the exact location of the stars and planets at the time, and Désert said he worked from a satellite map to get it right. When one looks closer, one can also see that the pieces of metal are all embossed - with various images of the legendary American singer Josephine Baker, whom Désert considers a kind of goddess.

Jospehine Baker "in the stars",
“Because this exhibition is taking place in France, I wanted to have some Parisian gesture as well, because Josephine Baker is the perfect example of an icon in exile,” Désert told SWAN.

The piece pairs well with his floor installation, The Goddess Temple, which consists of carpeting, concrete, black and white velvet, glass, and Arabic text from the poem The Ruins (made famous in song by the Egyptian star Oum Kalsoum). Désert said this work was inspired by the façade of a house built for Baker.

The artist, who studied architecture in New York, is presented at the exhibition in “tête-à-tête” with Finland-based plasticien Sasha Huber, who also does installations. The show has three of these “face-to-face” or “dialogue” sections, in addition to areas devoted to untitled works, landscapes, spirits and chiefs.

Robert Saint-Brince "in dialogue" with Sébastien Jean
The other “tete-a-tete” segments feature Télémaque and Basquiat; and Saint-Brice and Sébastien Jean.

In the latter, one can view a painting by Saint-Brice that was almost destroyed by the earthquake. Titled Loas and painted around 1958, it was buried in the rubble for nearly two months and has now been restored by experts at the Smithsonian Institution.

The earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, also ruined numerous artworks; and while these can never be replaced, young Haitian artists are continuing the island’s cultural traditions, said Pérodin Jérôme.

Among the participants in the exhibition is 28-year-old rising star Manuel Mathieu, born in Port-au-Prince in 1986, educated in Montreal and now working and studying in London.

Artist Manuel Mathieu
Mathieu uses different elements for his art, including photography, installation and video; but he’s showing two arresting semi-abstract paintings in the Paris show, with mixed media on canvas.

Mathieu told SWAN that taking part in the exhibition was like “having a big party with your friends”, since some of his colleagues and mentors, like the installation and performance artist Mario Benjamin, were also involved.

“I’m happy to be here and to show to everyone that we have a diverse and complex culture in Haiti,” Mathieu said. “Trying to put nearly sixty artists together is a journey in itself.”

The exhibition took nearly three years to bring to fruition, and it may also be regarded as a journey beyond the earthquake. Several of the artists described the profound impact the disaster has had on their work, and according to one, Vladimir Cybil Charlier, some found it near impossible to produce anything afterwards.

Charlier, who was born in New York but who attended schools in Haiti, told SWAN that the earthquake “razed” her childhood in Port-au-Prince.

Vladimir Cybil Charlier and her response to Preacher Pat.
“It’s like it never existed, except in my imagination,” she said, adding that even “airport art”, or pieces sold to tourists, became “grimmer” after 2010.

In her work, Charlier plays with the idea of looking through several windows at the same time, using collage, ink, paper, wood and pencil to create distinctive pieces that gradually reveal layers of narrative to the viewer.

Her two pieces at the exhibition are from her Postcard to Preacher Pat series, a riposte to American televangelist Pat Robertson who preached that the earthquake was a consequence of Haiti being “cursed” because its people “swore a pact to the devil”.

Pointing to Robertson’s ignorance and shameful posturing, Charlier said her artwork is also a critique of the missionaries who flooded Haiti after the earthquake, many without any understanding of the country’s culture.

Her collages are among the political pieces in the exhibition, which will also teach spectators much about the nation’s history. Through art, visitors will gain further insight into Haiti’s slave revolution and its battle with France to become the first independent country in the Caribbean and Latin America.

They will also get to understand that Hati’s luminous art is the real “magic potion”, as famed writer Maryse Condé has said. - A.M.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

AFRICAN WOMAN TAKES ON THE WARLORDS WITH BEATS

Sia’s Tolno’s infectious laugh and relaxed “vibe” do not immediately convey the message that this Guinean artist is a fighter. But once you hear her story and listen to her music, you realize that Tolno is on a serious mission to change attitudes - towards war, gender and parenting, just to name a few issues.

