Saturday, 15 February 2020

AFRICAN FILMMAKERS UP FOR UNESCO-JAPAN RESIDENCY

Ten African filmmakers have been selected to participate in a new movie residency in one of the most historic regions of Japan, working with acclaimed Japanese director Naomi Kawase, under the auspices of UNESCO.

Kawase and Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations’ cultural agency), on Feb. 13 announced the names of the 10 winners for the inaugural UNESCO-Nara Residency for Young African Female Filmmakers, which will run from March 28 to April 12 in Nara Prefecture - a region renowned for having one of Imperial Japan’s first capital cities.

Audrey Azoulay (L) and Naomi Kawase (R) announce the
winners for the UNESCO-Nara Residency.
(Photo: UNESCO/C. Alix)
The chosen filmmakers are Mayowa Bakare and Uren Makut of Nigeria; Okule Dyosopu and Thishiwe Ziqubu of South Africa; Awa Gueye and Fama Reyanne Sow of Senegal; Joan Kiragu and Lydia Matata of Kenya; and Delphine Yerbanga and Floriane Zoundi of Burkina Faso - the country that hosts the biennial FESPACO film festival, Africa’s largest such event.

The announcement came in Paris as a meeting was taking place of the Intergovernmental Committee responsible for overseeing the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (a convention that Japan has not yet signed).

“We need to hear a plurality of voices,” Azoulay said. “It is important for the cinema industry to make the voice of Africa heard, to support the emergence of diverse cultural expressions, put forth new ideas and emotions, and make sure that women as creators contribute to a necessary global dialogue for peace, culture and development.”

Naomi Kawase (far right) calls for support for women
filmmakers. (Photo: UNESCO/C. Alix)
Kawase meanwhile stressed that it was essential to support women working in the film industry as female directors are often overlooked in the selection for festivals and awards. For instance, only one woman - Jane Campion of New Zealand - has won the Palme d’Or top prize at France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Kawase is among a small number of women directors who have received other prizes at Cannes. She won the Caméra d'Or newcomers’ award, for best new director, in 1997 with her first 35mm film, Suzaku, and the Grand Prix in 2007 for her fourth feature The Mourning Forest (Mogari no Mori).

Last year, Senegalese-French director Mati Diop became the first black woman to have a film in competition for the Palme d’Or, and her film Atlantics went on to win the Grand Prix, or the silver medal.

Recent events show that things are changing, Kawase said, but more needs to be done. “I’m convinced that working together, we can open a new door,” she said.

Naomi Kawase discusses the residency and plans
for future initiatives. (Photo: SWAN/McKenzie)
The ten filmmakers - selected from some 600 applicants - range in age from 21 to 35 and will be coached by Kawase and Senegalese female filmmaker Fatou Kandé Senghor, in the residency’s picturesque village of Tawara, Nara Prefecture. The project is supported by the Government of Japan and the Japan Foundation, UNESCO said.

“In a way, being a woman made it easier for me to look closely at my own environment,” Kawase told reporters at a UNESCO press conference. “Not being in the mainstream or the centre, women can make new discoveries. In my case, I will create things from sources within myself. I believe there is something universal in deep personal experience.”

She added that the environment of the residency was sure to have a “spiritual” effect on the filmmakers, as the forests and mountains of the location could be inspiring. She grew up in the region, and The Mourning Forest was filmed there.

The filmmakers will develop projects and participate in master classes, filming and debates, according to UNESCO. Residents will be invited to present their work at the next Nara International Film Festival (NIFF), taking place Sept. 18 to 22. Kawase founded this event in 2010, and it now attracts thousands of film fans. – SWAN

Follow SWAN's founder on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 9 February 2020

HOMAGE TO A ‘FEARLESSY INNOVATIVE’ CARIBBEAN POET

The passing of Barbadian poet and scholar Kamau Brathwaite will leave a profound void in the Caribbean, but the region is commemorating his literary legacy even as it mourns.

“He was a fearlessly innovative poet and certainly one of the earliest to be recognised internationally,” said Jamaican writer and educator Dr. Velma Pollard, following the announcement that Brathwaite had died in his homeland Feb. 4, aged 89.

Barbadian poet and scholar Kamau Brathwaite.
“He was constantly trying new things, new forms of expression,” Pollard told SWAN. “Perhaps his biggest legacy is his successful experimentation with poetic form. No other Caribbean poet has been so daring.”

That legacy will be highlighted in the coming weeks and during this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago, taking place May 1-3 in the capital Port of Spain.

It was revealed Feb. 5 that a few days before his death, Brathwaite had agreed to accept the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters, a prize presented annually by Bocas.

“Although the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award is not usually given posthumously, as it was offered and accepted by Professor Brathwaite shortly before he died, we will present the award as already planned at a ceremony in Barbados in March,” stated Bocas Lit Fest founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown.

