Monday 25 September 2023


Forty-two new sites, including memorials of the Rwandan genocide, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announced at the end of a two-week meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The organization said its World Heritage Committee – which met from Sept. 10 to 25 – approved 33 cultural and nine natural sites, bringing the total on the List to 1,199 across 168 countries.

Rwanda had its first two inscriptions:  Nyungwe National Park, and the genocide memorial sites at Nyamata, Murambi, Gisozi and Bisesero, which include the locations of massacres in 1994.

Between April and July of that year, an estimated one million people were killed across the country by armed militias that targeted Tutsi but also murdered moderate Hutu and Twa people.

The Gisozi site in the capital city Kigali houses the 1999-built Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 victims have been buried, while the hill of Bisesero (western Rwanda) hosts a memorial constructed in 1998 to honour the fight of those who resisted for more than two months before being killed by the genocide perpetrators.

Rwandan officials welcomed the inclusion on the World Heritage List, stating that the “historic” inscription… “increases international visibility, and also honours the memory of the victims they represent throughout the world.”

UNESCO said that with the 2023 listings for Africa - five in all - the continent has “reached the symbolic milestone of 100 sites” on the List (which has a preponderance of properties in Italy, China, Germany, Spain and France). 

Over the past decade, the UN agency says it has been working to remedy under-representation on the List, urging member states to put forward sites for inscription.

This year, the organization emphasized new recognition for “Sites of Memory” - places in which an event occurred “that a nation and its people, or certain communities wish to memorialize”. It said the inclusion of such places on the List “makes them part of our shared global heritage, and recognizes the part they play in the peace process.”

The World Heritage Committee, for instance, also inscribed Argentina’s torture memorial (the ESMA Museum and Place of Memory - Former Clandestine Detention, Torture and Extermination Centre), and Belgium and France’s “Funeral and Memorial Sites of the Western Front in the First World War”.

Photo: Flame of Hope at the Gisozi memorial site.

For more information on the UNESCO World Heritage List, see: UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Wednesday 17 May 2023


Some movie scenes keep replaying in one’s mind long after one has left the cinema, and this is certainly true of Moon Over Aburi, a short film shot in Ghana that has been gaining accolades since its release earlier this year.

Based on a story (and script) by the prize-winning Ghanaian-Jamaican writer and poet Kwame Dawes, the film addresses subjects such as sexual abuse, society’s view of women’s roles, and the gender-based perspectives from which experiences are recalled and retold. It will have a special screening this month at the prestigious Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica (May 26-28), and while viewers can expect to be moved by the whole story, they will be haunted by one stunning, unexpected scene.

In its minimalist mise-en-scène, Moon Over Aburi is reminiscent of a play, with two main actors in the spotlight, or rather the moonlight, playing off each other: Ghanaian-British actress Anniwaa Buachie and her Ghanaian compatriot Brian Angels (whose credits include the 2015 feature Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba).

Buachie plays a mysterious woman, the owner of a small food kiosk who seems tied to something in her past. Angels plays the man who visits the kiosk on a moonlit night and asks for a meal. As the two exchange cryptic words and stories, it becomes clear that the man knows more about her than he lets on, and the colossal secret she carries is gradually revealed, as enigmatic shots of the full moon emphasise the mystique.

Buachie, who produced the film and co-directed (with Sheila Nortley), has a background in both cinema and theatre, having performed at London’s Old Vic and other venues. She has also appeared in guest roles in popular television series such as Eastenders. But making Moon Over Aburi was not a shoo-in for her, she says. She and her team had to overcome certain obstacles for the work to see the light of day - because in a world where the number of films seems to be ever growing, only a selected few filmmakers acquire the resources to pursue their art.

In the following, edited, interview, Buachie speaks with SWAN about the film’s journey to the screen.

SWAN: Moon Over Aburi is a shocking, thought-provoking film that is beautifully made. How did it come about?

Anniwaa Buachie: As an actor, I provided the voice of the audiobook in the anthology Accra Noir, edited by Nana Ama Danquah [and published by New York-based publisher Akashic Books]. I fell in love with the story Moon Over Aburi by Kwame Dawes.

