Sunday, December 25, 2005

2005: An End of the Year Message


This is my December Eye on Africa column. I believe What the Bleep Do We Know? was one of the most extraordinary and important films of the past year--not only because of its novel word-of-mouth marketing, but also because of the way it affects the way people think and perceive. It was one of my precious gems of 2005. I think What the Bleep Do We Know? can have unique significance for Africans and African Americans, particularly for those who are willing to open their minds to see new models of reality and to develop their intuition about science, the brain and consciousness. In fact, it's imperative that we find new ways of seeing things. The world is changing at hyper-speed, and the old paradigms are falling apart... What is perplexing and frustrating (and sometimes funny) is that a lot of people don't even realize that their thinking is actually confined to 'limited paradigms'...

2005: An End of the Year Message
"What the Bleep?"

With 2005 coming to an end and the holiday season upon us, we always look for meaning in the past. Looking back, this year has brought unprecedented attention to the Motherland, with the worldwide Live 8 concerts for Africa and a seemingly endless stream of journalistic reports: genocide in Darfur, pirates off the coast of Somalia, famine in Niger, and the election of Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in Liberia. All too often media images of poverty, war, political instability and the HIV-Aids crisis bombard us, but the real Africa, the true Africa, is something far more vast, beautiful, daunting, and innocent than people who have never been there can sense. It becomes a challenge to look for the small fine threads of stories, telling pictures, and human perspectives that paint something beyond the dark electronic vignettes that dominate the Western view of Africa.

Standing on the threshold of change, Africa pushes forward, pressing itself into the consciousness of the Western mainstream world, in dribs and drabs, subtle and overt. Cell phones and the Internet are making startling new connections between remote African villages and the global village, adding a new, direct human dimension to aid initiatives and organizations. Solar energy, open-source software, $100 laptops and World Wide Web connectivity are gradually seeping into the Motherland, bringing new visions of access to knowledge, education, and enlightenment in Africa’s dawning Information Age. In the United States we face a very real scenario where an American of Kenyan descent, Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, may become the first Black president or first Black vice president of the United States. Worlds of possibility, worlds of change and quantum leaps of growth surround us, although they are sometimes clouded and discounted in the weary dust of ordinary mundane day-to-day survival.

Sometimes we, as African Americans, have a tendency to get caught up in our own media reflection. The barrage of our own images in advertising, film, and television have power far beyond our measly 12 percent of the American population. Online, at the office water cooler, in clubs, bars, and theaters we catch up on our Black celebrities, artists, and entertainers, and movies like Crash, Hustle & Flow, Four Brothers, or Mike Tyson’s porn flick, or CDs from John Legend, Kanye West, Mashonda, Trina, or Toni Braxton. We are so immersed in our own cultural creativity that we often take its omnipresence and growth for granted, diminishing its extraordinary history and emergence, and detaching from or blinding ourselves to what is coming out of Africa and the Diaspora. In terms of entertainment in this post-modern world, we become our own spectacle, consuming ourselves, sometimes to the detriment of participating in other media audiences and dialogues.

What the Bleep Do We Know?, a movie about the brain, consciousness and quantum mechanics, was a pop culture phenomenon in 2005 that did not appear as even a tiny blip on the African or the African American radar. The movie, which featured interviews with scientists and psychologists and an accompanying storyline with actress Marlee Matlin, managed to gross $12 million at the box office with limited marketing, no reviews or publicity, relying essentially on word of mouth and targeted marketing on the Internet. What the Bleep Do We Know? was panned by a few critics who felt its message was incoherent and obtuse and the scenes with Matlin seemed stiff and contrived; but box office success and the film’s nonchalant marketing strategy testified to its popularity and broad appeal. While the title may not catch our eye like The Gospel, Jarhead, or Get Rich or Die Tryin’, What the Bleep Do We Know? may be more relevant to African Americans and Africans than many of the flashy celebrity blockbusters we’re constantly ranting and raving about.

What the Bleep Do We Know? offers insight into sub-atomic physics, consciousness, and the brain in a way as that allows people to see everything--matter, emotions, thought and feeling, even perception itself--from entirely fresh perspectives. The movie is a journey inward that is both structural and scientific as well as philosophical and mystical. The film is strung together by a series of edited interviews and sound bites, but with no narration, and hence at times may be confusing or difficult to follow, especially since the concepts are novel and unfamiliar to most people. Nonetheless, What the Bleep Do We Know? is highly popular because it presents compelling views on how emotion affects one’s biochemistry, how addiction reinforces itself neurologically, and how we can even become addicted to emotions like anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, resentment, self-pity and sadness.

One of the advantages of being Black or African is that we have an easier time deconstructing many of the myths that American society builds around itself and its people. We have the opportunity to approach religion and science from our own unique soulful African perspective. We have the opportunity to reject science as materialism and we can also reject religious fundamentalism’s attempt to define everything about life and the universe in exclusion of facts. We can feel and use our intuitive cultural perspectives to find truth in qualities and experiences that resonate with us. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we have the capacity to see the spaces in between, the syncopated beats and jazzy impressions of an unorthodox worldview. One would not expect a film about quantum mechanics and the brain to mention Blackness or African qualities, yet What the Bleep Do We Know? inauspiciously presents a world view and psychological concepts that potentially fit and augment our own intuitiveness.

More importantly, in a world where many Black youth are often hypnotized by their environment and over-identify with destructive behaviors they see around them, this kind of film may stimulate a youthful mind into a mode of self-examination that allows the old concepts of how they view themselves and the world to change. We are also very much in need of new models for how we understand and cope with addiction, and new ways to look at how people get trapped in repeating cycles of negative emotions. With thoughtful analysis and careful examination--all of the scientists and contributors and their writings can be researched on the Internet--the model can be extended to ideas about meditation, developing more coordinated and extensive thought activity and neuronal connections in the brain, and understanding the soul or the “Observer” in all of us, the conscious spirit lying behind manifestation.

I’m not saying that What the Bleep Do We Know? is without its flaws or imperfections or controversies. Some scientists say the film takes scientific concepts and tries to convert them into a kind of new age religion. But everyone can consider the film on its own merits. I think the What the Bleep Do We Know? might be beyond the grasp or at least difficult to understand for those who lack basic middle or high school biology and chemistry. But if offers a wealth of knowledge and ideas for those who want to see “how far down the rabbit hole” they can explore. One usually needs to see the film more than once to absorb the material, and it helps to discuss it with others who might see different things and talk about different interpretations. During the holiday season, the What the Bleep Do We Know? DVD might make an inspiring Christmas gift, or maybe a Kwanza present to be shared with family and friends. That may be quite an appropriate modern African offering for a world that is changing at hyper-speed and moving into a New Year, in a New Millennium.

On African and African American Actors


Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda

Ah, Bra John, "Their blacks are better than yours"? I think you're a little misguided on this...

Much respect, John Matshikiza--much respect... Don't get me wrong--your work in theater, stage, film and television is uncompromising. I loved you in that artful, stupendous film, "The Heart of the Country." Between the breathtaking scenery, shining cinematography, and passionate portrayals of idiosyncratic characters karmically entwined in the Free State, I saw a glimpse of the possibility of what real, world-class South African cinema could be. And you had me in sitches when you were steppin' around in the white baas' boots and taking his daughter's virginity! As a director, writer and actor, you know your craft, and you know how to bring out the best in folks. I can't help agreeing with most of what you've said--for years I've longed for really seeing more of what South Africa has to offer the world on the silver screen--I think the issue is a little more complex. African Americans and Americans aren't the only ones who are making the decisions and controlling what ends up as the final film product.

I'll give you an example, and I'll even start with the 1950 version of "Cry the Beloved Country," which you point out as the genesis of baffling accents and confusing African Americans taking South African roles. Personally, I thought both Sydney Poitier and Canada Lee did fantastic jobs in that film. When Anant Singh and Darryl Roodt remade "Cry the Beloved Country" in 1995, they captured the splendour of the Drakensburg and added rich textures and great scenery that gave life to Sophiatown and Jo-burg in the 50s. But Canada Lee delivered an eerie line with a singular grace that gave the movie its intense emotional power. But Anant Singh and Darryl Roodt wouldn't touch that line, maybe for fear of offending the "Rainbow Nation New South Africa" 'I'm okay you're okay' ethos. Or maybe because they're not Black (is Indian really "Black"?) James Jarvis has an eiphany, after accepting his son's death, he see's his son's humanity, and he recognizes his own failings. He turns to the Black minister, Rev. Stephen Khumalo, and says:

James Jarvis: "All my life I have lived in darkness."
Rev. Khumalo: "Every white man I have ever known..."