“It now seems even more significant to honour him, and in this time of mourning it is a small consolation to know that news of the award brought Professor Brathwaite pleasure in his final days,” she added.

Like Nobel laureate Derek Walcott of St. Lucia, Brathwaite saw his influence spread globally as he explored Caribbean history, culture and the effects of colonialism.

From his youth in the Barbadian capital Bridgetown, his career took him to other islands, and to Africa and the United States. He worked as an education officer in Ghana and later taught in the history department at the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus in Jamaica, eventually becoming a professor of comparative literature at New York University.

His remarkable first collection of poems, Rights of Passage, was published in 1967 and formed the first volume of The Arrivants trilogy.

“In The Arrivants, he speaks of men ‘making / with their / rhythms some- / thing torn / and new’, and those words could be applied to him as a poet as well,” Pollard said.

“He was passionate about the links between Black people in Africa and the New World, and he uses sound to link them. Music is a strong component of, a sort of background to, much of his poetry,” she continued.

Other noted works include Third World Poems, Middle Passages, and Born to Slow Horses, among his prolific output.

As an activist-writer and scholar, Brathwaite co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement, bringing together an array of arts practitioners from across the region and elsewhere. He also launched the journal Savacou and published numerous essays on history, literature and other subjects.

He received many academic and literary honours during his lifetime, and merited even more accolades, according to his friends.

After gaining a scholarship to study history and English at Cambridge University, he later earned his Ph.D. at the University of Sussex in the 1960s and won Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships in the 1980s as well as the Order of Barbados - a national honour.

In 1994, he was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, known as the “American Nobel”, and in 2006 he won both the Griffin Poetry Prize (Canada’s richest poetry award) and the Gold Musgrave Medal for Literature from the Institute of Jamaica. He went on to receive Cuba’s Casa de las Americas Premio in 2011, and the 2018 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in the United States.

Beyond the Caribbean, Brathwaite is esteemed for the way he used his art to address “the largest problem of the postcolonial historical experience: the problem of rehabilitating the colonized mind and restoring it to its equilibrium,” as poetry editor Vijay Seshadri has written in the Paris Review, an international literary magazine.

“His solutions were radical and stunning, in both theory and practice,” Seshadri wrote. “Those of us who share that history, whether East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, American, are enormously indebted to him for the clear and steady way he confronted and clarified our understanding of ourselves.”

For others, Brathwaite’s personality will be missed as much as his work. According to writer and scholar Opal Palmer Adisa, a long-time friend of the poet, Braithwaite was “gentle, thoughtful and powerful” - a man who “loved words” and believed strongly in hope.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

SPIKE LEE NAMED PRESIDENT OF CANNES FILM FEST JURY

Renowned American director Spike Lee will serve as president of the jury at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, scheduled to take place May 12 - 23, organizers of the event have announced.

"Spike Lee's perspective is more valuable than ever,” the festival said in a statement. “Cannes is a natural homeland and a global sounding board for those who (re)awaken minds and question our stances and fixed ideas. Lee's flamboyant personality is sure to shake things up.”

The pioneering filmmaker, 62, responded that he was “honored to be the first person of the African diaspora (USA) to be named President of the Cannes Jury and of a main film festival”. He said he was “shocked, happy, surprised and proud all at the same time”.

Spike Lee (photo: N. Goode, courtesy Cannes Film Festival)
Lee has directed and acted in films such as She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and, more recently, BlacKkKlansman - which won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2018, when he returned to the festival after a 22-year absence.

‘To me the Cannes Film Festival (besides being the most important film festival in the world - no disrespect to anybody) has had a great impact on my film career,” Lee stated. “You could easily say Cannes changed the trajectory of who I became in world cinema.”

He recalled that his relationship with Cannes “started way back in 1986”, when She's Gotta Have It (his first feature film) won the Prix de la Jeunesse in the Director's Fortnight section of the festival. Three years later, Do the Right Thing was an Official Selection in the Competition category.

“I don't have the time nor space to write about the cinematic explosion that jumped off, still relative to this, 30 years later,” said Lee, who in 2018 delivered a furious, expletive-laden criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump at the festival, following the screening of BlacKkKlansman - the story of a real-life African American policeman who managed to infiltrate the local Klu Klux Klan in Colorado.

Spike Lee on the set of BlacKkKlansman (courtesy of
Cannes Film Festival).
“We have a guy in the White House … who in a defining moment … was given the chance to say we’re about love and not hate, and that (expletive deleted) did not denounce the Klan,” he told journalists then.

The festival’s directors Pierre Lescure, president, and Thierry Frémaux, general delegate, said Jan. 14 they were delighted to welcome “both the artist and the man”.

