Tag: West Africa

In appreciation of Fela Kuti

One day in February 1977, the military government had had enough of Fela Kuti and ordered that soldiers raid his self-declared independent ‘nation’, the Kalakuta Republic. They burned down the houses of the commune. They beat up the activist and musician severely and raped many women, including his wives. They threw Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an activist and political figure who fought for women’s rights and democracy, through a window. She died months later as a result of her injuries. Fela, carried along by a wave of loss and sadness, later decided to lead a group of his followers to the residence of the head of state at Dodan Barracks with the coffin of his dead mother. His message to the Nigerian government of the day was clear: take what you have made of my home, my country, and give us back what is ours.

Felabration, the annual two-day festival celebrating the now-late Fela Kuti, was held in Lagos this week at a time when Nigeria is in the most peculiar of situations. The country is in bad shape, to be sure, but its ruins are not the same in every home. Some of us have not had our entire worlds yanked from beneath our feet. Some among us have children who do not know a time when our walls saw a coat of paint. Others merely see the worst of pervasive lack on the streets while riding in air-conditioned cars. Our Africa is indeed rising, but with a tide that has lifted some boats and sunk many others. That so many of us are buoyed while most are sinking can distort our urgency, but it is at this time that Nigerians must find the eyes to see the bleeding body that has been dropped at our front door.

With a wildly popular Broadway musical and a movie currently being made of his life, Fela Kuti’s image and music have seen quite the resurgence in the past decade, but I do not think enough has been said about what he tells us about restoring Nigeria. He was defiantly, stubbornly, wholly himself. All parts of himself – Yoruba, Nigerian, African, black, man – coexisted in way that it simply does not for so many of us here, our language heavily-accented by the Western world that influences us. And it’s not like Fela Kuti did not have his musical influences from beyond Nigeria, like Ornette Coleman and Sun-Ra. It’s not like he was not part British himself, with a mother who was by no means conventional.

Fela Kuti. (Pic: AFP)
Fela Kuti. (Pic: AFP)

In an era where so much of our literature is besotted with culturally uncomfortable people like me whose indigenous language is clunky as metal on our tongues, Nigeria’s ever-expanding gap between the rich and poor means that, even if you did speak your language, you still may not be able to easily relate to the majority of the people around you. These are the lines that are drawn that undergird the politics of our time.

This assuredness in his identity freed Fela in a way that mine does not for me, ridding him of any longing to effect change in a nation while casting himself aside in technocratic detachment, striving to be immune to its politics. If you’re sure of who you are, sure of the strength of your core beliefs and values, then you need not fear what your environment may do to you. Best of all, you would not fear being political, and Fela was unabashedly political. He started a political party, Movement of the People. His Kalakuta Republic was an unabashedly political statement. Remarkably, through his music he was able to convey everything from observations on Cold War geopolitics and Nigeria’s military dictatorship (listen to Beasts of No Nation and Unknown Soldierto heartbreaking storytelling (Coffin for Head of State) and reflective observations on urban life (Monday Morning in Lagos is one of my favourites).

We live in a more global world than Fela did, and I pride myself on not being bound by my Nigerianness. You’d understand, then, my hesitance at the idea that Nigeria is worth dying for. I am an educated self-sufficient young Nigerian who, by accident of family, class and network, can afford a life that a lot of people would be fortunate to have. I’m not filthy rich, mind: the cost of phone calls and internet connectivity still make me cringe; I do not own a generator set so I’m on my own when there are outages; I do not own a car so the cost of transportation in Lagos is a major reason why I hardly ever visit my hometown and adds to the cost of my grocery list every week here in Abuja. Still, I survive – even flourish – in a way a lot of fellow Nigerians do not. I get angry, but I also get tired of being angry. I simply cannot summon the reserve from which to draw on to continue to lash out over and over again.

I often envision Fela in awe, fighting back tears as he led a procession to Dodan Barracks with a coffin containing his dead mother, his steps heavy as he approached the front gate. He must have known that he would end up in prison for a long time at best or be killed at worse, and I do not know where his strength, his faith, his rage, his patriotism came from. I do know that we have to find it and give back this mangled body of a nation for what is truly ours. Just as with Fela, the worst that could happen is that our efforts fail.

