Saturday 24 August 2019


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


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,
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


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