Lee, who is also a screenwriter, editor and producer, has long been popular in Europe and particularly in France, where he’s praised for bringing the “questions and contentious issues of the times to contemporary cinema”, as the festival puts it.

“He’s never lost sight of the public, setting out to raise their awareness of his causes in film after film,” the festival directors stated.

Alongside members of the Cannes Jury, to be announced mid-April, Lee will present the top Palme d'or prize at the close of the 2020 festival.

He will succeed Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose jury awarded the Palme d’or to Korean director Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, which also recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

Over the past years, the festival has sought to address criticism about its traditional lack of diversity, with regards to both filmmakers from the Global South and women directors. Last year, French actress and director Mati Diop became the first black woman filmmaker to be selected in the Competition category of the festival. Her film Atlantics subsequently won the Grand Prix. - SWAN


Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

JAMAICAN WRITER TO RECEIVE QUEEN’S POETRY MEDAL

Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison has been announced as the 2019 recipient of The Queen's Award for Poetry.

According to information from the British Royal Family’s official site, the Poetry Medal Committee recommended Goodison on the basis of her body of work.

Lorna Goodison at a conference. (Photo: McKenzie)
Goodison is currently Jamaica’s Poet Laureate, and during her 30-year career she has published 13 collections of poetry, as well as a selection of short stories.

The gold medal will be presented by the Queen in an audience at Buckingham Palace in 2020, the site said.

“As Jamaica’s current Poet Laureate, and through the many literary honours she has received, Lorna Goodison has come to be recognised as a hugely significant and influential contemporary author both at home and internationally,” read the award citation.

“Through poems rooted in her Caribbean heritage and upbringing she has created a body of enchanting, intelligent and socially aware poetry in the authentic registers of her own tongue,” it added.

The site quoted Goodison as saying of the award: “I am honoured and deeply grateful. As one of a generation of Commonwealth writers whose engagement with poetry began with a need to write ourselves and our people into English Literature, I feel blessed. And as a Jamaican poet who has always felt that my ancestors too are deserving of odes and praise songs, and who did not see them in what I was given to read, I am glad that I set out to write these poems.”

The Poetry Medal Committee is chaired by the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, who received The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for 2018.

The Gold Medal for Poetry was established by King George V in 1933 at the suggestion of the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield. It is awarded for excellence in poetry and the recipient chosen each year is from the UK or from a Commonwealth country.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

CABO VERDE’S MORNA FOR UNESCO LIST, AALST TO GO?

Morna, the haunting, traditional music of Cabo Verde, is slated to join UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List when a committee meets in Bogotá, Colombia, Dec. 9 to 14, to consider submissions from around the world.

One of Cesaria Evora's most famous albums (Lusafrica).
Made popular by singers such as the renowned Cesária Évora, who died in 2011, morna incorporates voice, music, poetry and dance, and it has fans far beyond the Portuguese-speaking island state where it originated.

Being added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (to give the list its full name) would promote recognition of morna’s value, according to the artistic agencies behind the submission.

Inscription would also raise awareness of the "fundamental" mark that morna has made in "contemporary history and Cabo Verdean cultural identity”, they add.

The musical practice is one of 41 elements up for consideration at the annual meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Composed of representatives of 24 states, the committee will vote on submissions including: date-palm knowledge, skills, traditions and practices in several Middle Eastern and North African countries; Byzantine chant of Cyprus, Greece; Ethiopian epiphany; Irish harping; and Kwagh-Hir theatrical performance of Nigeria - a cultural expression that “integrates puppetry, masquerading, poetry, music, dance” and other genres. 

Apart from voting on these elements, the committee is expected to take unprecedented action in removing Belgium’s Carnival of Aalst from the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, as the event has been criticised for racist depictions. 

During the March 2019 staging of the carnival, racist and anti-Semitic caricatures were displayed on some floats, according to human rights groups. Previously, as far back as 2013, UNESCO received complaints about the offensive nature of some aspects of the carnival, which was inscribed on the List in 2010.

“Since its inscription, the Aalst carnival has on several occasions displayed messages, images and representations that can be considered within and outside of the community as encouraging stereotypes, mocking certain groups and insulting the memories of painful historical experiences including genocide, slavery and racial segregation,” the committee states in documents on the subject.

“These representations are racist,” said UNESCO official Tim Curtis, following a press briefing in Paris Nov. 27. Curtis, the secretary of the Convention on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, told SWAN that the carnival’s organizers have shown little interest in addressing the issue. 

In fact, the event’s organizing committee is reported to have “prepared a set of ribbons as collectors’ items, which depict once again several stereotypical representations ... The accompanying text makes fun of UNESCO and reaffirms that the Aalst carnival should continue in the same spirit of satire and mockery”, according to UNESCO documents.