Saratu Abiola is a writer and blogger based in Abuja. Connect with her on Twitter or on her blog.

Africa Express: In solidarity with Mali’s musicians

It may be just about the hottest new pop-up club in the world, but you have to look hard for the glamour. There is no red carpet and the bar has run out of beer. The decor leaves a lot to be desired: a brightly painted wall, some plastic chairs and dozens of palm trees.

Welcome to Bamako, the capital of Mali, not the most obvious choice for a star-studded club launch. Mali endured a wretched year in 2012, the northern half seized by a motley alliance of Islamists and Tuareg rebels, the president ousted in a coup and the country almost breaking in half before a French-backed government offensive turned the situation around. Northern Mali still dangles precariously between war and peace and Islamist rebels still make life uncomfortable for towns that until recently they occupied.

But inside the Maison des Jeunes – a community space cum youth hostel near the banks of the River Niger – artists including Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Idris Elba, and some of Europe and America’s brightest young producers – bop their heads in unison to the live performances taking place in a kind of defiance.

“I keep coming back to Mali, through everything that’s happened,” said Albarn. “At times it has felt odd in Bamako, with the problems in the north, but I’m just trying to personally establish dialogue with the people in this country and the music.”

Damon Albarn of Blur performs at the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indo, California. (Pic: AFP)
Damon Albarn of Blur performs at the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indo, California. (Pic: AFP)

“The reason we are in Mali now is because of what’s happened here in the last year,” said Ian Birrell, co-founder with Albarn of the Africa Express project.

“Malian artists are so brilliant. We wanted to come back as a form of solidarity and do the tiny bit we can do to promote the music that we love and revere.”

Albarn’s involvement with Malian music dates back to 2000, when a trip to the west African country with Oxfam led to an infatuation with its sounds that would see him record an album with Malian musicians Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. In 2006 Albarn launched Africa Express – a joyfully chaotic series of collaborations between western and African artists, which last year led to 70 musicians taking over a chartered train.

Spoek Mathambo, Jack Steadman and Peter Hook play ‘Control’ at Africa Express, The Ritz, Manchester in 2012. (Pic: Simon Phipps / Africa Express)
Spoek Mathambo, Jack Steadman and Peter Hook play ‘Control’ at Africa Express, The Ritz, Manchester in 2012. (Pic: Simon Phipps / Africa Express)

On the second floor of a building adjacent to the courtyard, in an airy studio that has seen better days – with mint-green plaster walls and tatty floor tiling – ambient music maestro Brian Eno sits immersed, working on his laptop.

Behind him Holy Other – the enigmatic, highly-rated R&B artist whose full identity remains a secret and who is only ever seen in public wearing a black shroud – is similarly occupied, and Wire star, DJ and producer Idris Elba breezes in and out. “I’m just listening. I don’t know what to do other than sit there with my mouth wide open,” said Eno of the music being recorded by Malian artists. “I don’t feel inclined to sample and play over the top – for me it’s too complete.”

There is a deliberate spontaneity in the way Albarn likes to work with African artists; the word “chaos” is frequently used by everyone involved in Africa Express, usually spoken with a sense of pride at being involved in such an intense, cross-cultural musical frenzy.

The launch of live performances at the Maison des Jeunes coincides with the first attempt to produce an Africa Express album, as producers including Eno, Ghostpoet, Pauli the PSM from Gorillaz and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs work out which Malian artists to collaborate with, and set about recording and producing them in new ways.

“I have never done anything like this before,” said Kankou Konyate ( 21), lead singer of Gambari, whose vocals soar out over local n’goni lute rhythms. “Since the war things have been difficult, and complicated. But this is very good.”

Albarn, who has been critical of western celebrities patronising Africa in the past, says Africa Express is all about creating a level playing field and building connections, artist to artist.

But the group are also under no illusions about the state of Mali. Eno, on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since he visited Ghana in 1980, says he is shocked by how little progress has been made.