I remember when I started reading this story, I immediately had goose bumps. The story was honest, visceral, poetic, chilling... a dance of cat and mouse between two people, a man and woman, secret and lies, making one question whether two wrongs can make a right.

It sat with me, it was in my heart, my mind, my body. I had never read a story that highlighted the vicious cycle of domestic violence, but also explored how a woman ruthlessly and unapologetically takes back her power.

Society tends to excuse the faults of a man and blame the women in that man’s life. The woman who raised him, the woman who married him, the woman who rejected him. Power is given to a woman to birth and nurture a child, yet it is taken from her as soon as she seeks equality, acknowledgement, and respect. It is a story that pushes the brutal subject matter of domestic violence into the light, a much-needed conversation that often lies in the shadow, swept under the carpet. I had to bring this story to light.

SWAN: What were some of the challenges in adapting the short story to suit the demands of a different medium, film?

A.B.: Kwame Dawes’ writing is beautiful, lyrical and poetic, and it was important to me to ensure that the film produced stayed true to the mystical element of the original.

Many stories are written in the first person, and the reader already is biased as they often attach themselves to the main narrator / protagonist. However, with Moon Over Aburi, Kwame had already written it in a dialogue format. The story was a script in the first instance, so adapting it to film was a joy, to be honest.

What was tricky was deciding how much detail to pack from a 20-page short story into a 10-page script. The world that Kwame had created was so intricate, intimate through words, and heavily reliant on the reader’s interpretation. However, with a screenplay, you have to make definitive decisions and find ways to utilise camera shots, sounds, and the colour palette to influence the viewer’s perspective.

Film also demands a particular structure that a short story can forego. Screenplays require scenes that establish each character and a clear breaking point in the middle of the script that take characters to the emotional extreme - into fight or flight mode. The audience needs to be taken on an emotional ride, and this is influenced by the whole creative team: producer, director, cinematographer, etc.

Personally, it was a challenge for me to maintain a balance between being an actor and being the producer, and co-directing.

The actor inside me wanted to play forever and fully immerse myself in the character. However, there was a part of my brain that, as the producer, always had to be focused on the practicalities, thinking about if the budget is being used effectively, if everyone is happy on set, if cast and crew have been fed and have what they need to maintain a high quality! 

Also, once a film project is done, an actor can switch off and think about their next project, whereas the role of the filmmaker doesn’t stop there - now it’s about implementing, marketing, sourcing additional finance, distribution. Good thing I am a great multi-tasker!

SWAN: The shots of the landscape, the moon, and the setting overall, are artistic and evocative. Can you tell us more about the photography and where it took place?

A.B.: The story takes place in the Aburi, the eastern region of Ghana, and in Accra, the main city. Whilst the story leaves room for the imagination, I am so thankful to Ghanaian-based cinematographer extraordinaire Apag Annankra of Apag Studios and art director Godwin Sunday Ashong. Their knowledge of the neighbourhood and the scenery enabled us to find places within Aburi and Accra that provide a magical realism.

We used drone shots to capture the vastness of Aburi and correlated this with the earthy green and blue colours and rural setting in the country scenes, and juxtaposed this with our city location - with intimate shots, highly saturated neon colours, and an abstract setting. The city locations were based in Jamestown, the vibrant heart of Accra, and Cantonments.

SWAN: The films you’ve produced carry a social message - about the treatment of girls and women - but it is left up to viewers to draw their own conclusions, or to see the light, so to speak. How do you balance artistic subtlety and activism?

A.B.: It is important to me, as an artist, to present situations that encourage conversations, a reflection of self and to identify how one contributes or blocks the development of girls and women. The best teaching is when the viewer has space for analysis themselves, as opposed to being force fed an opinion.

I simply ensure that the films I produce have in-depth perspectives, of extreme impactful situations, drawing the viewer in on an emotional, human level. 

SWAN: What are some of the difficulties in making a film without major studio backing, and are things changing?