While the carnival may be delisted, another of Belgium’s customs is up for selection - the Ommegang procession in Brussels. This follows the addition of the country’s beer-drinking culture to the List in 2016, one of 429 elements inscribed globally up to now.

Such elements include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge and skills necessary for traditional crafts.

The aim is to promote the preservation of cultural practices or living expressions inherited from generation to generation, UNESCO says.

The delisting of the carnival may garner attention, but news about Cabo Verde’s morna should also be greeted with celebration, as with the inscription of reggae music of Jamaica in 2018. - SWAN

UPDATE: Morna, the musical practice of Cabo Verde, was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on 11 Dec. 2019. The Carnival of Aalst was removed from the List.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 10 October 2019

OBAMA’S PORTRAITIST CONFRONTS NAPOLEON’S PAINTER

PARIS - Fresh from unveiling a huge statue of a black man on horseback in New York’s Times Square, renowned African American artist Kehinde Wiley flew to France this week to “meet” 18th-century French painter Jacques-Louis David.

Wiley - most known for painting the portrait of US President Barack Obama in 2017 - is now “sharing a room” with David, who lived from 1748 to 1825 and was a painter and supporter of French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte.

Artist Kehinde Wiley discusses his work. (Photo: McKenzie)
In an exhibition titled “Wiley Meets David”, the American artist’s massive and colourful 2005 painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps can for the first time be viewed opposite David’s 1800 depiction Bonaparte Crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass (Le Premier Consul franchissant le col du Grand-Saint-Bernard), in a show that runs until Jan. 6, 2020.

“There’s lots of chest beating going on … that’s why when you look closely at my painting, you’ll see sperm cells swimming across the surface," said Wiley at the Oct. 9 opening of the exhibition. "This is masculinity boiled down to its most essential component. All of this stuff, warfare, is about egos, about nationhood, about the formation of society.” 

The two works of powerful-looking men on horseback are presented “in dialogue” at the imposing Château de Malmaison, just outside Paris. This is the former residence of French Empress Joséphine, which she shared with Bonaparte before they divorced in 1809.

Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps,
2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. Brooklyn
Museum. (c) K. Wiley. (Photo: McK/SWAN)
Wiley’s painting comprises a reinterpretation of David’s portrait, and it is the first in his series “Rumors of War”, where African American subjects replace the historically mighty in a questioning of warfare and inequality. Here, a model named Williams is on horseback, in the same pose as David’s Napoleon, but wearing contemporary urban gear and a golden cloak. In contrast, David’s depiction was a “symbol of the glory of Bonaparte” when it was produced in 1800, according to the show’s curators.

Wiley stressed that his work was meant to make people of African descent visible in ways that they haven’t been in the history of art. But he added that despite the aura of power in his painting, he was also portraying “fragility”, even amidst certain social advances.

“I want to caution us against a facile acceptance,” Wiley said. “These steps that we’re moving forward with, I prize greatly, but I also recognize their fragility. As powerful as that young man looks on that horse, it’s not his power that I’m concerned about, but rather his fragile position within that culture … that relegates artists like myself to even need to make utterances like the ones that I’ve done.”

Before being brought to France, Wiley’s painting had been exhibited for years at the Brooklyn Museum of art, and the current show is a joint project between this museum and the Château de Malmaison.

Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes
au col du Grand-Saint-Bernard
, 1800. Jacques
Louis David. Rueil-Malmaison
After the exhibition in France, both paintings will be on display in Brooklyn, from Jan. 24 to May 10, 2020. David’s work is therefore returning to the United States, where it had spent time in New Jersey in the 1800s as part of the property of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.

“The partnership with the Brooklyn Museum will provide an opportunity to shed light on the current practices of North American museums with regard to groups of artists who have been overlooked in history and the history of art, and their links to audience development,” said Emmanuel Delbouis, a co-curator of the exhibition.

For Wiley, 42 years old, it’s high time for a change in the narrative regarding the contributions of people who have traditionally been excluded from mainstream stories. He said it was not a “trend” or a “movement” that so many artists of African descent are now focusing on historical issues affecting people of colour.

“We have been able and capable of contributing to the larger conversation globally, and now these conversations are happening,” he said during the exhibition’s press opening. “I think perhaps the culture is evolving. So, it’s not a trend … it’s simply another human voice being paid attention to.”

He said his painting was a criticism of colonialism and a challenge to its legacy, but that it was also an “embrace” of French art and David’s talent.

Wiley arrives at the Château de Malmaison with associates.
Wiley, who rose to fame with the portrait of Obama, has seen his artistic impact grow, both in the United States and internationally. He has held several exhibitions in France, and before the opening of this latest show, the unveiling of his 27-foot-high statue in Times Square, on Sept. 27, garnered global attention.

That work, his first public sculpture, will be on view at the famed square for several weeks before being permanently installed at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, Virginia. It is being shown at the same time as the painting in France, sparking dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic about history and who gets to be celebrated in public monuments.