“I was quite surprised coming here how broken the place is,” said Eno. “How the streets are terrible. The open sewers stink. It’s very disheartening in a way. But what is really strong here is social infrastructure – it’s so powerful and rich.”

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian

Mali’s rescued manuscripts must go back to Timbuktu, say custodians

Dr Mohamed Diagayeté is in an agitated state as he stands in front of stacks of green metal cases containing thousands of invaluable ancient manuscripts from the fabled medieval city of Timbuktu, northern Mali. “Bamako is the worst; it is hell,” he says in halting English.

A museum guard displays a burnt ancient manuscript in its box at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, in Timbuktu. (Pic: Reuters)
A museum guard displays a burnt ancient manuscript in its box at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, in Timbuktu. (Pic: Reuters)

The senior researcher of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute is not referring to the traffic or Bamako’s urban sprawl, but its climate, particularly the humidity, along with the dust, termites and even mice that threaten this literary treasure trove smuggled out of Timbuktu last year under the noses of jihadists.

When Timbuktu, a centre of Islamic learning between the 13th and 17th centuries, fell into the hands of Tuareg separatists and Islamists last year, researchers at the institute – named after a 16th-century intellectual – feared for the safety of the 40 000 manuscripts in its possession.

In a daring act of subterfuge, the institute’s researchers spirited thousands of documents, covering subjects such as religious studies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and music to Bamako, the capital, more than 965km away.

Metal cases were brought surreptitiously to the desert city of Timbuktu, where the documents, some dating to the ninth century, were carefully packed away. Then, over a period of months, the material – mostly written in Arabic, but also centuries-old texts in Greek, Latin, French, English and German – was smuggled out on buses, cars or pirogue boats to the south on the Niger River. Guards at the institute, drivers and boatmen were the unsung heroes in this enterprise. Some 25 000 documents were taken away from the institute between June and October last year, as well thousands of others from private homes.

It was just as well. In a fit of pique and cultural vandalism comparable to the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the Islamists set fire to the institute’s two libraries containing the manuscripts before the arrival of French forces. Last week, a suicide attack was carried out near the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu, which is on the world heritage list of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

According to Drissa Traoré, head of documentation at the institute, thousands of valuable manuscripts were lost, some destroyed, others stolen.

People look through ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu after Islamists torched the building. (Pic: AFP)
People look through ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu after Islamists torched the building. (Pic: AFP)

The saved manuscripts are being stored in a nondescript, two-storey faded-rose house in an alley off a main road in the capital. The house stands near an unfinished building, there is rubbish strewn outside on the red dirt road. On a wall around the corner someone has scrawled “empire du mafia”.

The location is not publicised, and visitors are vetted by the institute’s head, Dr Abdoulkadri Maïga, who works elsewhere in a cluttered office with a small fridge by his side. He says there are about 100 000 genuine manuscripts, some owned by the institute, others privately owned by families, although some estimates put the number at 300 000. Many of the privately owned papers were also taken to Bamako.

After Maïga is satisfied, visitors are dispatched to follow a motorbike driver to the documents. The cases are piled on top of each other in a small air-conditioned room to protect them from Bamako’s humidity. Gingerly, Traoré takes out an 18th-century manuscript on jurisprudence from the top of a case. The battered leather cover is falling apart. He opens the book to reveal exquisitely delicate calligraphy. The oldest manuscript at the makeshift library in Bamako dates to the 12th century.

For Diagayeté and his colleagues, the manuscripts cannot return home fast enough. “Some of us have started to go back, but I can’t say when the manuscripts will go, but we want it to be as soon as possible,” he said.

In the meantime, the manuscripts have to be protected from Bamako’s “hellish” conditions. Researchers have begun cataloguing the documents and placing them in special brown boxes made from cardboard-like material. These boxes arrived in December, followed by the shelves on which to store them. The shelves arrived only a couple of weeks ago, so the documents have languished for months in their metal cases, hardly ideal conditions for such delicate items.