My point is that even the most respected South African producers and directors can make their own decisions and their own mistakes. And sometimes they get it things right, and they have an extraordinary capability of telling their own South African stories. Whatever resistance you might have to African American actors, Anant Singh did the right thing in casting James Earl Jones as Stephen Khumalo. Maybe he didn't speak with a Zulu accent as you know it, but his performance was impeccable nonetheless. I may not have liked what Anant and Darryl were up to with changing the climax and most powerful part of the film, but they did a lot of other things very well. At the end of the day, having Richard Harris as Jarvis and James Earl Jones as Rev. Khumalo brought international attention and acclaim to the film that otherwise would not have been.

As you pointed out, this thing of African American actors and South African films and themes goes way back, and I often hate the marbled accents as much as you do. But sometimes really good actors have a way feeling a part, and making it their own, even when the character comes from a different culture. I'm thinking of Don Cheadle's performance of Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. He played the role well, and he drew the audience that that film deserved. And many South African actors benefitted from the African American element in that production. The actors learned from each other and pulled together something dramatic, powerful and haunting, something that hopefully opens people's eyes to a cinematic journey beyond comfortable suburban mindsets. The genocide in Rwanda was a story that very much needed to be told, to as large and wide an audience as possible.

Maybe Don Cheadle is one of the few African American actors who has enough talent and verbal dexterity to really immerse himself in an African accent. Nonetheless, I'm sure there are ways in which African American and African producers, directors and actors can collaborate constructively, as they did in HBO's "Sometimes in April." And none of these productions--however fabulous or flawed--precludes South Africans from making their own bold and intelligent independent films that can grab attention at Cannes or Sundance. South Africa definitely has the industry infrastructure and abundantly talented writers, producers, directors and actors.

But this thing of South African actors and American actors has a history, and it's something we're all trying to work through. A lot of African American models and actors have been coming to South Africa since the early 90s and were getting parts and opportunities that they couldn't access in New York or LA. I remember meeting a young African American brother at a Gallo record launch in 1995--after a few introductory remarks he escalated into a bragging spiel about how successful he had become. "Man, the opportunities that are out here are FANTASTIC!" he told me emphatically. At the time he was more of a curiosity to me, and I was more interested in listening to him and observing. Our involvement in South Africa stemmed from completely different understandings and motivations. All the while I was thinking, "God damn, man--do you realize that some people gave their lives so that this country could be open and free?" He should read Don Mattera's poem, Child.

As I spent more time in South Africa, I learned that there were a good number of young brothers like the one I met, and it seemed to me that the South African advertising industry was quite happy to accommodate them. Then, after a little more observing, talking to people etc., I also began to see that there was a lot of racism in the South African advertising industry, a kind of racism that an outsider might not expect from surface appearences. Once I was on the set of a commercial shoot where a Black transvestite donned a platinum wig and did a hilarious imitation of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," for some kind of advertisement. It was a funny concept, and very well executed, but there were no Black folks on the set save the transvestite and the caterers (and myself). After years of observing White people, one becomes sensitized to certain things... The conversations of the director and the crew, their facial expressions, body language and the way they treated their talent spoke volumes about their insulated arrogance and the kind of social environment they are accustomed to operating in. I could also see that this was an environment that in many ways was more welcoming to African Americans than Black South Africans. Some of this has to fit into the equation you have titled, "Their blacks are better than yours."

The larger picture is that in this era of globalization, Africans from all over the planet need to collaborate and come together to do great, creative things in the film industry. We need to look beyond tribal and national identifications to reach a new, higher definition and understanding of Africanness. After all, Don Cheadle can play an Rwandan with subtlety and Idris Elba, a Brit, can play an African American with chilling intensity. Puerto Rican and Caribbean actors in New York City have often demonstrated incredible versatility with performances that bridge culture and point the way to a new African multi-ordinal identity. Our traditions, our experience, our cultures, our heritage and the stories that made us are a tremendous source of wealth. Hugh Masekela really spells this out when he talks about "cultural synergy" as a potential engine of economic growth for African people. But if all we see is an "African American" actor, or a "South African" actor, or a "Nigerian" actor or a Zulu or Xhosa or Hausa or Yoruba or whatever, we miss the greater vision...

Note: John Matshikiza is a columnist for the Mail & Guardian and is an acclaimed playwright, actor, director and producer. He's a brilliant, talented brother with a crooked smile, an easy manner and a hilarious sense of humour that belies his seriousness and depth. You can read his "With the Lid Off" column here.

Their blacks are better than yours

John Matshikiza: WITH THE LID OFF
23 September 2005 03:30

Thank goodness I’m too old to join the humiliating queue of black actors looking for work these days. I no longer have to fret about black Yankees being cast in roles that African actors can fulfil with ease, grace and, dare one say it, the whiff of authenticity. I’m at peace, way beyond the petty debate.

It was never a debate anyway. It was, and is, a transatlantic monologue, occasionally interrupted by cheeky, indignant, heckling interruptions from down here in the South -- out-of-work Bantu would-be actors yelling: “Why can’t we be given a fair crack of our own whip?”

You can fool yourself into believing that the phenomenon first raised its futile head in the 1980s, with the likes of Denzel Washington as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, my buddy Danny Glover in the title role of the HBO television movie Mandela and as “Boesman” in the dead-in-the-water Boesman and Lena, starring alongside Angela Bassett as typical Korsten coloured trash. Then there was Sydney Poitier in another Mandela television film (while Morgan Freeman chafes in the wings to play the same role in Anant Singh’s endlessly upcoming epic based on Long Walk to Freedom) and James Earl Jones as the humble Zulu vicar in the remake of Cry the Beloved Country.

The roster of heavily sponsored black-on-black exploitation is brought right up to date with Samuel L Jackson in the film adaptation of Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull, and, of course, Taye Diggs in Zola Maseko’s glossy, hollow Drum. Then there are the ubiquitous Slovo sisters making Hollywood hay while the sun still shines on the memory of their father Joe’s impeccable struggle credentials, conniving in the casting of a black British actor in Red Dust (written by big sister Gillian) and yet another honky black American in the gritty, gory Umkhonto weSizwe thriller Hot Stuff, written by middle sister Shawn, and co-produced by baby sister Robyn and currently shooting on location on various white-owned farms in the Transvaal.

No, you’d be wrong in thinking that the “our blacks are better actors than your blacks” thing began as recently as that. Poitier and Canada Lee twanged through the native roles in the first version of Cry the Beloved Country in the 1950s. And even before that, Negro extras jumped around pretending to be Zulu warriors in a long line of B movies shot in New Jersey and California way back in the early days of cinema itself in the 1920s and 1930s.

The directors of these films, all white (with the noble exception of Maseko) have always argued, as does Hot Stuff’s award-winning director, Philip “Rabbit Proof Fence” Noyes, that exclusion of the authentic African article has nothing to do with discrimination against Africans. “I looked at everyone there was to look at all over the world, and simply chose the best actor for the job,” they cry with one, well-rehearsed voice.“So there. Go make your own movies.” Conveniently forgetting that the cash to make movies, like the Negroes who end up starring in them, is over there, not over here.

While our leadership berates the West at the United Nations for continuing to subsidise their own farmers as a way of blocking the potentially wealth-creating export of African produce into their own countries (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 metaphor of the American government paying American farmers not to produce alfalfa come to prophetic fulfilment) they make not the slightest suggestion that films shot on the African continent should empower African actors and screenwriters (Maseko was kicked out of that role in favour of an American writer in his own movie). And, of course, it would be Hollywood sacrilege to expect an African actor to get the chance to even audition for the role of Shaft in Shaft, or for one of Washington’s drearily upright vigilante detectives in any number of American skop, skiet en donder flicks.