A.B.: Budget. A studio-backed film would have a large budget and with that the creative team has space to make mistakes, to experiment, to spend hours on a scene taking multiple shots. With a big budget you can secure your ideal location, block off streets and build a set if needs be, to get the right look for the film.

Whereas when you are working on an independent or a low budget, everything you do has to be specific, and with the right intention, because the repercussions are greater. Planning is key, and ensuring everyone in the crew and cast understands the overall vision of the film is important. There cannot be a weak link, everyone needs to work together to bring their A-game. You cannot go back and re-shoot, money is tight, which also means time is limited. You just have one chance to make sure you get the right shots, the right lighting, etc.

I do think things are changing but not quickly enough. Independent filmmaking is an art that is not given the same respect as the big studio movies and TV. Which is a shame, because independents are a great way to platform new and upcoming talent and inject society with stories that are often forgotten, hidden, or discarded. But nowadays the art of filmmaking is more about the return on investment, and for that reason independent filmmaking is always a risk, but that is what makes it exhilarating and rewarding… if you make people's heads turn in an age where attention is so competitive, you know you have something really special.

SWAN: What do you hope viewers will take away from Moon?

A.B.: This film focuses on giving attention to overlooked narratives, concerning social issues such as: gender-based violence, misogyny and gender inequality, which shroud many cultures. It will open doors to a diverse audience offering intelligent insight into the social and political consciousness of the invisible and the marginalised. While this story is in a fiction anthology, it is a reality that most women face. Through the screenings, I am hoping viewers can identify how cultural constructs contribute to the way in which women are viewed, and how this can change, how this MUST change and, ultimately, that it’s down to us, the new generation to take control and rewrite the social narrative. A narrative that allows us, me, as a woman, to learn from the present, and construct a future that uplifts gender equality, suppresses elitism, and eradicates poverty. This is the foundation of social cohesion and the start of a new African legacy.

SWAN: What’s next for you?

A.B.: Kwame and I are touring with this short in many film festivals in the UK, Ghana, and the States as well, developing Moon Over Aburi into a full feature and exploring production companies and talent. Personally, I have my show coming out on the BBC (teen drama Phoenix Rise), and I have a couple other things in the works that I can’t announce yet, but it’s an exciting time! – SWAN

Photos: top to bottom: Anniwaa Buachie; scenes from Moon Over Aburi.

See too: Interview with Anniwaa Buachie - The Making of a Ghanaian Short Film | Inter Press Service ( 

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday 27 March 2023


It’s a new direction for UNESCO, getting involved in movies, so to speak.

The United Nations' cultural agency and Netflix - the global streaming and production company - have partnered to “support” and “promote” Africa’s new generation of filmmakers, and the results will be revealed to the world from March 29, when six short films by young directors will be available in 190 countries via the video-on-demand platform.

The films are the winners of an “African Folktales, Reimagined” competition that was launched by both entities in 2021, attracting more than 2,000 entries, according to UNESCO.

Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, the agency’s assistant director-general for culture, said the joint initiative “pays homage to Africa’s centuries-old tradition, passing wisdom from generation to generation, from elders to the youngest”. He acknowledged that this is a departure for UNESCO whose work with streaming platforms have mostly focused on regulatory and policy issues.

Tendeka Matatu, Netflix’s director of film for Sub-Saharan Africa, said the company believes that “great stories are universal and that they can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere”. He said that what Netflix and UNESCO have in common is the desire to "promote the multiplicity of expression". 

The submissions to the film contest went through a first selection process, before being narrowed to 21 candidates, who presented their projects to an international jury. The judges - including film mentors - then selected six finalists: from Kenya (Voline Ogutu), Mauritania (Mohamed Echkouna), Nigeria (Korede Azeez), South Africa (Gcobisa Yako), Tanzania (Walt Mzengi Corey) and Uganda (Loukman Ali).

Each finalist won $25,000 and a production grant of $75,000 to create their short movie with a local production company, UNESCO said. The films were completed earlier this year, and their streaming (as an “anthology”) will begin with the 6th Kalasha International Film and TV Market in Kenya, a three-day trade fair taking place March 29 - 31.