“We’re standing on the leading edge of story-telling, arguably on the leading edge of propaganda,” Wiley said in France. “Art has for centuries been at the service of churches, of state, of powerful men. And now artists have the ability to take that language and do what they will with it.

“So what am I doing? I’m engaging that language in a way that says ‘yes’ to certain things and ‘no’ to others,” he added. “The culture evolves, but we’re stuck here together, and we have to figure out how we’re gonna evolve together.” - A.M.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Saturday, 24 August 2019

CONCERT PAYS TRIBUTE TO NINA SIMONE IN LONDON

It must be a daunting prospect to sing songs made famous by the incomparable Nina Simone, but performers Ledisi and Lisa Fischer brought their individual style to a BBC Proms concert in London, honouring Simone and gaining admiration for their own talent.
The show, “Mississippi Goddam: A Homage to Nina Simone”, paid tribute to the singer, pianist and civil rights campaigner - a “towering musical figure” - at the Royal Albert Hall on Aug. 21, more than 16 years after Simone died in her sleep in southern France at the age of 70.
Ledisi at the BBC Proms paying homage to Nina Simone,
 with the Metropole Orkest. (Photo: Mark Allen) 
This was a celebration to recognise her “unique contribution to music history”, according to the Proms, an annual summer festival of classical music that also features genres “outside the traditional classical repertoire”.
The concert’s title refers to the song that marked a turning point in Simone’s career, when she composed it in fury and grief following the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the deaths of four African-American girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Performing the song at the tribute, New Orleans-born vocalist Ledisi held nothing back. She put all the anger and anguish that the lyrics required into her rendition, creating one of the high points of the concert.
The composition stood out particularly because of the contrast between the lyrics and the rhythm, and Ledisi - who’s also an actress and writer - emphasized this disparity. While the “tune has an almost fun-filled, pulsating vibe” (as conductor Jules Buckley put it in his written introduction to the show), the message itself is uncompromising.
“It speaks of murder, of dashed dreams and severe inequality, and it shattered the assumption that African-Americans would patiently use the legislative process to seek political rights,” Buckley wrote. Listeners got the full context, and they were reminded that some things have not changed much in the United States.
Jules Buckley conducts the Metropole Orkest at the
BBC Proms tribute concert. (Photo: Mark Allen)

Conducting the Metropole Orkest, whose members played superbly, Buckley said that in putting together the programme he wanted to shine a light not only on Simone’s hits but also on a “few genius and lesser-known songs”. With the sold-out concert, he and the performers succeeded in providing the audience a clear idea of the range of Simone’s oeuvre. 
The concert began with an instrumental version of “African Mailman” and segued into “Sinnerman”, the soulful track about the “wrongdoer who unsuccessfully seeks shelter from a rock, the river and the sea, and ultimately makes a direct appeal to God”, to quote Alyn Shipman, the author of A New History of Jazz who compiled the programme notes.
The orchestral introduction paved the way for Lisa Fischer’s arresting entrance. With her shaved head and flowing black outfit, she moved across the stage, singing “Plain Gold Ring” in her inimitable voice, evoking the image of an operatic monk. The two-time Grammy winner displayed the genre-crossing versatility for which she has become known, using her voice like a musical instrument and hitting unexpected lows before again going high. The audience loved it.
Lisa Fischer amps up the energy at the BBC Proms tribute
to Nina Simone. (Photo: Mark Allen)
Fischer introduced Ledisi, who wore a scarlet gown (before changing to an African dress after the intermission), and the two women then took turns singing Simone’s repertoire, expressing love for the icon as well as appreciation for each other’s performances.
They both kept topping their previous song, and the temperature rose with “I Put a Spell on You” (Ledisi), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Fischer), “Ne me quitte pas” (poignantly rendered by Ledisi) and “I Loves You, Porgy” (memorably delivered by Fischer).
Then there was, of course, “Mississippi Goddam”, which followed a haunting, syncopated “Dambala”, a song made famous by Bahamian musician Tony McKay aka Exuma, who had inspired Simone. Fischer performed "Dambala" with the requisite mysticism, getting listeners to shake to the beat.
Back-up vocalists LaSharVu, comprising three powerhouse singers, also contributed to the energy and success of the concert. Two of them joined Ledisi and Fischer for an outstanding and moving presentation of “Four Women” - Simone’s 1966 song about the lives of four African-American women that has become an essential part of her artistic legacy.
Backing vocalists LaSharVu join Ledisi and Lisa Fischer
at the BBC Proms' Nina Simone tribute. (Photo: M. Allen)
For other songs, LaSharVu teamed up with the orchestra to provide "percussive support" through clapping, while the orchestra’s skill on moving from reggae (“Baltimore”) to gospel underpinned the overall triumph of the show.
The concert ended with an encore, as Fischer and Ledisi performed “Feeling Good” to a standing ovation and to comments of “fantastic”, “fabulous” and other superlatives.
The show was not the only part of the homage to Simone. Earlier in the day, the BBC’s “Proms Plus Talk” programme had featured a discussion of the “life, work and legacy” of the singer, with poet Zena Edwards and singer-musician Ayanna Witter-Johnson interviewed by journalist Kevin Le Gendre, author of Don't Stop The Carnival: Black Music In Britain.
The three spoke of the impact Simone has had on their work and recalled her style and performances. Responding to certain questions, they also discussed the abuse she suffered from her second husband and the painful relationship she had with her only daughter, Lisa, whom Simone in turn physically abused.
Witter-Johnson said that Simone had inspired her to feel empowered in performing different