Imagine the embarrassment of Third World “Angel of mercy” Angelina Jolie or Meryl “I had a farm in Africa” Streep struggling to introduce Seputla Sebogodi at the Oscars -- wouldn’t work. There is something distinctly odd in standing on set with Denzel, cameras rolling as he struggles half-heartedly to emulate Biko’s Eastern Cape accent. The producers are paying him a cool few million US dollars to do his best, no more. But we cannot exclusively blame our slave-escapee “African- American” brothers and sisters for kicking dust in our faces, laughing over their shoulders as they rush back to Beverley Hills with the loot. I-job-I-job, after all -- even over there.

The more flamboyantly political brothers have taken the fight into their own camp on our behalf. A burly cat with a stack of menacing talent gave himself the Ghanaian sounding name of Yaphet Koto, and continues to make a good living playing burly, menacing American gangsters. Then there was the late, great Adolph Caesar, who cocked a snook at the establishment by naming himself after two of the Western world’s most ruthless dictators, swaggering like a warped, high-yellow mirror of the society that made him, while still showing that, when it came to serious acting, he was up there with the best.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We can surely look forward to nothing better in the future than Will Smith playing Oliver Tambo, or Ice-T cast in the role of Kwame Nkrumah. All of this is beyond my concern nowadays, however -- except when my daughters drag me along to see the latest, big screen travesty of our tough yet dignified history, told the American way. At that point I feel a strange hotness under my collar and an even stranger burning sensation somewhere in the seat of my pants. That’s when I try to persuade them to switch screens in the Eastgate multiplex and go and have a good old laugh at Shrek instead, for the umpteenth time. At least he’s green, mean and a Glaswegian-accented anti-colonial freedom fighter -- with a genuine, ghetto-Negro donkey as a sidekick.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Es'kia Mphahlele's African Literary Journey


Es'kia Mphahlele in 2005 (left) as a dapper journalist in the 1950s. This photo is courtesy of Jurgen Schadeburg, who captured Black South Africa during the Drum era. Check out his web site--it's an amazing visual journey.

Once again, this article is part of my Eye on Africa series. I feel honored that I had the opportunity to meet and interview Ezekiel Mphahlele. He is truly one of the giants of our African cultural leaders, and given his age, this recent visit to the States may be his last--he doesn't travel here very much. Meeting Es'kia reminded me somewhat of a chance encounter I once had with James Baldwin 22 years ago; they both had a powerful presence, a profound wisdom and soft-spoken intellect that is subtle yet overwhelming. I would have loved to have spent more time with Es'kia (or for that matter, James Baldwin), but alas, there never seems to be enough time to spend with these great "
fundis." Their writings live on for future generations, but sadly, their time is limited in this world. In this article I wanted to present Es'kia in the broadest context of his life, and to hint at his ideas of "African humanism" which I believe can form the basis of a viable and creative African educational system.

Es'kia Mphahlele's African Literary Journey

“The minds I would be dealing with were already unchained by their own effort. Give people a poor education and the mind will soon find a way out. Revolt is then inevitable. No, the mind cannot be chained forever.” - Es'kia Mphahlele

Throughout my experiences and travels in Africa, I have followed the shadow of Es’kia Mphahlele--his reflection, traces of his footprints—until one fine, late August day, I met face to face with the world-acclaimed novelist, educator and African philosopher. The 85 year-old former University of Denver professor lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was in Denver on a rare trip (and perhaps his last) to the United States. I had the good fortune of being introduced through a mutual friend and spending an afternoon of evocative conversation in the backyard shade of a quiet Park Hill home. It was an extraordinary encounter.

Ezekiel “Es’kia” Mphahlele is one of Africa’s most revered writers and scholars, known both for his literary works as well as for his activism in arts, cultural and educational matters. He was initially trained as a teacher, but after he spoke out against the inferior standards of “Bantu” education the apartheid government banned him from teaching anywhere in South Africa. Subsequently Mphahlele became a political reporter and fiction editor for Drum, a continent-wide African magazine that printed daring political exposes by brilliant investigative journalists, peppered with colorful features and creative writing styles blending English with African idioms and narratives. Drum mirrored a literary renaissance in the 1950s, an era when South Africa was burgeoning with creative energy in the music and the arts. (Interestingly enough, a recent South African film, Drum, by director Zola Maseko and starring Taye Diggs, tells the story of Henry Nxumalo, one of the most popular Drum journalists who was found murdered in Johannesburg.) Notwithstanding the attention he and others received through Drum, Mphahlele aspired to be a writer, and after he finished his Masters degree at the University of South Africa in 1956 he went into exile with his wife Rebecca and their three children.

Mphahlele began teaching in Nigeria, later saying that “West Africa gave Africa back to me,” awakening him from the alienation and deep-rooted traumas of apartheid. The 1959 publication of his autobiographical novel, Down Second Avenue, drew worldwide interest in Mphahlele as a writer, and focused a powerful spotlight on the internal dynamics of South Africa as it steadily drifted toward greater racial oppression and greater world isolation. Now a classic of African literature, Down Second Avenue had successful printings in English, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Japanese, which reflected the impact and international popularity of the book. Mphahlele’s second novel, The Wanderers, a story chronicling the experience of exiles in Africa, earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969.

Mphahlele thrived on his teaching activities in Nigeria, but he also found himself drawn into a whirlwind of creativity activity among West African writers and artists such as novelists Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Amos Tutuola, sculptor Ben Ewanwu and painters Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke. Mphahlele felt he had been plucked from a South African literary renaissance only to be dropped into the heart of a West African cultural renaissance. He was appointed director of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, for which he traveled and worked extensively in Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda, in addition to lecturing throughout Europe. At the end of his term with the Congress, while teaching at the University of Nairobi in 1965, Mphahlele was offered a teaching fellowship at the University of Denver and an opportunity to earn his PhD, an offer that he gladly accepted.

By the mid-1970s Mphahlele had built a thriving career in academia and a comfortable life in American suburbia, but the “tyranny of place” dominated his heart and mind. He could feel the land of his forefathers calling him, and he yearned to make his teaching and writing relevant to the actual conditions of life in South Africa. In August, 1977, barely a year after the Soweto riots, and less than a month before the death in detention of Steve Biko, the Mphahleles returned permanently to South Africa, exchanging their British passports for the infamous South African passbook ID, the “badge of oppression.” And this very fact makes Es’kia Mphahlele’s life distinctly different from most South African exiles, who generally left the country in the 50s, 60s and 70s and returned in the early 90s, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Black political parties were unbanned.

The return to South Africa was not without its controversies. Many of Mphahlele’s fellow exiles—prominent political activists, writers, musicians and poets—told him that going back was a mistake. Not only was he possibly endangering himself and his family but, they also argued, that returning at that time would be a propaganda coup for the South African government, which would then appear to be more liberal and open in its policies. Mphahlele dismissed these arguments, but he also paid heavy prices for his return. Within a few months of being back in South Africa, his son Puso began to get his first ugly, bitter tastes of racism apartheid style. He was not conditioned to the survival instincts of living under apartheid, and they feared for his safety. The older Mphahlele children had already become accustomed to individualistic, independent American lifestyles, and so Es’kia and Rebecca sadly gave their son “back to America.” After some discussion, they all agreed that it was best for Puso to live with his sister in Washington, D.C. and finish his high school education in the United States.

Mphahlele had returned ostensibly to assume the chairmanship of the English Department at the historically Black University of the North, and the teaching staff voted unanimously for his appointment. But once again Mphahlele was destined to confront the face of government repression, as the Minister of the Department of Education vetoed his appointment, leaving him jobless. White supremacist politicians could not tolerate the idea of an African being the head of a Department of “English,” leading a White staff that was actually much less qualified. Despite the rebuke (and thinly-veiled retribution) of apartheid officialdom, Mphahlele had the last laugh. He was eventually asked by the vice chancellor of the private University of Witswatersrand—South Africa’s most distinguished university—to become the chairman of their new Department of African Literature.