Speaking at an in-house “advance” showing of the films at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Ottone Ramírez said the agency was “particularly pleased” that the short films captured “not only the culture of Africa, but also the cultural diversity within Africa”.

Some observers privately expressed concerns, however, that any association with global streaming platforms could lead to formulaic storytelling or could undermine local film ventures - a fear that Ottone Ramírez said was unfounded.

He told SWAN that the filmmakers had complete freedom, and that the films were their own vision. What Netflix “put at their disposal”, he said, was access to an experienced film partner, as well as financial and technical support. (The “Netflix-appointed supervising producer” was Steven Markovitz from Big World Cinema, an African production company based in Cape Town, South Africa.)

UNESCO says the partnership illustrates a “shared commitment to the continent’s audiovisual industries, which generate jobs and wealth” and that the creative industries “are an asset for the sustainable development of the continent”.

The creative industries are also an opportunity for companies seeking to expand into new markets, which could be mutually beneficial, observers say. While Nigeria and a few other countries have well-established filmmaking sectors, many African directors might benefit from international support.

Anniwaa Buachie, a Ghanaian-British actress and filmmaker, told SWAN that “budget” is one of the biggest constraints for independent films. “You cannot go back and re-shoot, money is tight, which also means time is limited. You just have one chance to make sure you get the right shots, the right lighting, etc.” 

Some of the industry challenges are highlighted in a report UNESCO produced in 2021 on Africa’s film sector, titled The African film Industry: trends, challenges and opportunities for growth. The report found that the sector could create some 20 million jobs and generate 20 billion dollars in annual revenue on the continent. With the survey, UNESCO could identify the need to create capacity building and to “scale up” efforts by policy makers - using Nigeria as one model, Ottone Ramírez said.

(Read here: The African film Industry: trends, challenges and opportunities for growth - UNESCO Digital Library)

It was on the completion of the report that UNESCO decided on the current project, Ottone Ramírez told SWAN. At the same time, Netflix was also seeking to launch a project in Africa, so talks began on a partnership, with “months” of discussion about the format and the call for applications, he added.

As for “priorities”, UNESCO hoped to include indigenous languages and gender equality in the project, he said. Alongside English and French, the winning films are made in a variety of languages including Hausa, KiSwahili, Runyankole, Hassaniya Arabic, and isiXhosa - reflecting the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).

Many of the stories also centre on women characters, with topics including domestic violence and the struggle for equality within patriarchal structures.

“It shows us how important this subject is for the young generation of African filmmakers,” Ottone Ramírez said. “I would say it was the main theme in each of the 21 pitches before the final selection. We’re seeing another way of storytelling.”

Part of the aim was equally to boost opportunities for women filmmakers - something that has already been happening with the long-running FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso - and to focus on directors living in Africa, Ottone Ramírez told SWAN.

During the selection of the winning pitches, UNESCO and Netflix acted as observers, leaving the choice to the international jury, he said.

Aside from being able to produce their films, perhaps the biggest advantage to the winners is that they have access to a global platform, which Netflix said it is “proud” to provide.

“We know Africa has never lacked in talent and creativity” said Matatu, the Netflix director. “What has been in short supply, however, is opportunity. Emerging talents often struggle - they struggle finding the right resources and the visibility to fully unleash their potential and develop their creative careers.”

The winning short films will potentially reach some 230 million subscribers of the video-on-demand platform around the world, he said - an unprecedented opportunity for these young filmmakers. - SWAN

Industry mentors were Bongiwe Selane, Jenna Bass, Pape Boye, Femi Odugbemi, Leila Afua Djansi, and Tosh Gitonga.

Thursday 23 February 2023


In autumn 2021, hundreds of book lovers gathered in one of the “chicest” areas of France’s capital to attend the inaugural African Book Fair of Paris, surprising even the organizers, who hadn’t expected the first-time event to be such a resounding success, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the Salon du livre africain de Paris (its French name) is back this year at the same location - the town hall of the 6th arrondissement, replete with striking chandeliers and ornate, painted ceilings. But it’s taking place in March, at the start of the spring season for which the city is so famed, and it promises to be more expansive.