genres, so that she could sing and play music across various styles. “Her courage, outstanding musicianship and love of her heritage will always be a continual source of inspiration," she told SWAN later.
The Nina Simone programme at the Proms.
Responding to a comment from an audience member, a publisher, that Simone had been an extremely “difficult” person, Edwards stressed that Simone had been a “genius” and could be expected to not have an easy personality. Le Gendre meanwhile pointed to the difficulties Simone herself had experienced, with relationships, record companies, and the American establishment, especially after she began defending civil rights.
In an email interview after the tribute, Le Gendre said Simone’s music had had a “profound effect” on him throughout his life.
“There are so many anthems that she recorded it is difficult to know where to start, but a song like ‘Four Women’ can still move me to tears because it is such an unflinchingly honest depiction of the black condition that African-Americans, African-Caribbeans and black Britons can easily relate to,” he told SWAN.
“The way she broaches the very real historical issues of rape on a plantation, girls forced into prostitution and the internal battles based on skin shade affected me a great deal because, having lived in the West Indies and the UK and visited America several times, I know that what she is talking about is simply the truth,” he added. 
“There is a war within the race as well as between the races, and we will only move beyond self-destruction if we firstly recognise these painful facts. I continue to be inspired by her ability to 'keep it real' as well as her great musicianship. Above all else she has made me think, as well as listen and dance.” – A.M. / SWAN
The BBC Proms classical music festival runs until Sept. 14 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A concert on Aug. 29 features “Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music”, with conductor Peter Edwards, pianist Monty Alexander and tap dancer Annette Walker. Photos are courtesy of the organizers.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 22 August 2019

GHANAIAN PAINTER ABLADE GLOVER ON ART, HISTORY

By Stephen Williams
For the acclaimed Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover, art has been a way of life for more than five decades. 
He celebrated his 85th birthday earlier this summer with a major exhibition at the October Gallery in London, titled “Wogbe Jeke - We Have Come a Long Way”. The show comprised vibrant new works that reflect Glover’s passion for Ghana’s culture and energy, and it garnered him new fans who found themselves diving into oceans of colour: reflecting marketplaces and crowded streets. 
Ghanaian artist and professor Ablade Glover.
(Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy October Gallery, London.) 
Those familiar with his work know that the paintings appear to be composed in a simple manner but are, in fact, highly complex and skilful, and this becomes apparent the longer one looks.
As the October Gallery says: in addition to Glover’s “fearless use of colour”, it is his use of perspective that also draws the viewer in.
“Often the perspective that Glover employs is from a high vantage point overlooking the crowd. From this position, Glover effortlessly transports the viewer into the scene,” the Gallery adds. “Almost every single painting reveals a double aspect, being at once an explosion of colour and a detailed observation of reality. Abstract shapes transform into flocks of birds, bustling market scenes or townscapes.”
A Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London as well as a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, Glover has had an important impact on contemporary arts both in his homeland and internationally. In an interview during the London exhibition, he told SWAN how his career began and progressed. 
Glover recalls his early years as being a happy time, bucking the myth that an unhappy childhood makes for great art. His upbringing might be considered uncommon in some ways, however.
Ablade Glover, Red People IV (Detail), 2019. Oil on canvas,
152.5 x 152.5 cm. (Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy the Artist and
October Gallery, London.)