In the South Africa of 1977—as compared to 1956, the year of his exile—Mphahlele found worsened conditions in the urban townships (Soweto was “monstrously slummier”) and an educational system ravaged by the sub-standard “Bantu” apartheid program. He traveled around the country in various capacities lecturing and teaching new ideas for transforming African education based on “African humanism,” an overarching concept that he felt was valid for the continent as a whole. He often drew large, overflowing crowds of people, young and old, students and non-students, eager to hear from the worldly scholar and Nobel prize nominee who had returned to be with his people and fight the system from within. He was held in high esteem and was a contemporary African prophet and hero to many.

Mphahlele’s African humanism embodied the ideal that Africans should express their own unique approach to education, getting to know themselves and their continent through a study of African history, religion, cosmology, literature and the arts, before moving on to other areas of world knowledge. Although he never drew the apparent parallel, Mphahlele’s African humanism pedagogy presages a comprehensive introspection of African traditional culture, not unlike the Edo period in Japan, where the Japanese barred Europeans from their society and experienced a flowering of their classical culture while simultaneously learning Western technology and economics.

Over many years, I slowly discovered why Es’kia Mphahlele is so revered by South Africans, the world academic community and Africa’s intelligentsia. Sitting in the shade of a friend’s plum tree, I had come full circle, and I could not help but love the small, soft-spoken literary giant. We talked for quite some time about his days with Drum magazine, his years in exile, trends in African art and literature and the future of South Africa and the African continent as a whole. His aged, graying eyes belied the intensity of his intellect moral courage and fierce honesty; his words conveyed the hard-won wisdom of years of travel, copious study and astute human observation.

I asked Es’kia if he felt Africa had a living spirit, and if that spirit touched him or spoke to him in some way. His poignant answer was timeless and inspiring, in light of the overwhelming darkness and strife South Africans, African Americans, and many African people have faced in recent history.

“Yes, Africa speaks to me, because I listen too much to the wild voices of now, of present day politics and ethnic problems and conflicts. (But) I (also) listen to the subterranean voices, the voices coming from the past, from my forefathers and our ancestors. That’s how Africa speaks to me. Never mind the political noises that one hears, this way or that way. I’m talking about something much more solid, as well as spiritual. And there are ugly things happening in African countries. The poverty of Africa touches me deeply, especially because our leaders seem to be so impotent in dealing with it. There’s a good deal of corruption among some African leaders who simply want to have power and wealth. They don’t care two hoots about what happens to the people, and that is the sad part of it. But if you stop and listen to the voices of ancient wisdom—and you hear the voice in the metaphors of our languages and in the mannerisms in which we as Africans approach each other... If we listen to the voices of those forces, you get somewhere. You realize that you have some protection from other kinds of foes and forces that work on you.”

Friday, December 23, 2005

Ethiopian Lions and a Young Girl

Co-evolution? Spiritual communication between species?

Africa is full of mystery, overflowing with wildlife, and nature has a passion and energy that seems to be more intense than in other continents. The bond--as well as the struggle--between the human kingdom and the animal kingdom seems unusual there as well. When I read this
article it fascinated me, and I cross-checked it with another article that said basically the same thing--it confirmed that a young girl had been found, apparently being protected by lions. Co-evolution is essentially about behavorial communication signals between different species. An evolutionary leap occurs when the species develop a new relationship or interaction based on a transformation in the response to communication signals. The lions heard the girl's whimpers, and instinctively chased away her attackers. I suppose I'm not really talking about co-evolution, but rather a unique instance of inter-species communication. Homo sapiens sapiens has the ability to domesticate, but what about circumstances where communication between the animal kingdom and the human occur spontaneously, from the animal side to the human side? Would that all young girls--or young boys for that matter--could have the protection of fierce, wild lions when they're threatened by human sexual predators...

African lions protect abducted girl, fend off attackers

By Anthony Mitchell, Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.

The girl, missing for a week, had been taken by seven men who wanted to force her to marry one of them, said Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa. She was beaten repeatedly before she was found June 9 by police and relatives on the outskirts of Bita Genet, Wondimu said. She had been guarded by the lions for about half a day, he said.

"They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest," Wondimu said. "If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage," he said.

Tilahun Kassa, a local government official who corroborated Wondimu, said one of the men had wanted to marry the girl against her wishes. "Everyone thinks this is some kind of miracle, because normally the lions would attack people," Wondimu said.

Stuart Williams, a wildlife expert with the rural development ministry, said the girl may have survived because she was crying from the trauma of her attack.

"A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn't eat her," Williams said.

Ethiopia's lions, famous for their large black manes, are the country's national symbol and adorn statues and the local currency. Despite a recent crackdown, hunters also kill the animals for their skins, which can fetch $1,000. Williams estimates that only 1,000 Ethiopian lions remain in the wild.

The girl, the youngest of four siblings, was "shocked and terrified" after her abduction and had to be treated for the cuts from her beatings, Wondimu said. He said police had caught four of the abductors; three were at large.

Kidnapping young girls has long been part of the marriage custom in Ethiopia. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia are by abduction, practiced in rural areas where most of the country's 71 million people live.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Genetic Frontier of the Motherland


This is the third column of the Eye on Africa series. I enjoyed researching and writing this piece, although I didn't really get as detailed as I wanted to or perhaps should have regarding the actual genetic controversies. I'm obviously not a molecular geneticist, but I wonder about the issue of databases and genetic markers, particularly if Oprah Winfrey DNA was supposedly traced to the Zulu tribe. According to African Ancestry's web site, they don't have markers for the Ndebeles and the Swazis, who are adjacent ethnic groups and might have similar markers. (They claim to have a marker for Xhosas, another adjacent ethnic group, but that is raises even more questions because the Xhosas are a actually a group of tribes--the Amampondo, Mfengu and Thembu--that speak the Xhosa language. So these become confusing issues with regard to what actually goes into the database.) In Oprah's defense, I read one blog post from someone who claimed to be a member of the Zulu royal family, and he said that Shaka sent a group of Zulu's to the United States for technical education, but they never returned. On the other hand, a lot of South Africans are trying to get away from the tribalism that has been a destructive influence on their history. So why should an American media celebrity claim that she "is Zulu"?

Genetic Frontier of the Motherland

For African Americans, genetic technology in the new millennium is proving to be an unexpected source of knowledge and self-discovery. Incredibly, the tools of modern research are forming an unlikely connection to lost ancestors, broken families and forgotten languages and traditions dispersed by the legacy of slavery. At a time of heightened interest in Africa—when more African Americans are traveling to Motherland than ever before—the link between the Diaspora and Africa is being augmented by the study of DNA.

Thoughts of DNA testing in the Black community might invoke images of forlorn mothers on the Maury Povich Show crying in pain or shrieking vindication as a parade of their hapless boyfriends are brought on camera for the final ‘moment of truth’. Far beyond criminal investigations, paternity suits and court cases, DNA analysis is beginning to have entirely new associations and implications for African Americans. The idea of tracing the DNA of African Diaspora descendents to their roots in Africa is being pioneered by African Ancestry, a company founded in February, 2003 by molecular biologist Dr. Rich Kittles and entrepreneur Gina Paige. Dr. Kittles, began developing his database nearly 10 years ago, as an extension of his academic research. Currently, the company claims it has 20,000 samples in its database, representing about 200 ethnic groups throughout Africa.

The concept for African Ancestry started after Kittles traced his own DNA, and soon became inundated by requests from friends and acquaintances that also wanted to know their own genetic history. Overwhelmed by the work, Kittles eventually partnered with Paige, creating a business that has doubled every year since its launch and has served about 3,000 people. African Ancestry has also attracted media personalities and celebrity clients such as Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, actor Isaiah Washington, “Roots” star LeVar Burton, former UN ambassador Andrew Young and California Congresswoman Diane Watson.

“The market found us. It wasn’t something that we were trying to push on the community,” says Paige, a former Fortune 200 company executive. “People were creating the demand and forcing the creation of the company.”