Erick Monjour, the fair’s French director, said that around 200 writers and 50 publishing houses will participate from March 17 to 19, with Guinea as the “country of honour”. The full programme is set for release March 1.

The fair will also pay homage to South African icon Nelson Mandela, ahead of the 10th anniversary of his death (in December), and will celebrate the work of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007), who would’ve been 100 years old this year.

Among the main attractions are the debates and lectures involving renowned writers, and in 2021 readers were able to hear from authors who had travelled to Paris from different African countries, and to interact with French-speaking African and Caribbean writers based in France.

Monjour told SWAN that the idea for the fair “started with the realization that for several years there was no book fair in Paris devoted to African literature and that there was a need for this because there are so many readers”.

(The annual Paris Book Fair for some time did have a section focused on African writing, but that was discontinued for various reasons, including financial issues.)

“We wish to give the greatest visibility to African literature but also to books that are about Africa,” Monjour said, adding that the focus was mainly on French-speaking countries because of a limited budget.

“We don’t really have ‘Anglo’ writers, from countries like Nigeria for instance, coming to the fair, because of the cost. But there are publishers with books translated from English.”

The publishing houses present in 2021 featured an array of literature that reflected the increase of writing from the continent. They included pioneering companies such as Editions Présence Africaine, which began in Paris in the late 1940s and went on to publish leading francophone African writers as well as anglophone writers in French translation. The founders organized the first International Congress of Black Writers and Artists in 1956.

During the 2021 fair, readers flocked to Présence Africaine’s well-stocked table which carried books by writers such as Goncourt Prize winner Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a host of others - all against the backdrop of French architectural splendour (with its inescapable reminders of conquest and colonialism).

“One of the things about this festival is that, even with a limited budget, we wanted it to be in a prestigious location, in the centre of Paris, because sometimes events like this can be on the ‘periphery’,” said Monjour. “This venue is a beautiful place.” - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): a poster for the 2023 Salon du livre africain de Paris; the stand of Editions Présence Africaine at the 2021 book fair (credit AM/SWAN).

Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale.

Saturday 18 February 2023


Acclaimed American writer and 1993 Nobel laureate Toni Morrison will be the focus of a “revelatory exhibition” at Princeton University Library opening Feb. 22.

Curated by Autumn Womack, assistant professor of English and African American Studies, the exhibition titled Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory is aimed at “excavating” the creative process of the iconic author, who died in 2019. It will be the “center of a community-wide exploration of how Morrison’s archive continues to influence the past, present, and future,” the organizers said in a release.


“It is difficult to overstate the importance of Toni Morrison’s writing to American literature, art, and life. This exhibition draws us toward the unexplored corners of her writing process and unknown aspects of her creative investments that only live in this archive,” Womack added.

The Toni Morrison Papers archive includes research materials, manuscript drafts, correspondence, photographs, and other resources that Princeton University acquired in 2014.


Running until June 4, 2023, the exhibition - at PUL’s Milberg Gallery - will also “anchor a series of programs” that include several wide-ranging events, such as an art exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum’s Art@Bainbridge with artist Alison Saar, and newly commissioned performances “responding to Morrison’s work” presented by the McCarter Theatre and Princeton University Concerts, which stages classical music productions.


In addition, a three-day symposium will take place March 23-25, gathering some 30 writers and artists “to reflect on Morrison’s relationship to the archive”, with Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat scheduled to deliver the keynote address; and there will be public tours of Sites of Memory, children’s programming, a spring lecture series, and undergraduate courses on Morrison’s work, PUL stated.


The events reflect the “enormous influence” that Morrison had not only on Princeton University, where she taught for 17 years beginning in 1989 (later lending her name to Morrison Hall, home to the school’s Department of African American Studies), but also on the culture of American life, say the organizers.