No wonder Diagayeté is exasperated. Part of his frustration is aimed at Unesco, which promised to help the institute. Its director-general, Irina Bokova, said in February that the organisation would do everything possible to safeguard and rebuild Mali’s cultural heritage, which she described as “a vital part of the country’s identity and history and fundamental for its future”.

“Its restoration and reconstruction will give the people of Mali the strength and the confidence to rebuild national unity and look to the future,” she added.

“Unesco was very, very late. Talk is easy, but action is hard,” Diagayeté said.

Three sets of metal floor-to-ceiling shelves have been assembled, and more are being put together. In the long term, there are plans to restore and digitise the manuscripts under a Unesco scheme run by Luxembourg. In the meantime, the institute is adamant that the documents should go back to Timbuktu. “Timbuktu without the manuscripts is without value, and the manuscripts without Timbuktu have no value,” Maïga said.

Mark Tran for the Guardian

‘Tey’: a toast to life and exploration of death

“Satché must die by the end of the day.” Such is the surrealist Senegal of Alain Gomis’s Tey (Today), a toast to life through an exploration of its morbid counterpart. The latest from the French-Senegalese director is a diasporic tale of the final day in the life of Senegalese returnee Satché, played by Saul Williams, who has been away from his community after years of living in the US.

'Tey' tells the tale of the final day in the life of Senegalese returnee Satché. (Pic: OkayAfrica)
‘Tey’ tells the tale of the final day in the life of Senegalese returnee Satché. (Pic: OkayAfrica)

Tey makes its American theatrical debut on October 6, at New York’s Mist Harlem Cinema, and will thereafter run in selected theaters through a “hybridised, community-driven model.”

Said BelleMoon Productions founder Guetty Felin on the importance of reaching out to smaller markets: “The hybridised model for releasing Tey is really about ‘cutting our cloth’ as my mentor often says. We know our film very well, we know who is sensitive to this sort of cinema and who isn’t. It is definitely not mainstream.”

“Neither Alain nor Saul or my company BelleMoon productions for that matter, is mainstream. This is an independent foreign film with subtitles, and black … We’re not going to break box office with it and that’s not truly our main goal. We’ve figured out who our audience or community was for the film and we are basically bringing the film to them, whether it is through a small theatrical release, college [and] university screenings or community screenings.”

OkayAfrica’s Alyssa Klein spoke with Gomis about the film.

While living in Dakar during filming did you relate to Satché’s experience in terms of diaspora-related disconnect with Senegal?
I’ve lived between Dakar and Paris for 20 years now. I was saying with this film, like Satché, this is my place, this is my present. In fact I don’t have any patriotic feeling for no country. My land is in Guinea Bissau, my fights, my dreams are in Senegal, my cinema, my family, my loves, are everywhere. Even in my little family village in Guinea Bissau, I don’t know no pure people. As soon as you understand that everybody is fighting in his own body, you deal with human beings with fundamentally [the] same type of doubts. I am a filmmaker, I’m dealing with souls, I’m disconnected everywhere, and connected everywhere, just like Satché.

What about your experience with film, if anything, made you realise the necessity of a hybridised, community-driven model of distribution? Is there anything about this film in particular that would make such a model a goal?
Maybe each time that you’re trying to make something different, I mean with a free and no marketed form, you also have to imagine new ways to reach people, especially with an African film. Africa is like another planet for a lot of people. With this film we have organised special nights – “ciné-concerts” – in theatres, in underground places, in concert halls … trying to reach all kinds of audiences … from Addis Ababa to Sydney. We had wonderful experiences and above all, it is fun to do, travel with a film just like a band in tour. And people are surprised, because this film is about us, wherever you come from. In the Q&A people talk about themselves.

Has your attitude toward death changed as a result of your work on Tey?
Yes. One of the reasons I’ve made this film was to face my own fear of death. It has become a reality. And if your death becomes a reality, your life becomes a reality. It’s a film about life.

What music would you listen to if you knew today was going to be your last day to live?
I know now, that is something you can’t predict. I have to make my life connected with my present. My last days have started 40 years ago. Every second is my last one. Today I have listened to Baloji.

Watch the trailer below.