Customers pay $349 for either a MatriClan test for maternal lineage or a PatriClan for paternal lineage. Each kit contains two sterile cotton swabs that are rubbed on the inside of both cheeks, then placed in bar-coded envelopes that are express couriered to African Ancestry for processing. The results are sent back to the customer in 4-6 weeks, and the original samples are then destroyed to protect confidentiality.

Paige is upbeat not only about the company’s prospects, but also about the impact African Ancestry is having on the African American community.

“People have used this in different ways, on local, national, and global levels. Personally, people share information with their family, and they may name a cousin based on the language of their ancestry,” Paige says, enthusiastically. “People have formed study groups, and native associations. There are people who have lobbied their congressmen, and there are people who have invested in their ancestral communities.”

But the work has not been without its controversies. Oprah Winfrey caused a stir during a recent trip to South Africa when she announced that her DNA test results revealed her ancestors were Zulu. Many found this hard to believe, given that Zulus were historically far removed from the West African slave trade. Moreover, the Zulu Empire was an amalgamation of many different ethnic groups conquered by the great warrior Shaka Zulu, which at its height spread from the South African coast through present-day Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Even Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a leading chief of the Zulu nation remarked, “She is sadly mistaken.”

Others have questioned how reliable DNA data can be in determining ancestry for specific ethnic groups, and whether enough genetic markers have been collected and categorized to derive detailed assessments. But Paige is careful in describing her company’s services and cautions potential customers against having wrong expectations.

“Certainly, we don’t have every ethnic group in our database—we have 200 ethnic groups in our database. But we never market that we will find an ethnic group. We market that we can find the country, but if we can find an ethnic group, that ‘s even better,” Paige explains. “In over 85 percent of the cases we find the ethnic groups, but I don’t want people to be misled. We can’t guarantee that we will find the ethnic groups. People who are looking for ethnic groups need to think long and hard about why they are taking the test.”

Notwithstanding the sarcasm and cynicism sparked by Winfrey’s comments in blogs and on message boards, stories abound of individuals who have found personal meaning in their test results. One woman felt “a sense of completion” after her test results confirmed a story her grandfather told her that one of their ancestors was a slave originally from Timbuktu. Another woman, who traced both her mother’s and father’s ancestors to Sierra Leone, traveled to a rural village and pledged to raise funds for a new school complex and a small medical clinic. A Chicago man who learned he descended from the Kru tribe of Liberia became an activist on behalf of his people, many of whom are refugees displaced by Liberia’s civil war.

Civil rights leader and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, who has traveled and worked in many parts of Africa, traced his ancestry to Sierra Leone and Sudan, countries he had never been active in before. Young feels that DNA analysis is a good resource for African Americans to identify and become involved with specific countries and cultures in Africa.

"What we need now is for people to get deeply involved in one particular country or region or culture, and this certainly is one way that anybody can decide ‘this is where I want to work,’” says, Young, noting that he plans to be more “intrusive and involved” in Sierra Leone and Sudan.

In “Motherland: A Genetic Journey,” filmmakers T. Jackson and A. Baron profile two Black British women and one man who search for their African roots using DNA analysis. One woman is mixed-race, and her test reveals that one of her ancestors was a slave owner, and she visits what used be his sugar plantation in Jamaica. The other woman traces her ancestry to the Bubi tribe of Equatorial Guinea, and has a very emotional reunion on Bioko Island where the people accept her as a sister. The man’s search leads him to an equally emotional encounter with the Kanari tribe in southern Niger.

The award-winning documentary, which aired on BBC and American cable networks, so moved Coloradan Mika Stump that she decided she had to have her own African Ancestry DNA test. Stump—who was recently tested and is waiting for the results—was orphaned when she was 6 after her mother left her in New York City’s Penn Station and never returned. Along with the confusion of her abandonment, Stump has earlier childhood memories of “palm trees and beaches,” suggesting that she and her mother may have come to New York from the Caribbean or a tropical or sub-tropical coastal area. She hopes the test results will help her put together some of the missing pieces of her life.

“It’s everything to me. When people ask me, ‘who are you, where are you from,’ I look at them and I can’t answer,” Stump explains. “It will be amazing if they can pinpoint something and say, this is where I am from. That’s big for me.”The Basalt high country resident believes her DNA analysis will provide her with a reference point where she can begin her research. When she was abandoned, Stump didn’t know her name or her age or her mother’s name, and had to rely on what she was told by medical doctors. Like many others who are exploring the ramifications of DNA testing, Stump is finding a new kind of hope in her quest for a sense of identity and connection with her African ancestors.

For more information on DNA analysis see and

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Parallel Worlds: South African Music in America


Duke Ellington and Sathima Bea Benjamin

This is another columnI in the Eye on Africa series. As I develop my blog, I intend to write a lot more about artists, musicians, songwriters, producers, etc., who are a part of the phenomenal South African music scene. South African jazz--and the many genres that influence it, like marabi, kwela, isicathamiya and mbaqanga--is amazing, especially when you see live performances and feel the energy the artists bring to the audience. The South African music tradition is as profound and varied and extraordinary as African American music--it just hasn't had the same international exposure. When I was in South Africa I hung out with a lot of musicians, producers, promoters, etc., who took me on a seemingly endless journey of discovery about their musical heritage. Inevitably, as time progresses, more and more people will learn about South African artists and their music. If you want to take a quick planetary adventure, you can explore great South African music on a great Jo-burg radio station--check out Kaya FM .

Parallel Worlds: South African Music in America

South African music has had a lasting influence and unlikely presence in American popular culture. From the rich harmonies and fabulous rhythms of The Lion King to pleasant, soothing melodies of “Mbube” (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) to the funky grooves of “Grazing in the Grass,” quite often Americans hear chart-topping hits without realizing that they are South African songs. South Africa is the only country outside of the United States with its own identifiable jazz tradition, and South African music has long had a strong relationship with African-American music, yet few Americans see the bonds and connections. To the American psyche, South African music represents something that is often appealing and surprisingly familiar, yet novel and unknown.

The contradiction and complexities of American and South African music are most profoundly and sadly entwined in “Mbube,” one of the most recognizable tunes in modern music. “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…” is a lyric that resonates in almost everyone's mind. “Mbube,” was written by Solomon Linda (on the far left), a Zulu migrant worker who recorded the song at Gallo Studios in Johannesburg in 1939. Linda was paid 10 shillings (about $3.50) and signed away the rights to the song, as was the standard practice of exploitation of Black artists at the time.

In 1948, Pete Seeger heard “Mbube” on an old ‘78 and mistakenly translated the chorus as “Wimoweh” in a 1950 recording that first popularized the song in America. George Weiss and The Tokens added new English lyrics and turned the song into a smash international hit in 1962, about the same time that Linda died penniless in Soweto. Since then, artists ranging from Glenn Campbell and Chet Atkins to Brian Eno, REM and Nsynch have recorded the song, and, most recently, Disney featured “Mbube” in its box office powerhouse, The Lion King. Rolling Stone magazine estimates that the song has generated at least $15 million in composer royalties, while Linda’s grandchildren remain impoverished in Soweto and are suing Disney and various publishing companies for a portion of the profits.

But beyond the sad story of “Mbube,” there are great sparks of creativity in the parallel history of South African and American music. The seeds were sown when migrants from rural South Africa brought their indigenous rhythms and musical traditions to the big cities, where they blended new hybrid styles heavily influenced by American jazz and big band sounds. “Marabi,” “Mbaqanga,” “Kwela” and “Isicathamiya” were some of the new musical trends that began to evolve in the dynamic mix of South African urban cultures. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and other African-American musicians unknowingly inspired generations of South African artists in the new modern African language of jazz.

In the ‘60s, the plethora of South African music began to slowly trickle out as South African artists went into exile and traveled and performed throughout Africa, Europe and the United States. In the esoteric circles of the jazz and the music industry, seminal artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu generated excitement and new waves of creativity. Miriam Makeba—“The Empress of African Song”—was the first South African to have a major American hit and win a Grammy award, with 1965’s “Pata Pata,” produced by Harry Belafonte. Makeba used her connections to pave the way for many other South African artists, and became an outspoken leader in the struggle against apartheid and racial discrimination in America. She was instrumental in bringing Hugh Masekela to the United States, and introduced him to Harry Belafonte and Dizzie Gillespie, who served as Masekela’s entree to many of the fantastic talents of the Black music scene in the early 60s, including John Coltrane, Theolonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Sammy Davis, Jr., and James Brown.