“In imagining this initiative - from exhibition to symposium to partner projects - I wanted to show the importance of the archive to understanding Morrison’s work and practice. But I also wanted to show how this archive in particular is a site that opens up new lines of inquiry and inspires new kinds of collaboration,” Womack said.


The exhibition includes some 100 original archival items curated into six categories, according to PUL. “Beginnings” charts Morrison’s emergence as a writer, editor, and the author of The Bluest Eye, published in 1970; “Writing Time” draws from her day planners “to emphasize the process of her craft, which she often honed in spare moments around her full-time career” as an editor; and “Thereness-ness” explores the role of place in her work and presents “rarities” such as drawings of architectural spaces for the famed novels like Beloved (winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize) and Paradise.


Furthermore, “Wonderings and Wanderings” stages Morrison’s “creative process from start to

finish" and reveals how her published work holds a "capacious archive” of Black life; “Genealogies of Black Feminism” uses correspondence between herself and other Black women to “excavate an alternate account of Black feminist thought in the 1960s and 1970s”; and “Speculative Futures” spotlights unfinished projects and "unrealized possibilities that only live in the collection”.


As readers and teachers of Morrison’s work around the world equally recognise her importance and celebrate her literary legacy, some are hoping that Sites of Memory will be a traveling exhibition to make her archives available to a global audience. During her lifetime, she received awards from several countries, including France which bestowed on her one of its highest decorations - the Légion d’honneur - in 2010, two years before then U.S. president Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


“She was always very open to young readers internationally, and very generous,” said Andrée-Anne Kekeh-Dika, associate professor of American and Anglophone Caribbean literature at Université Paris 8 in France.


“I remember when she came to the Louvre and she was asked a question about the reception of her work and her legacy, and she responded that ‘I’ve done my part and I have to let my work go’. I was really impressed by that because sometimes there’s a sense that you can’t engage with the work if you’re outside the culture.” 

On the American national level, meanwhile, the United States Postal Service will honour Morrison with a commemorative stamp in 2023, the thirtieth anniversary of her receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Photos: Toni Morrison, courtesy of Princeton University; an early edition of Beloved

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday 29 January 2023


When the parents of Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah realized that the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, they called and urged her to return to Seoul from New York, where she was based at the time.

“They said buy the ticket immediately,” the singer recalls. “There’ll be a total lockdown and you might never be able to come home. When I watched television and heard that borders would be closed, I packed my bags and I got the last ticket. I thought I would come back in three months, but not a year.”

In Korea, under travel restrictions like most of the world, Sun Nah wondered how she could fight the blues that threatened to overwhelm her. She began writing lyrics and composing music for what would become the extraordinary Waking World (Warner Music), her 11th album, released in 2022.

The songs are an exploration of the life of an artist, confronting angst and despair, and their haunting beauty - as well as experimental range of styles - may help Sun Nah to broaden her already substantial international audience, as she embarks on a “Spring Tour” beginning in March. With the memorable track Don't Get Me Wrong, the album also contains a message about the dangers of spreading misinformation and hate, the "other" ills of the pandemic.

Born in Seoul to musician parents (and named Na Yoon-sun), Youn Sun Nah learned to play the piano as a child but grew up focusing on the usual curriculum at school. She graduated from university in 1992 with an arts degree, having studied literature, and she thought this would be her career direction. She didn’t want to pursue music, she says, because she had seen her parents - a choir director and a musical actress - work too hard.

Still, when the Korean Symphony Orchestra invited her to sing gospel songs in 1993, she began taking her first steps in the world of performing and recording, eventually moving to France to study music, as she relates. In Paris, she followed courses in traditional French chanson and enrolled at the prestigious CIM School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, where she had to overcome certain artistic challenges.

In the years since then, she has performed worldwide, sung at the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, contributed to a Nina Simone tribute album, and taken part in the 2017 International Jazz Day concert which was held in Havana, Cuba. (International Jazz Day is an initiative of legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO.) In addition, she has received the Officier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French Ministry of Culture, the Sejong Culture Award from Korea, and a host of other music prizes and accolades.