Her latest album African Woman, with the single Rebel Leader, is a blistering critique of those who ravage and destroy countries with incomprehensible wars and of leaders who do nothing for their populations.

Set to Afrobeat music, the lyrics of Rebel Leader are addressed to warlords in general, and to Liberia's Charles Taylor in particular.

“Mr. Rebel Leader, tell me who you fighting for, tell me why this massacre,” Tolno sings with palpable anger and urgency. “How do you feel inside when you see children die?”

The 39-year-old singer says she has no interest in being a heroine, but she wants to use her music to bring about change.

“I know what it means to be a refugee in other people’s countries because of war,” Tolno told SWAN in an interview in Paris, where she now lives. “And I wonder about the mentality of people who create war, beating people who are already down. So when I’m alone, this is what I write about. I decided to use this album to speak about these things.”

Sia Tolno in Paris
Tolno’s empathy and drive owe something to her own rough childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she lived with her father who had relocated from Guinea to work as a teacher.

Her father used corporal punishment as a constant form of discipline, she says, and she can still remember being hit just because she had been seen walking home with a friend after school.

“He thought that beating was for a child’s own good,” she says. “Some parents don’t know the long-term repercussions that this can have. But I have to say that he was always there, and made sure I went to school, but he was not a mother.”

Her mother lived in Sierra Leone as well, but Tolno had little contact with her. Along with the feeling of isolation within her own family, Tolno suffered from the conflicts created by warlords fighting over the region’s “blood diamonds”, and she took refuge in writing and poetry.

“There are so many people who manipulate us because of our poverty, and nobody is there to help us,” she recalls of those days.

When she was 20 years old, and wondering whether to study drama or information technology, Charles Taylor’s forces once more plunged Liberia and the region into bloody warfare, and Tolno had to flee to Guinea, although she hardly knew the members of her family there.

“I can see nothing good about war, nothing,” she says. “It’s like a disease. What can you do if you’re not sure you’ll still be alive at the end of the day?”

Music was a means out.
Photo by N. Lawson-Daku / Lusafrica
Music provided a way out of the feeling of desolation, and in the mid-Nineties Tolno began performing at a club called “Copains d’abord”, operated by a Lebanese businessman named Mustapha, who she says was kind and helpful to the people working for him.

As a member of the conservative, “forest-based” Kissi ethnic group, Tolno could not draw on any griot troubadour tradition, and she says her family found it unimaginable that she had decided to be a singer.

But her powerful voice and her choice of material - popular songs by Western singers such as Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Whitney Houston - soon won her many fans.

She represented Guinea in the first series of the “Africa Star” music show held in Gabon in 2008 and particularly impressed two of the judges: Gabonese musician and composer Pierre Akendengue and record producer Jose Da Silva (the CEO of the Paris-based Lusafrica label and the person who first recorded the late great Cesaria Evora).

Although Tolno didn’t win, Da Silva invited her to join his label, and her first international album Eh Sanga was released in 2009. That was the year more civil unrest broke out in Guinea, with security forces opening fire on a crowd and sexually assaulting women in the streets.

Pierre Akendengue, a mentor.
Living in countries where such atrocities have occurred has had an impact on Tolno’s writing and singing. She has now set her powerful voice and lyrics to Afrobeat, the rough and angry fusion of Ghanaian-Nigerian funk, jazz and highlife made popular by music legend Fela Kuti.

African Woman, her third international release, comes with notable contributions from Tony Allen, who was Fela’s drummer and artistic director for more than 10 years until they had a political falling out. But here there’s a difference: while the music is still “angry” and explosive, Tolno’s songs take aim at machismo, gender inequality, Africa’s inadequate children’s rights and the culture of warmongering.

African Woman also condemns female genital mutilation (in Kekeleh) and the treatment of migrants (Yaguine et Fodé). The latter song is perhaps the most moving on the album, as it focuses on the tragic story of two teenagers from Guinea, Yaguina Koïta and Fodé  Tounkara, who set out for a better life in Europe but who froze to death as stowaways in the undercarriage of a Belgian airliner in 1999.