Hugh Masekela went on to create dynamic collaborations and performances with artists from diverse genres, blazing a high-octane trail between bebop, Motown, rock, soul and his own South African jazz tradition, culminating in his 1968 mega-hit, “Grazing in the Grass.” Because of its familiar trumpet hook, many people often believe Quincy Jones played “Grazing in the Grass,” and miss the subtle but distinct South African jazz flavor.

After returning to Africa for few years, Masekela organized the music festival for Muhammed Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. The “Black Woodstock” was the first major music festival in Africa and featured an incredible array of African American, Caribbean and African artists, including James Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, Etta James, the Pointer Sisters, Celia Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Willie Colon, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, Franko, Papa Wemba, and Fela Kuti. The footage for "When We Were Kings," the documentary film for the fight and the festival, was originally commissioned by Masekela's production company, but it took more than twenty years to complete the film because of various legal and personal battles over a fantastic event that was chaotic and utlimately unprofitable.

Throughout the ‘70s and '80s more and more South African musicians made their way out of the country and either formed their own bands or played with high profile artists like Makeba, Masekela, Ibrahim, and Semenya. Percussionists, horn players, singers and guitarists in the exile community gradually fed the flame of interest in South African music among artists and music lovers all around the world. These unknown and behind the scenes artists assimilated their traditions and skills in festivals, groups and scenes, using their talent to create opportunities in the bohemian lifestyle of nightclubs, concert gigs and touring circuits.

In 1986--seemingly out of nowhere--Paul Simon set off a new explosion of South African music after he slipped into South Africa to collaborate with artists and producers on his multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning Graceland album. The phenomenal success of Graceland created a more conscious awareness of the nascent dimensions of South African music in the landscape of the American music scene. A year after the release of Graceland, guitarist and singer Jonathan Butler began to attract a large following in both Great Britain and the United States with his Grammy-nominated album self-titled album. Butler’s jazz guitar and R&B vocals gave many people the impression he was an African American artist in the mold of George Benson, but for those familiar with South African jazz, the underlying influences in his guitar style were unmistakable. By the end of the decade Mbongeni Ngema took Broadway by storm with the box office smash Sarafina, and its hit song “Bring Back Nelson Mandela,” which he wrote with Hugh Masekela. Sarafina also set the stage for success of The Lion King in the mid-90s as South African music made an indelible mark on mainstream popular culture.

Even with The Lion King, Sarafina, Graceland and all the South African hits extending back to the 60s, we have barely scratched the surface of South African music, which is really a universe all its own. Many great artists and a world of incredible music waiting to be discovered by curious “Westerners.” For those fortunate enough to travel to South Africa, there’s nothing like the ambience of live South African jazz in the hot nightclubs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Johannesburg has a fabulous “Arts Alive” festival every September, which features many great South African artists along with a few African superstars. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival also showcases some of South Africa’s best musicians, along with a lineup of some of the world's top jazz artists. But you can explore South African music a lot easier through the Internet, and find listening samples at the stroke of a keyboard. There is no definitive South African music web site, so you’ll have to take some time to research different artists but it’s well worth the effort. Some artists have elaborate Flash web sites with excellent audio samples, while others have poorly organized web pages with very little information. Quite often you can find artists and samples of their albums on You may also want to start your search by listening online to Kaya FM ( ), a Johannesburg radio station that plays an excellent variety of South African music. You can also check out Sheer Sound ( ) and M.E.L.T. 2000 ( ), two record labels that are cultivating some of South Africa’s best up and coming talent.

Some of my favorite artists include Zim Ngqawana, Paul Hanmer, Jimmy Dludlu, Bayete, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Vusi Khumalo, Moses Molelekwa, Busi Mhlongo, Tsepho Thola, Thandiswa Mazwai, Jeff Maluleke, and Tu Nokwe, not to mention Hugh Masekela and Jonathan Butler. But don’t limit yourself to these choices—there’s plenty to discover on the South African side of the global village.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Miriam Makeba Leaves the International Stage


Miriam Makeba "The Queen of African Song"

If you ask me, I'd say that Miriam Makeba's retirement represents the end of an era in history. It's really hard to understate influence Miriam had on the struggle against apartheid and the growth of South African music on the world stage... When I read this
article, it touched me deeply. Sometimes we take great music and great musicians for granted, like they'll always be there, always performing and creating, always a part of our lives. But then Aaliyah dies in a plane crash, or Luther passes away unexpectedly, or Barry White has kidney problems, and suddenly that great music ends, and there's a huge, sad shift in our feelings about the world. And then we become sentimental... Now, after decades in the limelight, Miriam reminds us that music has its limits and she has to find the right way to wind down her own illustrious career. I love this picture of her in the Zulu headress. She is stunning. And there were other great South African divas--like Dolly Rathebe and Tandie Klaasen--who had all the talent, grace and beauty of Miriam, but for accidents of fate and history, never went into exile and achieved the fame that Miriam had... Their stars shine bright, although not as many see their light...

Miriam Makeba says farewell to the international stage

Florence Panoussian Johannesburg, South Africa 26 September 2005 08:53

After a career of more than 50 years, South Africa's legendary singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba has decided she will end her performing days with a farewell international tour that starts in Johannesburg on Monday.

"I have to go and say farewell to all the countries that I have been to, if I can. I am 73 now, it is taxing on me," Makeba said in an interview with Agence France Presse while she prepared for the first concert. Her voice has lost nothing as she sings the hit Pata Pata, which has excited generations around the world, neither has her sense of timing which she marks with her elegant but simple shoes.

"I don't want to travel as much as I have been. But as long as I'll have my voice, I'll keep on recording," said the singer who won a Grammy award in 1966 for best folk recording with Harry Belafonte for the album An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba and performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland tour in the mid-1980s. A new album will be released "very soon" with a new version of Malaika, another hit which she reworks with the South African Miagi Orchestra, conducted by the Argentine maestro Dante Anzolini and with whom she will perform at the Johannesburg concert and another in Cape Town on September 29.

"Makeba doesn't know where 'doe' is, where 're' is, so you have to be patient" she admitted to the stupefied young musicians of Miagi, with whom she is making the farewell tour, due to wrap up sometime next year. "After, I will stay at home and be the great-grandmother that I am."

Then she admitted with a burst of laughter, that she "has a lot" of record projects: "I want also to rework some of my early songs."

It's difficult to imagine Makeba giving up live performances. However her South African concerts will definitely be "the beginning of the grand finale", said Robert Brooks, director of Miagi.

To sing in her own country with such an orchestra, is however, a first.

"I was so scared. Such a big orchestra" Makeba said with a smile, relieved after the first practice. But a professional in every way, she carefully welcomes suggestions, repeating, as many times as necessary, each melody. At the break, far from playing the star, Makeba relaxes... surprising everyone with a bewitching a capella of Liwawechi, quickly joined by the drums of her loyal percussionist Papa Kouyate, whom she met by chance during her travels.

Leaving South Africa on tour in 1959, Makeba, who "never sang of politics, only the truth", paid with 31 years of exile for her commitment to human rights. Having condemned apartheid all the way to the United Nations, she was banished and didn't see her hometown Johannesburg until the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990. "Mama Africa" sang about all the independence struggles of the continent.

"People gave me that name. At first I said to myself: 'Why do they want to give me that responsibility, carrying a whole continent?' Then I understood that they did that affectionately. So I accepted. I am Mama Africa."

Makeba says she is "very happy in my new South Africa", but is aware of the problems.

"We have only had 11 years of democracy but we are moving, we are moving forward faster than many countries who have been independent a long, long time before. We all have to do it together, all of us, found ourselves this country regardless we are black, white or whatever!".

As part of this work, Makeba has founded a centre for the rehabilitation of youths from the street, introducing them to performing music.

"They all have a lot of talent. When they sing, ouah, they sing! When they dance, haaa, they dance! I really think that the next performers could be among those girls."