In an interview with SWAN before a recent concert in Brussels, Youn Sun Nah spoke of her career with self-deprecating humour, discussing the effects of the pandemic on her art and the meanings behind the songs on Waking World. She shed light, too, on the experience of being a jazz singer amidst the global Korean pop music phenomenon. The edited interview follows.

SWAN: How would you describe yourself?

Youn Sun Nah: I’m a jazz singer from Korea. I studied jazz in France, and I travel around the world, and I’m kind of all mixed up, but I’m very happy with that.

SWAN: Are you now based in France?

YSN: No, I used to live in Paris for a long time, but actually, I don’t have a place to stay in France now. Every time I go there, it’s just for the tour, so I go to different places. I could say I live in Korea, but it’s a nomadic life.

SWAN: Let’s speak about Waking World, which was released last January. You’re doing a tour to promote it now, as that wasn’t possible earlier, during the pandemic.

YSN: Yes, we couldn’t really do the promotion thing, but c’est la vie. My manager called in 2021 to say: now you can come, you can take the plane now. So, I quickly bought the ticket, came back to France and recorded the album in Paris, and then I did some shows.

SWAN: A lot of artists have had to find ways to keep going during the pandemic, and it’s been especially difficult for many musicians who couldn’t tour, couldn’t be on the road. Has that been the case for you too?

YSN: As you know, jazz is really live music, and I think most jazz musicians feel the same way. You want to do as many gigs as possible. I don’t know if people listen to my music on platforms like Spotify or iTunes, but I feel very lucky to perform live music. More than 400 jazz festivals exist in France, so it’s a privilege.

SWAN: How did Waking World come about, and what does it mean for your fans, for you?

YSN: When I went back to Korea at the start of the pandemic, I was kind of optimistic that things wouldn’t last long. Everyone was wearing masks, but we could move around, just not take the plane. Then … six months, seven months, eight months. From that moment, I got really depressed, and I thought that maybe I should change my job, that maybe I would never be able to go back to Europe and perform. What can I do, I thought. All the musicians I played with were in Europe because I studied jazz in France, and I don’t know that many jazz musicians in Korea. So, I had a kind of homesickness even though I was home. But in Korea, we never lose hope, so I think that’s in my DNA. I told myself: you should wake up, and you should do something else; you can’t disappoint the people who’ve supported you for a long time, you should have something to present to your audience. So, I started writing some new tunes. Without the musicians I usually work with, I had to do it all by myself.

SWAN: How did you do that?

YSN: Actually, I watched YouTube a lot, and I learned many music tools. I learned how to play the guitar just by watching tutorials, and I learned how to compose with the laptop.

SWAN: And you wrote the lyrics too?

YSN: Yes, I’m not so good at English, but I just wanted to be honest, so even if it doesn’t sound quite right, I just wanted to express myself.

SWAN: But you’re used to singing in English?

YSN: Yes, after I started studying jazz. You know, when I came to France, I didn’t know what jazz was. If I’d known, I would definitely have gone to the States. I was so naïve … and maybe stupid? One day I’d asked one of my musician friends in Korea what kind of music I should study to become a good singer, and he’d said: do jazz. What is jazz, I asked him. And he said: jazz is original pop music, so if you learn how to sing jazz, you can sing anything. And I said: oh, it sounds great!

I’m a huge fan of French chanson, so he said one of the oldest jazz schools in Europe is located in Paris, so go there. Oh, great! I arrived there, and what you learn at school is American standards, and everything was in English. I actually studied in four different schools at the same time because, well, I’m Asian, and I’m used to that education system where you don’t have to have any free time for yourself! When I had only six hours of lessons, I thought: what am I gonna do with the other eighteen hours? (Laughter.)

SWAN: That kind of approach must have helped with the album?

YSN: Well, I didn’t know when I could record this album, so I just kept writing and composing. And arranging by myself, as I had a lot of time. But, as you know, jazz is like … we should gather together and arrange in the moment. When I could finally fly to France, I just gave all the material to the musicians. And they said, oh, we’ll respect your scores. And I said, no, no, do what you want. But they played exactly what I wrote, every single note. I’m embarrassed.