“I was born in Accra and I come from a family where the father stays in one house and the mother in another,” he said.
When he was around six years old, he was taken from his mother’s house to stay with his father.
“It was a perfectly natural system, even a traditional arrangement, although it is dying out now; usually boys were raised by their fathers and girls with their mothers,” he told SWAN.
Schooled at a Presbyterian boarding school, Glover went on to train as a teacher for a year.
“I realised general teaching was not for me, I didn’t have the patience, so I went back to college to train as a specialist art teacher at the Kumasi College of Technology,” he said.
Having completed a two-year diploma, he found it difficult to attain the specific teaching position he wanted. But he came across a government advertisement to work in a new textile factory to be built in Tema that involved being sent to London, to the Central School of Art and Design, for a four-year training course in fabric design and printing.
“It was so-o-o cold,” he recalled with a chuckle, “but I stuck it out. I was missing Ghana, although London was very interesting, and after completing my studies I went back home.”
Glover was to discover that not only had Ghana’s political climate become very volatile, but the proposed textile factory at Tema had not even begun to be constructed. “I was left high and dry,” he said. “I wanted to get out.”
Ablade Glover, Market Scene, 2019. Oil on canvas.
(Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery,
London.)
Meanwhile, he had to find work, and so accepted a general teaching post in the town of Winneba (which, after living in London, he found a little slow); later he joined Ghana’s Ministry of Information in Accra, producing posters, which he freely admits was akin to creating propaganda.
He continued to paint, however, and had a powerful mentor through his friendship with Shirley du Bois, wife of the famous civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The couple had been invited to Ghana, and Shirley would arrange soirées at her home to exhibit Glover’s paintings, inviting her friends to come, view, and hopefully buy his works.
He confided to Mrs. Du Bois the problems he was having in securing a second overseas stint - having received one scholarship, getting another seemed unlikely. 
She readily agreed to help and organised a meeting with President Kwame Nkrumah, but Glover was nervous at this prospect. “I had heard the rumours doing the rounds in Accra that Nkrumah sometimes killed people!” he explained.
“After about a week or so, she sent a car for me and then we both went to the presidential offices, were shown into a room when another door opens and in walks Nkrumah. ‘This is the young man I was telling you about,’ Mrs du Bois announced. That’s how I met the president!"
The upshot of the meeting, this brush with history, was that Nkrumah wrote Glover a note to take to the relevant ministry. He was then able to register to study textile design at Newcastle University in the UK.  
It was there that a tutor, watching him paint, suggested that he use a palette knife. “I took his advice and found a new way to paint. I dropped the brush,” Glover said.
Later he was invited to the United States to complete a doctorate and went to study at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1972 -  an institution infamous for the shooting of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators on the campus by home guard soldiers just a few years previously.
His being able to attend Kent State was thanks to a benefactor (in fact a tutor) who covered his tuition fees. “I was very touched by that generosity,” Glover said.
But whether painting in the UK or the US, the subject of his paintings always revolved around his home, Ghana. He admits to being fascinated by Ghana’s markets and market women.
Many of his works have been market scenes in a style that has been imitated but rarely equalled by others. These paintings in many ways echo his appreciation of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.
For the future, Glover says he will continue painting and exhibiting. He is represented by galleries in Nigeria and South Africa as well as the October Gallery in London and has his own gallery in La (sometimes known as Labadi), a suburb of Accra where he was given land to build the Artists Alliance Gallery. Glover opened it in 1993, and his wife is the administrator. It has become one of the landmarks for Ghanaian arts. 
Stephen Williams is a London-based journalist who writes about African arts and culture. He contributed this article to SWAN. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

REGGAE SUN SKA 2019: ONSTAGE, OUTRAGED, ENGAGED

By Sondré Colly-Durand

The curtain fell on the 22nd edition of France’s Reggae Sun Ska festival on Aug. 4, with a tight set led by Ziggy Marley who delighted the indefatigable audience. Some 27,500 fans attended this year’s festival on the Domaine de Nodris, in Vertheuil, about 70 kilometres from Bordeaux.
Prior to the closing act, the festival throbbed to the sounds of an array of musicians from around the world. In addition to Jamaican artists such as headliners Buju, Ziggy, the Skatalites, U Brown, Don Carlos and Mad Professor, the lineup included other influential global artists including Dub Inc. of France, Tiken Jah Fakoly and Alpha Blondy from Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Calypso Rose from Trinidad and Flavia Coelho of Brazil.
Buju Banton in performance at Reggae
Sun Ska. (Photo: S. Durand)
Buju Banton’s set began with an aura brought on in equal parts by pregnant impatience and the mystic vibes of the set up and introduction. The controversial man himself came onstage to “Destiny” and was as much in a trance as his hyped-up, amped-up audience.
Then came “Not an easy road" - and clearly the poignant lyrics echo Buju’s coming in from the cold after 8 years, 6 months, 27 days, 13 hours, 5 minutes and 26 seconds of incarceration in the United States. His set ended with a medley of old dancehall crowd pleasers, and the crowd went wild. He preached, he taught, he counselled and entertained. By the end of his set he was dripping wet, as was the mesmerized audience.
For Alpha Blondy, in comparison, the music was about political engagement. During his post-performance interview session, in response to a question on the migrant “crisis”, the singer quoted from the book “Le Ventre de l’Atlantique” (The Belly of the Atlantic) by Senegalese writer Fatou Diome, where she noted that if 10 French nationals had drowned in the Mediterranean, then the European Union would have emptied the sea. Blondy highlighted the double standards inherent in this reality while admitting that the incompetence and dishonesty of many African leaders have led to the current state of affairs.
Musically, selections from his latest album “Human Race” were well received. His “Whole Lotta Love”, Led Zeppelin-cover, harks back to his roots-rock-reggae desire to “spread” the music and move it from “coconut trees to the Rocky Mountains.” Blondy has a particularly positive outlook on emerging styles and artistic adventures. He said he believes that Afrobeat truly reflects the desire to infuse the music with new life and energy while attracting hitherto unreached audiences.
His compatriot Tiken Jah Fakoly took the stage by storm on the opening night of Reggae Sun Ska, as the penultimate act before the much anticipated Buju Banton. Fakoly’s latest album, “Le Monde est Chaude”, was released May 17. The title track - which features French rapper Soprano - grabs listeners immediately and forces one to sing along while reflecting on the excesses of modern life and the havoc wreaked on the ecosystem.
Reggae Sun Ska showcased global artists, attracting
thousands of fans. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)
Fakoly - who uses his art to raise awareness - has started an initiative entitled “one concert, one school”. The objective is to fund the creation of a school from the proceeds of each of his concerts. During his press conference at the festival, he revealed that he had visited Jamaica several times and believes in the potential of building reggae culture in Cote D’Ivoire.  
He has also shone light on the incompetence and egregious misuse of power of many leaders who have in turn proclaimed him persona non grata. He has also provoked the ire of his compatriot Alpha Blondy, who prefers a less bombastic mode of protest.
Reggae Sun Ska founder and director Fred Lachaize describes the artist as an ambassador for the festival, for the music and for the culture. Lachaize said he was in awe of the message and the mindset portrayed by Fakoly and was proud to provide a platform for the Ivorian artist.
Onstage, outraged and engaged at Reggae Sun Ska, Fakoly’s set started off energetically. “Mama Africa”, the second song he performed, is infused with spiritual texts invoking Jah’s blessing and guidance on the path to economic and social freedom on the African continent. Like Alpha Blondy, Fakoly is also enthusiastic about Afrobeat, a form of music that contributes to wider information about a continent whose history many believe started with slavery and colonization.
Performer Calypso Rose at Reggae Sun Ska: age is just
a number. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)
On the opening night as well, Trinidad’s Calypso Rose began her set with a hilarious number entitled “Leave me alone… I ain’t going home”, where she claimed her rightful place in the line-up in spite of her age (75). Similar to the festival itself, Calypso Rose’s range  was eclectic. She went from celebrating her African ancestry to pining for a “young boy.” This song amuses, raises eyebrows even, but is in keeping with her fight for female empowerment even within the fraught areas of sexuality.
Beyond the music, and always present in the background, is the fact that the Bordeaux region has maintained a love-hate relationship with the festival. The story of Reggae Sun Ska reads like a novel with the villains often identified as the festival-goers themselves - stigmatized as zoned-out marijuana smokers camping out in bourgeois territory and giving the Médoc wine region a bad rap. Lachaize, a native of the region, refutes the label categorizing the festival as “marginal”. Sun Ska, according to its founder, is based on a special mindset.
Inspired by Reggae Sunsplash – the popular festival in Jamaica - Lachaize succeeded in marrying his love of the island and its music with his desire to promote and culturally enrich the Médoc area. Reggae Sun Ska has grown into the biggest reggae festival in France, and its objectives include pedagogical concerns such as matters linked to ecology and peaceful sharing of the planet and its resources.
A look back at the eclectic line-up.
As Lachaize maintains, the festival is “a family, a way of life, a philosophy” that has nothing to do with utopia. For him Reggae Sun Ska is a vibrant socio-economic model that includes its reliance on a contingent of dynamic, dedicated local volunteers, mostly from the Gironde region. This message and its model are particularly welcomed at a time when the far right Rassemblement National has made huge inroads in the region.
However, the lack of coherent, sustained support for Reggae Sun Ska has meant that the festival has had to relocate several times. Now after 22 years, the team has come of age and has perhaps finally found a home at its current location in Nordis. In fact, the lack of a permanent site has weakened the festival - one year they lost 50% of their audience - and the organizers are seeking reassurance, partners and investments.
In July, the festival lost its president Jean Guillaume Bouyssy, who died at age 67 in a car accident. According to Lachaize, this tragedy sent an electroshock through the team as they lost their “guardian angel”. (The new president is Stephanie Rolland, who has been involved with the festival for some time.)
Despite its ups and downs, the thousands of fans who remain loyal to the festival show that Reggae Sun Ska is greatly appreciated, with its message of inclusion and its showcasing of reggae talent from the world over. - SWAN