The next Makeba? "No, nobody can replace me as I can't replace anyone else," said the singer, who wants to leave a memory of, simply, a "very good old lady".

- Sapa-AFP

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Hugh Masekela on Music and Politics


The first column of the Eye on Africa series is this interview I did with Hugh Masekela just before he played a Fourth of July concert at Five Points here in Denver. He was very open and easy going, which I found rather surprising for an artist of his stature. A lot of times famous musicians can be full of themselves, emotional, moody, etc. After we sat down I put my cell phone on my lap and Hugh immediately warned me about the cancer radiation radiation threat to my family jewels! Funny guy ... Hugh's autobiography, Still Grazing, is absolutely fabulous--once you pick it up, I guarantee you won't be able to put it down. The man blazed a trail from bebop to rock, soul, and all kinds of African genres, and he opened a lot of people's eyes to South African music. He organized the music festival for the "Rumble in the Jungle" Ali vs. Foreman fight in Zaire, the first international Black music festival in Africa. Now that's history...

Hugh Masekela On Music and Politics

Master musician, jazz artist, activist, storyteller and spokesman, Hugh Masekela’s spirit has burned bright through four decades of tumultuous world change. The young boy who mastered his trumpet on the dusty streets of South Africa’s townships was destined to use his instrument as the sound of freedom, yearning and triumph, the sound of dissonant harmonies and fantastic grooves that naturally brought everyone to their feet.

Going into exile in the 60s, moving from Britain to the United States and throughout many nations in Africa, Hugh always used his stage as a platform to denounce apartheid while simultaneously collaborating with and learning from some of the world’s greatest artists, including Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba, Herbie Hancock, Dave Gruisin, Chick Corea, Donald Byrd, Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and many others. As a witness to the American civil right movement, the winds of independence in Africa, and finally the fall of apartheid, Hugh’s music and storytelling chronicles the modern awakening of Africa and her people. Whether it’s the irrepressible joy of his 1968 mega hit “Grazing in the Grass,” or the gutsy power and pain of “Stimela,” or the mystical transcendence of “Marketplace,” Hugh helped bring African music—and South African music in particular—to the mainstream of global pop culture.

On Independence Day—that most American of holidays—Hugh brought his magic to the streets of Five Points for the annual “Jazzy Fourth” event. Well into his sixties, Hugh’s trumpet and his raspy, melodic, chanting voice still rocks the stage with a feeling of timelessness and eternal youth. With the crowd there was no doubt. Black, White, Hispanic, young and old, jazz lovers, hip hop kids and summer revelers were all carried away by the euphoria of Hugh's impeccable performance. In the midst of the new challenges of rebuilding South Africa and pursuing a multitude of music, film and writing projects, Hugh has mellowed and wizened, seeking new ways to express his artistic vision and philosophy. Before the performance I had the chance to sit down with him at the Gardenia Hotel, where he pondered his journey through the modern history and the music industry. In his unassuming way, Hugh seems like an elder cultural statesman of Africa, a modern day griot overflowing with stories, thoughts and ideas that are much more than what one might expect from most musicians. Relaxed, yet full of energy, Hugh seems ready to share the depth of his spirit as if it was as natural as channeling the air through his trumpet.

JA: How has your music changed since you returned to South Africa from in the early 1990s?

HM: It hasn’t change much—South Africa hasn’t changed that much. Our political situation has changed, but the damage that was done by apartheid hasn’t changed very much. If it took 50 years to build apartheid, I think it will take 50 years to get rid of the damage done (by apartheid). It will probably take two generations. Our biggest dilemma in SA is that we are a liberated people who are poor. The people who are really free people are our oppressors. We made a deal that was very much to their favor. They were pariahs internationally, they couldn’t do business anywhere and everywhere they went they were afraid to say they were South Africans. Now everywhere they go they get applauded for being South Africans and they have all the new opportunities. If you look at all the new international South African businesses, they are basically White businesses, or they are businesses that are owned by people who have been co-opted by the old South African economic establishment—just like many of civil rights leaders in the States. What happens in most liberation struggles is that people don’t remain militant—they don’t remain vigilant and guard the freedoms that they’ve won. And instead they get manipulated into being co-opted into the establishment—especially by the old financial establishment—and it’s a danger we’re facing right now. In South Africa right now close to 50 percent of the population is impoverished, and those are the people worked the hardest and suffered the most under apartheid. I am now into writing a second novel—I wrote my biography, “Still Grazing”—but in my novels these issues come up a lot. I’m also going into film, to create real life characters, portraits and profiles of what’s really happening right now in South Africa. We’re not being harassed by the police—if you have the means and the education, you can live very well—but it is the underclass that are suffering. And all the non-governmental solidarity organizations that were supporting us during apartheid have said “Hey, you’re free now. We’re going to help other people.” So from a solidarity perspective we don’t have any friends but the documents that freed us. That’s the reality in my head of the new South Africa.

JA: What do you think is the answer?

HM: A wonderful thing about our current president is that he realizes that South Africa’s freedom is meaningless, unless the rest of the international African community is free—unless all of us, the so-called Diaspora can be free. We all won political freedom, but we need to win economic freedom. But that is not going to come through protests and soapboxes--it is a thing that is going to come through synergy. I think the answer is cultural synergy. To achieve that cultural synergy we have to come out of that denial against us all being Africans that we are manipulated into by colonialism and oppression. We’re the last consumer community, all over the world. We are discouraged from seeing each other as one unit. Once we can do that—the answer to that is our cultural background, our historical glory—when you look at people of African origin from all over the world, you think that our existence started with slavery, or colonialism. But we were there long before. And that is the veil that is put in front of us. I think if we can remove that veil and see who we really are, and where we come from, and that we really did civilize the world, maybe we will wake up and say, “Hey, let us get together and produce…” At home (in South Africa) I’m involved in recording, television and film companies to build an entertainment infrastructure that is home-grown and home-owned, African-owned, that will replace or transform the present European ownership with our own vision and our own design. And then maybe we can source from our traditional customs and the glory of our heritage—that is the future thing we can sell to the world. I think that’s what makes the Indians who they are, the Chinese who they are, the Japanese who they are, even the Americans who have a hybrid culture—there is no culture that has been sold better than theirs.

JA: In SA there’s a lot of talk about the idea of an “African Renaissance,” but in the United States, we don’t hear any talk of an African Renaissance. Can you elaborate on that?

HM: Well, talk is not sustainable, but action is. It’s another thing that Thabo Mbeki, our president put out there, hoping people would pick up the torch and run with it. But renaissance cannot come about through thought--it has to be acted on. The only way we can act on it is to come out of denial about who we are as Africans. Because as long as we deny who we really are, what our historical heritage is, there can’t be a renaissance, because renaissance is going back to your roots. Celebrating and glorifying your origins—I think that’s what the Indians and the Europeans and the Arabs and the Jews everybody else is doing. We’re the only people who are not doing it. If you look at other people in the world, they have seasons, and sometimes they have whole months that they celebrate something about who they are. The Christians get us from November to January. But we African people, we don’t have one binding celebration that we can say that we can say “this is our day” internationally.

JA: Do you see Kwaanza as fulfilling that role?

HM: It’s one day, and it’s sort of an alternative to Christmas. I don’t think we should be involved in alternatives to other cultural celebrations. I think we should come up with our own. And we have our own—if we look back at history—if we look back at the empires we had, like the Songai Republic, the Monomotapa Republic and so on. We invented the wheel, we invented math, we invented geometry—we have so many resources to celebrate. But we have to accept that we are those people, and we have to cancel the history of our conquerors, and say this is really who we are. We can go to the schools of our conquerors, but just like the Jews have like Friday and Saturday, the Muslims have every Friday they get together and the Christians have Sunday and then the Buddhists have their days, we must have our own days. Those things are historical, and we’re going to have to research.

JA: Can you tell us a little about your new album Revival, and how it relates to some of these issues?