SWAN: Tell us about the inspiration behind some of tracks, such as Bird On The Ground, the first song, which has the refrain “I want to fly. I want to fly. I want to fly.”

YSN: Well, “bird on the ground” - that’s me during the pandemic.

SWAN: Don’t Get Me Wrong, the second track, has an infectious melody, but the message is clear: the world “has no chance with those who lie and lie”. Tell us more.

YSN: During the pandemic, I could only watch TV or go on the internet to know what was happening. But sometimes the information wasn’t true, and even though it’s a lie you end up believing everything. Yeah, so I thought the world has no chance with people who lie.

SWAN: The sixth track has an intriguing title - My Mother. (Lyrics include the line: “How can you keep drying my eyes every time, my mother?”) What’s the story behind it?

YSN: With the touring, I usually don’t spend that much time at home. But with the pandemic, I was home for a whole year, and I spent a lot of time with my mother, and I really had the chance to talk about everything, about her life and what she experienced. She’s my best friend, and we became even closer.

SWAN: And the title song Waking World?

YSN: I wanted this to be a dream and not real, but at the same time this is the reality, so it was kind of ambiguous for me. Where am I? Am I dreaming? No, you’re wide awake.

SWAN: Tangled Soul, track eight?

YSN: My soul was completely tangled. (Laughter.) And then one day, I felt: it’s okay, everything will be all right.

SWAN: Speaking about music in general, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. Are you in the wrong field? (Laughter.) More to the point, are you affected by the huge interest?

YSN: At every show, I’m really shocked or surprised because the audience says “hello” and “thank you” in Korean. Unbelievable! There are many people who’ve told me about their experience in Korea, too, saying they’ve spent a month or six months there. It’s something that my parents’ generation couldn’t have expected because the country was destroyed during the war - it’s not that long ago - and they had to build a completely new country. They worked so hard, and because of them, we have this era. People know Korea through K-pop, through Netflix.

SWAN: Then there’s this Korean jazz singer - you. When listeners hear your work, the “soul” comes through. Can you talk about that?

YSN: When I arrived in Paris, not knowing what jazz was, as I mentioned, I told my parents: Oh, I’m gonna study jazz for three years, and I think I can master it, and then I’ll come back to Korea and maybe teach. And afterwards, I felt so stupid, and so bad because I can’t swing, and I don’t have a voice like Ella Fitzgerald, and I could barely learn one standard song. So, I tried everything. On Honeysuckle Rose, I think I wrote down every moment that Ella breathed in, breathed out. But … I couldn’t sing like her, it sounded so fake. So, I said: No, I’ll never be able to sing jazz, this is not for me. After a year, I told my professors that, sorry, I made a wrong choice, I’m going to go back home. And they laughed at me. They said: What? Youn, you can do your own jazz with your own voice. And I said, no, I can’t. Then they recommended some jazz albums of European jazz singers, such as Norma Winstone, who’s an English singer, and my idol. She has a kind of soprano voice like me, and when she interprets, it’s like a whole new tune. And I said, oh, we can call this jazz too? I didn’t know.

So, I learned to try with my own voice and my own soul, with my Korean background, and the more I used my own voice, the more I did things my own way, the more I felt accepted.

SWAN: What is next for you?

YSN: Well, everyone has told me that this album is not jazz, but that’s what I wanted to do. Herbie Hancock always said that jazz is the human soul, it’s not appearances, so you can do whatever you want to do. We’ll see. It’s been a while that I’ve wanted to do an album of jazz standards, so we’ll continue this tour in 2023 and then we’ll see. - A.M. / SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): the front cover of Waking World; Youn Sun Nah in Brussels (photo by A.M.); the back cover of Waking World; Youn Sun Nah and statue (photo by A.M.)

Youn Sun Nah’s Spring Tour runs March 9 to May 26, 2023, and includes concerts in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

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