For more on Tey read the full press release and stay up to date here.

Alyssa Klein for OkayAfrica

Côte d’Ivoire puts hope in first feature film on conflict years

Chased by a lynch-mob, a young man runs for his life – closely watched by director Philippe Lacote who is shooting the first feature film on the bloody chaos that rocked his native Côte d’Ivoire from 2002 to 2011.

The film “Run”, shot in Bassam near the Ivorian capital Abidjan and directed by Philippe Lacote, tells the story of the 2010-2011 political and military crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. (Pic: AFP)
The film “Run”, shot in Bassam near the Ivorian capital Abidjan and directed by Philippe Lacote, tells the story of the 2010-2011 political and military crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. (Pic: AFP)

Run, both the film title and the main character’s name, chronicles the slide from innocence to violence and crime in this resource-rich country that was once a beacon of stability in west Africa. Today, the wounds of war remain raw, politicians still trade crude insults and the former president awaits trial for crimes against humanity.

“The film’s main question is, ‘How did we come to such violence?'” said the Franco-Ivorian director, lamenting the thousands of people killed during a decade of rebellion, civil war and post-election violence.

Lacote, who finished shooting in September, hopes his film will be both cathartic for victims of the crisis and instructive for younger Ivorians, but also revive cinema in a country where only two of the 80 movie houses are still in use.

His project drew attention when presented in pre-production at the 2012 Cannes film festival. And while the film has touched some nerves at home, the state has agreed to finance seven percent of its €1.8-million (R24-million) budget, with the rest coming from France and Israel.

The buzz has also brought native son Isaach de Bankole – who appeared in the 2006 James Bond thriller Casino Royale and Lars von Trier’s 2005 film Manderlay – back home for the first time in 17 years to play a role in Run.

Based on real events
The story centres around a peaceable teenager who is on track to become a village “rainmaker” or sorcerer but instead joins the Young Patriots, followers of the former president Laurent Gbagbo who are capable of extreme violence.

“When I was filming the Young Patriots, I asked one of the youths how he came to join them,” says the 42-year-old Lacote of an earlier documentary. “He answered, ‘I have three lives!’ – and that became the basis for writing the film.”

Although fiction, Lacote’s film is grounded in real events. “There are scenes that remind me exactly of what I lived through during and after the war,” says Abdul Karim Konate, 32, who plays the role of Run.

Some 3 000 people lost their lives in the violence triggered by Gbagbo’s refusal to admit defeat in 2010 elections to his arch-rival Alassane Ouattara, who finally took office in May 2011.

“I was there in Yopougon (a Gbagbo stronghold), there where things really got hot,” said Konate. “We are telling the story. We need to tell it to those who have not seen it.”

Run is Lacote’s first full-length feature film. He calls it “indirectly political” and asserts his “right to approach the subject matter via fiction” while admitting that he finds himself on “slippery ground”.

Starting from scratch
“We have already had problems,” the director conceded. “We were filming in a former headquarters of the FPI (Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party) occupied now by the Ivorian army. The FPI press accused us of making a film to gather evidence against Laurent Gbagbo,” who is jailed in The Hague awaiting trial by the International Criminal Court.

“My objective is not to say who is right or wrong. It is to recount the crisis seen through an individual prism,” Lacote said.

Officials in charge of the country’s film industry also hope Run will help get Ivorian cinema back on its feet.

The film business here is currently “flat on its face”, said Mamidou Coulibaly-Diakite, who manages public funds earmarked for Ivorian cinema. Prominent Ivorian directors such as Henri Duparc, Gnoan M’Bala, Yeo Kozoloa and Fadika Kramo-Lancine have either died or have not worked in more than a decade.
“We have to start everything again from scratch,” he said.

In the long run, Coulibaly-Diakite said he dreams that Côte d’Ivoire, formerly the economic and financial hub of west Africa, can rival Nigeria’s thriving cinema scene.

Run is due to be released in 2014 and distributed in France and Germany, and to be screened at several festivals, according to the film’s French producer Claire Gadea.

Christophe Koffi for AFP