Their bodies were discovered on the plane at Brussels International Airport after the aircraft had reportedly made at least three return flights between the Belgian capital and Conakry. If they had lived, the young men would have been 30 and 29 years old respectively in 2014.

Sia Tolno,
before a portrait of Cesaria.
“We have to do more for our young people who must cope with so much frustration,” she says. “You always hear that Africa is the richest continent in terms of resources, but what are the resources being used for?”

Despite such heartfelt words, there’s a small problem with the album: people may find themselves too busy dancing to the catchy rhythms to fully consider the urgent message. 

But one can only hope that at least some of Africa’s government leaders and warlords will hear the appeal from this African artist.


Watch the video of Rebel Leader here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUP2BHF__ao

Saturday, 1 November 2014

UNESCO LAUDS MANDELA'S LEGACY ON ITS ANNIVERSARY

With stirring tributes to the late Nelson Mandela, the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO launched celebrations on Oct. 31 to mark its 70th anniversary.

Nelson Mandela, "Papa Africa". Visual by J. Abinibi
The agency’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said that Mandela “embodied UNESCO’s ideals, our faith in human dignity, our belief in the ability of every woman and man to change society through tolerance and peace.”

The celebrations in Paris included a colloquium featuring the prickly Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, who examined Mandela’s legacy and his impact on the world, in a sometimes uncomfortable lecture.

Soyinka, himself a former prisoner of conscience and long-standing critic of oppression, said there might be various reasons behind the universal love of the South African icon - including the desire to feel adulation for a legend - but the main cause stems from the human need for freedom.

       Wole Soyinka. © McKenzie
“Mandela was the protagonist of a universal humanity,” the writer said, explaining that dialogue and reconciliation were not means of appeasement but higher goals toward peace and forgiveness, following human rights violations.

Haiti’s president Michel Martelly, the guest of honour at the ceremony, added his voice to the tributes, saying that the world needs another Mandela to “help us overcome extremism and fanaticism, before it’s too late”.

Mandela was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador during his lifetime, and was also awarded the agency’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991, along with Frederik de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa. Both men received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Irina Bokova. © McKenzie
According to Bokova, Mandela always supported UNESCO’s “values”. The agency was founded in 1945 and has grown from 20 member states to a current 195. Its mandate in the post-World War II period was to develop the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind" with a view to promoting lasting peace.

"Today the world faces new and steep challenges, and we need to respond with the same courage, the same audacity the same vision - because violence today is directed against schools, against cultural diversity, against freedom and human rights,” Bokova said.

The 70th anniversary celebrations will continue through 2015, as UNESCO reflects on its history, which has been one of ups and downs.

The United States withdrew from the organization between 1984 and 2003, for instance, and UNESCO recently faced a financial crisis when the US government withheld its dues after the agency’s member states decided to grant Palestine full membership in 2011.

Singer Sally Nyolo, backstage. © McKenzie
Bokova’s exhortation of “long live UNESCO” at the anniversary launch may have been a reference to such upheavals, but the evening was mostly about celebration, with the plethora of speeches interspersed with artistic performances.

The Mahotella Queens group from South Africa had the audience laughing and cheering to their skits, dances and songs. They were followed by singer Sally Nyolo of Cameroon, who brought soul and style to the stage, accompanied by two musicians and sand-art artist David Myriam.

Choreographer Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers later stomped in unison, recalling the tradition of black miners who used their feet to provide percussion as they sang. And the celebrated Guinean singer Mory Kanté performed his 1988 hit “Yé ké yé ké”, which made spectators and UNESCO officials get up and dance.

During his performance, Kante also paid tribute to Mandela, praising all that the freedom fighter and statesman did for Africa and the world.  

The public can learn more about Mandela’s life and work in an exhibition that runs until Dec. 31, 2014, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Titled Nelson Mandela, from Prisoner to President, the exhibition was curated by South Africa’s Apartheid Museum and has been shown in various countries. 

The Mohotella Queens. © McKenzie
Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers. © McKenzie