HM: On my new album and I have song called “Woman of the Sun” I talk about a woman who is proud to be herself, proud of her African beauty. On track number 9 (“Ibala Lam”) talks about how we should be proud of the dark skin we’re in. Track number 10 (“Sleep”) I talk about sleep… How do we sleep at night, when people are exploding in the minefields in Angola and other places because of surrogate wars? How do we sleep in Rwanda with the smell of all those bodies all around us? How do we sleep Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, in Haiti, when there are people who are working against us but are part of us, people who are surrogates for foreign industrial interests? All the wars in Africa have nothing to do with personalities or African issues. It’s all about the fact that there are resources there. The international industrial interests are manipulating our leaderships---and if those leaderships are not satisfactory they are ousted, and they put in a leadership that will protect the exploitation of the raw materials of that area.

JA: I’m particularly fascinated by “Ibala Lam.”

HM: That song is an adaptation. I actually first heard it in 1979 from a young man named Lebo M (who eventually went on to write and produce the multi-platinum soundtrack for Disney’s “The Lion King”) who was only 14 years old, and he had just arrived out of exile from Lesotho. He was brought by Tim Tahane who was at the World Bank, and he also brought another young guy named Vernon Molefe, the younger brother of Phil Molephe from SABC Africa. Tim called me and said, “Listen here, I’ve got two boys I brought from Lesotho. I want to send them to school, but they tell me they are musicians, so I want you to listen to them and tell me if it’s worth my while to hassle for them to get into music school.” This little guy started singing this some “Ibala Lam” and it brought tears to my eyes. I never forgot it from that day. It says, “this color of mine that is so Black, I’m proud if it—it’s my shining armor.” Most of my recent hits in South Africa are have been old songs, songs like “Tainia” is an old Xhosa wedding song, it’s more than two centuries old, and “Mamuri:” an old Tswana song.

JA: Why have your South African hits been old songs?

HM: Because I’ve been on a revival quest. I’m trying to show that our past, is our wealth. That which was removed and denigrated and vilified by our conquerors as being barbaric and backward—that is our finest self. Whenever I bring that forward it becomes a hit, because people feel it right away. It’s like “Yea, this is about me.” The young people think that it’s new. But it’s in their genes—they feel it in their soul. There’s problem with that here in the States with Black people—the removal of the melody. Today there’s hardly any song you can sing along with. What is sponsored is mostly anti-education, it’s anti-respect, it’s about showing booty, it’s just beats and grooves and rhythm but there’s no songs. What we don’t realize is the magnificence of international urban recreation, came from African Americans. The whole world tries to walk like you, talk like you, to dance like you, to sing like you, to dress like you, but they won’t tell you that. But you can see it happening all over. That’s what brought me to the States—I felt that. And all that, I watch killed. I watch jazz killed—the closing of the clubs (that thrived) when I first came here in the 60s—Birdland and the Blue Note all closed down, and that whole jazz movement closed down, because people who came out of Bebop could think and they had opinions and they were not afraid of White people. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie Monk and Mingus, they were not liked by the White establishment, because they came up with something that was magnificent and new and they also thought. Duke Ellington was invincible; he and Billy Strayhorn were major intellectuals. Had they been White people they would have been placed far above George Gershwin and Cole Porter. They were prolific. But what spoils things now is the non-melodic. Even the dances—there’s no dance where you can say “that’s the funky chicken”, or “that’s the dog,” or “that’s the slide” or “that’s the twist.” When I came here, those were tangible dances. People say I’m socially paranoid, but I know there is a deliberate and ongoing campaign to make sure that the excellence of international African magnificence is curtailed. That’s why Bob Marley was done in, that’s why Miriam Makeba was blackballed out of here, that’s why Belafonte sort of disappeared, that’s what happened to Sly and Jimi Hendrix. James Brown was a major survivor. People think that that campaign is over, but that campaign doesn’t go away.

JA: How do you see this in relation to South African jazz and the tradition you came out of?

HM: The thing that is bringing (music) home, is that the young (South African) men and women are technologically very advanced. They are building their own studies and production companies, and that’s what we’re involved in with Chissa (Hugh’s record label). I think that slowly we are getting into an era where we’ll do our manufacturing, our own distribution and our own marketing and sales. And hopefully soon we’ll have our own radio stations and television stations and film companies and we’ll come up with a new thing. With the help of security companies we’ll be able to come up with a whole new entertainment infrastructure. Everything has to be continental. The continent has to be safe for Africans to have a good time. Africans need to have a good time—Africans haven’t had a good time for centuries, and we have to build that. But I don’t think it’s in the mind of most African governments to do that. South African jazz is a media myth in growth. Basically there is no African entertainment industry—if it exists its very miniscule, it’s nowhere near the Japanese or the Chinese or the Europeans or the Indians, and it has to go there, before we can say South African or African music is happening. Of course there’s few artists, but right now it’s not happening. It has to be built.

JA: When I was in South Africa, I heard a lot of complaints that younger South Africans were losing interest in their culture because of their interest in rap and African American music and television. Do you see any evidence of that?

HM: If anything the youth in South Africa are the only ones who are looking up. People like Don Laka, people like Mzwai Bala, who produced my last album and was the leader of TKZ, people like Oscar Mhlangwa and Bruce from Brothers of Peace who produced Bongo Maffin, Malaika and Mafikizolo, that was all native languages. These are all young people, but they are really aggressive about their origins, their past and their heritage. They are the people who are forging an African renaissance, and those are the people I’ve been working with. I find that their curiosity for the past is insatiable. I think they are the hope. I think the adults have lost it. I think that in the whole international African world, adults are the ones to blame, because they left their children to the television, and they bought their own television and closed themselves in their own rooms to watch their own programs and their agendas are to be as Western as possible. And they’re not teaching their children. I know my grandchildren are going to be fine, because my children are fine. But I think that the international African adult has abandoned their responsibility to keep their family values going and to point their children in the right direction.

JA: Was there ever a time when you thought you would never see the defeat of apartheid in your lifetime?

HM: I never thought that I would go back home—I never thought that South Africa would be free in my lifetime. But I knew it was going to be free one day. I not only thought I was going to die in exile, I was sure of it. Especially after I went to live in Botswana between 1981 and 1985. I said to myself, “This is the closest I’m going to be to home.” I was able to organize a music school, my record company built a studio, and Gabarone started to become a cultural hub of Southern Africa, and the death squads came and so I went into second exile. I’ll never forget June 17, 1985, when I left, I thought, “Here I am going back into second exile.” But I didn’t feel badly for myself, because I knew that I would survive. I felt bad for the people of South Africa, and Africa, because I knew that to a great extent Africa would never be free until South Africa was free. But now that South Africa is free, that’s only step one. The next step is to free Africa from surrogate wars that are waged on behalf of international industrial and economic interests. And then we have to get rid of the frontiers--the borders—because we didn’t put them there. That won’t happen in our lifetime, but it’s very important to be part of that initiative. JA: Your first major hit in the US, “Grazing in the Grass” has become something of an American classic, although a lot of people probably know the tune, they may not know the artist. Almost 40 years have passed now since that powerful time when you wrote “Grazing in the Grass.” Can you tell us something about how you feel when you play that song now, and the feeling and the atmosphere of the time you wrote it? HM: It was written by a friend of mine Philemon Ho. He came to New York with a show called Siponono. He was with Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu and Jonas Gwangwa. It’s great to have songs from South Africa like “Grazing in the Grass” and songs like “Pata Pata” and grooves like Ladysmith Black Mamabazo’s “Homeless.” It’s great to know that the music of the people you come from has a universal effect. I think that is what helped free us, because we were able to reach the whole world, and the whole world came to our side and said, “These people are something else! We can’t let them be oppressed. We need them to groove!” After Paul Simon did Graceland, every artist couldn’t do an album without an anti-apartheid or free Nelson Mandela song. So there’s something about South African music that is universal that hits the whole world. People embrace that music also because of our liberation struggle. But now we’re building a phase where people have to like us just because our music is good. I think the staying power of a song like “Grazing in the Grass”—which has been a hit for 3 different groups, and a number one hit for two of them—shows we’re going to have something that in future will touch the world in a much bigger way, because our way is clear now. It gives me great hope for the future.

To find out more about Hugh Masekela and his new Revival album, visit: Also visit: