Tuesday 30 June 2015


“When you have a platform to speak out against oppression, and to speak for your people, you have to embrace it,” says Kashif Powell, a poet and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the United States.

Kashif Powell (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Powell was one of some 200 scholars attending the 2015 biannual conference of the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR), which took place at Liverpool Hope University in northern England, June 24 to 28.

Titled “Mobilising Memory: Creating African Atlantic Identities”, this latest CAAR conference more than ever highlighted the need for dialogue about the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, especially in light of recent atrocities against people of African descent in the United States.

It took place also against the backdrop of Liverpool’s history as a major slaving port in the 18th century and placed particular emphasis this year on the role that writers, artists and scholars play in preserving and “activating” memory in the struggle for social justice and human rights.

“When one is part of a group, part of a besieged identity, one has the responsibility of active involvement,” said Irline François, a Haitian-born professor at Goucher College - based in Baltimore, Maryland, where protests occurred earlier this year after an African-American man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody.

Gray was one of several unarmed young black men killed by police in recent months. Then, just days before the start of the conference, a white gunman killed nine people inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. These murders gave an added sense of urgency to many of the scholarly presentations.

The CAAR poster for Liverpool, by artist Lubaina Himid
“It is crucially important to preserve memory as a scholar and to do work that’s built and forged in community activism,” François told SWAN when asked about the contributions of academics - long criticised for being too cut off from the real world in their “ivory towers”.

Author of a forthcoming book on the African Diasporas in the Americas, François presented a paper that looked at the work of Haitian writers Edwidge Danticat and Yanick Lahens in relation to “history, memory and forgetting”.

She and other CAAR participants including Powell argued that it is only by examining human rights abuses as well as personal and collective trauma that healing can be achieved, and scholars have a part to play in this.

“I do have a responsibility but it’s also a privilege to represent my black experience,” Powell said in an interview. “I think it’s important for people to be made to remember. We can’t just pretend that certain things never happened.”

Prof. Cynthia Hamilton, co-organizer of the CAAR conference. 
Formed in 1992, CAAR began as an “association of individual European scholars working in the field of African American studies”. It has grown to become an “intercontinental organization” with members from around the world, according to a statement from the organizers.

“We are convinced that African American Studies has broad implications for the world today,” the association says. “Placing the field in an international context provides valuable reciprocal insights.

“African-Americans are the best studied ethnic minority in the world, and the theoretical and empirical understanding gained from this research is relevant to ethnic and racial issues elsewhere,” it added. Members say that the organization is trying to re-define itself to achieve greater diversity.

For this year’s conference, CAAR teamed up with the new Institute for Black Atlantic Research, or IBAR, based at the University of Central Lancashire, north of Liverpool. Alan Rice, professor in English and co-director of IBAR, and Cynthia Hamilton, head of the Department of English at Liverpool Hope University, were the co-organizers of the event.

IBAR’s involvement led to the participation of more writers and performance artists at the conference, as the institute’s emphasis is on art and culture, Rice said.

Tayo Aluko (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Rose Thomas, a 73-year-old author and Liverpool resident, read from her manuscript about life in the city for Black people in the 1950s, and poet and musician Curtis Watt got the assembled scholars laughing with his ironic sung-poems about the forms that discrimination can take.

Keeping with the theme of memory and activism, Tayo Aluko performed excerpts from his one-man show Call Mr. Robeson, about the life of American singer and activist Paul Robeson.

In his moving baritone, the Nigerian-born and Liverpool-based Aluko takes on the persona of Robeson, telling of his rise to fame in the nineteen-twenties and Thirties and the persecution that came with his speaking out against class discrimination and racism.

The U.S. government even confiscated Robeson’s passport, preventing him from travelling and performing, but officials couldn’t suppress the songs. Aluko’s renditions of “The Battle of Jericho”, “Ol’ Man River” and other pieces keep alive the memory of Robeson’s long fight against oppression.

His performance also underscored the links between art, politics and activism, which many scholars discussed during the conference. The academic presentations ranged from an examination of “Rebellious Thinkers, Poets, Writers, and Political Architects” to a discussion of “Slavery, Representation and Black Cultural Politics in 12 Years a Slave”.

Part of the exhibition at the International Slavery Museum.
The conference additionally drew attention to the role that museums are playing in the fight for social justice and equality. One of the keynote speakers, David Fleming, said that some museums are rejecting the notion of “neutrality” and opting to take a stand on human rights.

“Social justice just doesn’t happen by itself; it’s about activism and people willing to take risks,” said Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, which includes the city’s International Slavery Museum.

The latter looks at aspects of both historical and contemporary slavery, while being an “international hub for resources on human rights issues”.

As the conference was taking place, the museum launched an exhibition titled “Broken Lives”, about slavery in modern India and the experiences of the country’s Dalit community. Nearly half of the world’s victims of modern slavery are in India, and most of these are Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, the exposition pointed out.

Many CAAR participants went to view this exhibition as well as the museum's permanent display on the transatlantic slave trade.

Some also took part in a “slavery tour” whose aim is to remind the public of Liverpool’s past as a dominant actor in the slave trade. The city is also the home of the oldest Black African community in Britain.

“It’s important to have a space like this to show the importance of remembering,” Powell told SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie, as they ran into each other at the museum on the last day of the conference.

(In October SWAN will have a special article about IBAR’s work.) 

Thursday 11 June 2015


Singer Elida Almeida. (Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media)

PRAIA / PARIS - Elida Almeida is Cape Verde’s newest star, with thousands of fans in Africa and Europe. She sings, dances, plays the guitar, tells jokes, and makes her audiences laugh as well as groove. But behind it all, her music carries a serious message, about the importance of overcoming setbacks, avoiding unplanned pregnancy and following one’s dreams.

Now 22 years old, Almeida was discovered by the same record producer who launched Cesária Évora, and people who see her in performance or listen to her outstanding debut album - Ora doci Ora margos (Sweet Times Bitter Times) - will be struck by the similarity in background and by her maturity.

Almeida performs in Paris.
 (Brian Cook/ Golden Sky Media)
The audience at a recent concert in Paris, France, for instance, evidently recognized her talent, judging by the waves of affection directed her way.  They sang along, danced along and recited along to the music Almeida performed.

But it wasn’t all upbeat. Almeida’s songs tell of her rough childhood on the Cape Verdean island Santiago, where her father died at an early age. She had to move afterwards to the unfamiliar island of Maio, where she helped to take care of her siblings while her mother worked as a street vendor. Growing up, she also learned to sing at church and spent time after school listening to the radio because there wasn’t much else to do for entertainment, she said in an interview.

“There was no electricity, so the [battery-operated] radio was really all we had to amuse ourselves, and I listened to music from Cape Verde, from the United States, from other countries,” she told SWAN.

As a student, Almeida had dreams of entering the legal profession, but she became pregnant and gave birth to a son at age 16, and so had to rethink her future after returning to Santiago.

She managed to finish high school and attend college, while caring for her son and coming to the realization that music was her true passion, not law. She wrote her first real song at age 17, putting her experiences into the lyrics, and the others that followed are also autobiographical, she says.

Almeida offstage. (Photo: A. McKenzie)
“My mother was so disappointed when I became pregnant that she said it was the end of her life,” Almeida recalls. “But afterwards she was really supportive. She is the reason that I’m able to tour and perform now, and the family of my son’s Dad are also helpful.”

Her eyes light up when she speaks of her five-year-old son, but Almeida readily acknowledges that teenage pregnancy is a problem in her country as in many others. She stresses that enough information is not given to young people about their bodies and sexuality, and she hopes that more schools will implement sexuality education as part of the curriculum.

“I didn’t know much,” she told SWAN. “Nowadays girls who are even younger than I was are having children, at age 14, 15, and they need assistance.”

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), about 20 percent of the children born in Cape Verde in 2013 were to women under 18 years old, down from nearly 24 percent in 2011 but still high. The agency says that mortality rates are higher for a pregnant teen than for women aged between 25 and 29, and that the unborn baby is at an increased risk as well.

Jose Da Silva. (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Many teenage mothers will face a life of poverty and hardship, especially if they don’t have a means out, such as continued education or a career. Almeida’s big break came when she was “discovered” by José Da Silva, the CEO of record company Lusafrica, while performing in Cape Verde. Da Silva is the former musician who established Lusafrica in the late 1980s to record Evora - the “barefoot diva” who became an international star - and he has also boosted the careers of many other African artists.

He brought Almeida to Paris to record, insisting that she sing her own songs, he said in an interview. The album, released in Cape Verde at the end of last year and in Europe this year, has found immediate success, with listeners apparently able to relate to the young singer’s experiences. The audience in Paris, consisting mostly of the ex-pat Cape Verdean community, knew all the words to Lebam Ku Bo and Nta Konsigui, the first two songs which have received great airplay and been released on video to many thousands of views.

“Each song has a message, even when it’s more festive,” Almeida says. “I’m telling girls to be careful, and also to fight for their own success.”

The album cover.
The album comprises intricate arrangements as well as the melodies and beats of Santiago, where batuque, funaná and morna are among the genres. Almeida brings her own personality to the music, and even the more traditional arrangements sound fresh and modern, with her stirring voice doing the songs justice.

On stage, her performance pulses with energy and youthful sassiness. At one point in the Paris concert, a spectator seemed to issue a challenge about dancing, and Almeida promptly invited the woman on stage to show what she could do. Tying scarves around their hips, singer and spectator engaged in an amiable dance-off, more moving together than trying to outdo the other.

“It’s easy,” Almeida teased the audience afterwards. “You just do it like this.” Smiling, she shook her hips to the left and the right, and got everyone laughing.

Bassist Nelida Da Cruz.
(Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media)
Enjoying the ambience, the five-member band played what sounded like their best, with both the drummer and percussionist filling the cosy Studio de l’Ermitage in the “hills” of Eastern Paris, with irresistible rhythms. Virtuoso guitarist Hernani Almeida recreated his arrangements from the album, while female bassist Nelida Da Cruz - “the only woman bassist from Cape Verde”, as Almeida introduced her - also had people swaying.

Asked about the inevitable comparisons with the late Évora, Almeida said that her music is very different, but she was also quick to pay homage to Évora.

“Cesaria is a pride and joy for us, for all of Cape Verde,” she said. “I come from a different island, with a different culture and different singers, but I recognize her value and everything she has done for us.”

Another young singer in the future might one day say the same of Almeida, especially if the latter is able to build on her current success. - A.M.

Fans record Almeida's performance. (Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media)

A version of this article is published by Inter Press Service:

Thursday 4 June 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Among the films selected for France’s influential Cannes Film Festival were several from Latin America, and one remarkable entry in the Un Certain Regard section is a Colombian movie called Alias Maria, directed by José Luis Rugeles Gracia.

Karen Torres as Maria.
With its main theme of the irrepressibility of love and birth, alongside the consequences of insurrection for child fighters, the film - while difficult to watch sometimes - is also a touching work.

It stars Karen Torres as the eponymous Maria, a young woman fighting with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It’s not clear, but Maria may have been dragooned into the guerrilla army, judging by her discontented attitude. The title implies that her name is a nom de guerre, that she’s been robbed of her real identity.

Maria is also clearly of indigenous background, contrary to most of the other fighters. In a telling moment she addresses a woman guerrilla commander as Señora (otherwise they’re all Compañeros). It’s never explicitly stated, but racism seems to rear its ugly head even among revolutionaries, and Torres brilliantly evokes all these registers of feeling and ambiguity.

Director Jose Luis Rugeles Gracia
(Photo: Jaden Rangel)
The above-mentioned commander has a baby, and it’s implied that her privileged position gives her the right to do so. Other pregnant guerrillas must abort. When Maria takes up with a young guerrilla and gets pregnant, she keeps her condition a secret, on pain of forced termination. Ironically, the plot of the movie is the mission to take the commander’s baby on a long trek through the jungle and drop it off with friends.

The detail carrying out this mission is a veritable children’s crusade. Maria is in charge of caring for the baby. Yuldor (Erik Ruiz), a child soldier who looks to be about twelve, is sent along for the perverse reason of turning him into a man, in other words to hack away his childhood. An Afro-Colombian guerrilla named Byron (Anderson Gomez) serves as mentor for the boy and overall den mother for the group, though the “veteran” is barely out of his teens. The leader is Maria’s boyfriend, who looks uncannily like Che Guevara. As Mauricio, Carlos Clavijo captures an idealist’s youthful sweetness that gradually develops into the brutality of the professional revolutionary.

Birth and rebirth in Alias Maria.
The director portrays the world of the guerrillas with seeming authenticity, as a slog of routine, alternating with flight. One wonders if the revolutionaries have been whitewashed into overly intellectual and soldierly barbudo-type freedom fighters. (Rugeles Gracia dedicated his film to “all those who struggle”.) We don’t see the resemblance to the actual group which kidnaps and deals in narcotics, among other nastiness. But as pointed out above, Rugeles Gracia does show the guerrillas’ underside in a subtle manner, and these shades of gray are definitely of a dark hue.

The paramilitaries who are fighting the guerrillas are even worse. We catch brief glimpses of what seem like psychopathic maniacs committing bloody atrocities. The short, scarifying sequences are the closest that Alias Maria gets to being an action film. But the guerrillas tend to take a sane position when coming too close to the paramilitaries: They get the hell away.

Child fighters in the film.
Most of the film depicts the long march through the rain forest. This has all been filmed on location - although here it’s more like in location. Rarely has the all-encompassing, invasive jungle environment been depicted with such vividness, bringing to mind the films of Werner Herzog (minus the hallucinatory quality). The photography, by cinematographer Sergio Ivan Castaño, is a near-perfect balance between clean professionalism and documentary immediacy.

The mix of professionalism and immediacy also marks the acting. Rugeles Gracia seems to be using the Satyajit Ray technique of using both professionals and non-actors (meticulously directing the latter), to great effect. The unknown cast of Alias Maria makes a greater and more lasting impression than many recent performances by better-known actors.

In the course of the march, the young group discovers solidarity and dissension, hair-raising escape and mortality. They seem to grow up before our eyes. Most of all, the life force of the young people persists against all odds. As Maria keeps making her way, we wonder what will become of her in a few years - not to mention the new life she carries within her. The title allusively calls to mind Ave Maria. Whether that’s intentional or not, the film is a work full of grace.

Production: Rhayuela Cine, Axxon Films, Sudestana Cine. Distribution: Cineplex (USA). Photos are courtesy of the film.

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