The Woyingi Blog

Film Review: The Harder They Come (1972)

Posted in Films, Jamaican Film, Jamaican Music, Reggae by the woyingi blogger on January 30, 2011

Film: The Harder They Come (1972)

Director: Perry Henzell

Starring: Jimmy Cliff

Country: Jamaica

Genre: Action/Music

The Harder They Come, directed by White Jamaican Perry Henzell, is the first film made by Jamaicans for Jamaicans. Up until this film was made, Jamaica had been a popular film location because of its beautiful beaches and lush tropical forests, however, much like the country’s tourism industry, the films did not depict the harsh realities of Jamaican life. The Harder They Come is a grim portrait of a brazen criminal you just wants to be famous.

Ivanhoe Martin, played by Black Jamaican reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, arrives in Kingston from the countryside after his grandmother’s death. He has brought along several possessions, including a mango for his mother but all are stolen and he arrives at his mother’s shack with nothing but the little money remaining from the sale of his grandmother’s house. His mother, who is devastated by the news that her mother has died and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral, tells Ivan that he must return to the countryside because if he stays in the city he’ll just become a criminal. He also informs him that he can’t stay with her. He leaves her shack but as he is walking out the door she asks if he has brought a mango and he tells her that the mangos didn’t grow well in the countryside that season.

Ivan tries to find work but he has no skills and there is no shortage of labour in the city. But he persists. He gets work from “The Preacher”, who his mother has refered him to. He also develops an interest in Elsa, who he sees singing in the church choir. She is the ward of the Preacher. Ivan joins the choir just to get close to Elsa. At one point in the film, we see images of choir-singing at a revival juxtaposed to images of Elsa and Ivan naked on the beach. Elsa is seduced by Ivan and eventually leaves her home with the preacher to live with him. But she soon realizes that Ivan isn’t at all serious and seems to expect her to find work to support them while he goes and tries to become famous by making a record. Ivan pursues record producer Hilton, who agrees to record Ivan’s song “The Harder They Come”.

There is a Chinese Jamaican character in the film who works closely with Hilton producing records. This character reminded me that one of the leading record producers in Jamaica in the 1960s was Leslie Kong, who was the first Jamaican producer to get international hits. He started his career as a record producer after meeting Jimmy Cliff, who was singing a song outside of Kong’s family’s record shop/restaurant/ice cream parlour in the hopes that Kong would record him. This inspired Kong to launch his own record label, Beverly’s. He recorded Cliff’s song “Dearest Beverly”, thus also launching Cliff’s musical career. Kong recorded with the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Desmond Dekker. He died young of a heart attack in 1971, allegedly due to a “curse” cast on him by Bunny Livingston of The Wailers because of a dispute over the release of the album, The Best of the Wailers. Kong died about a week after the album was released.

Hilton tells Ivan that he will distribute the recording and get it played by DJs but Ivan must sign over his rights and he will only receive $20 for the recording. Ivan refuses as he believes that he deserves much more money. Ivan tries to get his song played by DJs at clubs and at the radio stations but all refuse as they have agreements with Hilton only to play recordings he gives them. Disheartened, Ivan agrees to sign away his rights and only receive $20 just so that he can get his record played but Hilton takes revenge but telling DJs not to play it too much because he thinks Ivan is a trouble maker.

Ivan gets into the ganga (marijuana) trade with the help of his friend Pedro as there isn’t other work for him to do. But Ivan soon realizes that people like him and Pedro are just low-level dealers and are not making the real money. But at one point, to avoid getting caught by the police, Ivan kills a police officer. During this scene, we see a flashback to an earlier scene in the film when Ivan gets whipped for having slashed the face of a man who stole his bike. We realize that Ivan is afraid of receiving more corporal punishment so he kills the police officer. Ivan goes into hiding but he is ratted on by his friend Jose Smith. Ivan is able to escape from the police who are after him, killing most of them. Ivan then goes on a spree through the city, robbing people, stealing cars, and at one point demanding that a photographer take pictures of him at gun point. He wants to send one of the pictures to the local newspaper to be published. He seems proud that he has achieved fame because of his ability to avoid getting caught by the police. Hilton starts getting Ivan’s record played now that he’s a famous criminal and it becomes a hit.

The police decide to force the local people living in the slum who are surviving off the ganga trade to give Ivan up. They stop the ganga trade so no one is able to make any money. People in the slum begin to suffer, including Pedro’s son, Rupert, who Elsa has grown close to. Elsa decides to turn Ivan in so that the trade can start-up again.

Ivan is supposed to escape to Cuba by boat but he is unable to swim out to the boat in time and is left on the beach. He decides to go down in a blaze of glory in a shoot-out with the police.

The Impact of The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come inspired a novel of the same name by Michael Thelwell. The novel follows Ivan but develops the plot further; including giving the reader a portrait of what Ivan’s life was like back in the countryside before he came to the city.

The film brought reggae music to an international audience and although the film was not well-distributed, its soundtrack was, paving the way for the success of Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley. The film is referenced in the legendary British Punk band The Clash’s song The Guns of Brixton, a song with has obvious reggae influences. From the song:

You see, he feels like Ivan

Born under the Brixton sun

His game is called survivin’

At the end of the harder they come

Personal Reflections

I didn’t really like the character of Ivan at all. He frankly has no admirable qualities, other than blind determination. But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. The “realness” of the film is what captured my attention, as well as all the small moments that make up a portrait of slum life in Jamaica. From Ivan’s mother asking, so sadly, if he brought a mango for her from the countryside, to an elderly drunk laughing at Ivan when he sees him running the streets with a gun and only his underwear on, you can tell that this is a film meant to resonate with people in Jamaica. Its gaze isn’t from outsiders looking in but for insiders finally having a chance to see themselves on-screen. One of the most brilliant moments of the film is at the end, during Ivan’s final shoot-out with the police on the beach, we shift from seeing the shoot-out to seeing an audience of Jamaican movie-watchers laughing with excitement at the image of Ivan on-screen confronting the police. We had seen a similar audience, equally as excited, watching a shoot-out in a  spagetti(Italian-made films copying the style of American Westerns) starring Franco Nero earlier in the film. It is as if Henzell is trying to say “We have our one anti-heroes, our own outlaws to watch, admire, and be entertained by. We don’t need to consume the stories of others. We have our own stories.” That said, is this really an image these people should be looking up to? As Julianne Burton observes:

The action of the final scene reverts to the massacred sob and the cheering crowds at the Rialto. Jose’s contemptuous dictum that the hero can’t die until the last reel rings in Ivan’s ears an he faces his own posse. Amidst the indistinguishable shouts of the audience, one cry—“Ivan”—stands out because it was absent from the original scene. Whether it is an indication of Ivan’s mythification of his own death in order to face it, or a cry from the masses of his downtrodden countrymen/women who (either, at that moment or long after his death) hail him an a hero, is not a crucial distinction. In both cases his is revealed to be a hollow heroism.

Further Reading:

The Harder They Come by Michael Dare (article available online)

The Harder They Come: Cultural colonialism and the American dream by Julianne Burton (essay available online)

Interview (2001) with Peter Henzell available online

The Harder They Come Musical Website

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African Artist Profile: Malangatana Ngwenya

Malangatana, Photo by Werner Puntigam

Mozambican artist Malangatana , (pronounced mah-LANG-gah-tah-nah en-GWEN-yah),  died following respiratory complications on January 5th of this year. I had an opportunity to learn about his life and work from the BBC African Perspective Podcast. I have decided to write my own profile of Malangatana in order to help me learn more about the man, his work, and his country.

Born Valente Malangatana  Ngwenya  (Ngwenya means crocodile) on June 6th 1936, Malangatana grew up in a village called Matalana, located about 30 km north of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. He helped his mother, who was a traditional healer, on her farm while attending first Swiss Protestant and then Roman Catholic mission schools. His father, like many men from the country’s southern region, was often absent as he was away working in the gold mines of South Africa. While growing up in Matalana he worked herding cattle and studied traditional healing from two of his uncles.

At the age of 12, Malangatana moved to the capital to find work. At that time, the capital, now called Maputo, was called Lourenço Marques by the Portuguese colonial authorities. Marques was a Portuguese trader and explorer who settled in Mozambique. The capital was renamed Maputo, after the Maputo River, during independence in 1976. He first found work as a nanny, then, in 1953, Malangatana found work as a ball boy at a tennis club. It was here that he met Augusto Cabral and Pancho Guedes, both members of the tennis club, who would help to introduce him to Maputo’s artistic community and support his education as an artist. As Joe Pollitt recounts how Cabral met Malangatana:

[Malangatana] asked Cabral, one of [the tennis club’s] members, whether he had a pair of old sandals he could spare. The young biologist – and amateur painter – took him home. Malangatana asked to be taught painting, and Cabral gave him equipment and the advice to paint whatever was in his head. Putting aside his teenage training as a traditional healer, Malangatana did just that, encouraged by Cabral and the prolific Portuguese-born architect Pancho Guedes, another tennis club member.

Years later in 1981, when Cabral had become the director of the Natural History Museum in Maputo, he would give Malangatana a commission to create a mural in its gardens. Joe Pollitt describes the mural as follows: “In a celebration of the unity of humankind and the often brutal world of nature, the work depicts wide-eyed figures in earth-coloured pastels, with extended limbs and claw-like hands.” Malangatana began to attend events organized by Nucleo de Arte. In 1959, he exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group show organized by Nucleo. Alda Costa describes the formation of the Nucleo de Arte as follows:

In 1936, some of these individuals were involved in the creation of the Núcleo de Arte da Colónia de Moçambique, which was set up in the city of Lourenço Marques with the aim of spreading aesthetic education and promoting the progress of art in the colony. According to the association’s statutes, its job was to organise art courses, put on art exhibitions, create an art museum (with an indigenous art section), and organise visits by artists from Portugal, who could create works of art in the colony inspired by local subjects. It was also its job to organise art exhibitions dealing with Mozambican subjects in Portugal and contribute, in every possible way, to the artistic exchange between Mozambique and the metrópole. Its sections included: Architecture, Fine and Decorative Arts; Music and Choreography; Theatre; Literature and History of Art; Indigenous Art and Ethnography and also Propaganda and Publicity. In the event of a situation not being covered by the association’s statutes, the statutes of the metropóle’s Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (Portuguese Fine Arts Society) would apply. The creation of the Núcleo de Arte was clearly the embodiment of imperial thinking and of the attempt to build closer relations between Portugal and its colonies, as were the large-scale propaganda campaigns carried out at the time. Its actions and importance in the colony, however, spread far beyond those interests…

Final Judgement, 1961 from the site of the David Winton Bell Gallery

In 1961, at the age of 25, he had his first solo exhibition. According to Joe Pollitt, writing Malangatana’s obituary in The Guardian:

He courageously presented his ambitious Juízo Final (Final Judgment), a commentary on life under oppressive Portuguese rule. Mystical figures of many colours, including a black priest dressed in white, evoke a vision of hell. Some of the figures have sharp white fangs, a recurring motif in Malangatana’s work, symbolising the ugliness of human savagery.

Malangatana also wrote poetry. In 1963, some of his poetry was included in the journal Black Orpheus and was included in the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa.

In 1964, Malangatana joined the struggle for Mozambican independence by becoming a member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO). For his involvement, he was arrested by the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and spent 18 months in jail. One of his fellow prisoners was Mozambique’s leading poet, José Craveirinha.

In 1971, he received a grant from the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation (created by the Armenian oil magnate and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian, who played a key role in making the Middle East’s oil reserves available to the Western world) and went to Portugal to study printmaking and ceramics. His art reached an international audience and he had exhibitions in Lisbon. Three years later, he returned to Mozambique. The Carnation Revolution of April 1974, the military coup in Portugal that forced its government from a dictatorship to a democracy, accelerated Mozambique’s independence. He rejoined FRELIMO, which had developed from a guerrilla movement into a single-party Communist organization aimed at becoming the new ruling political power. However, a rival political party, the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO), supported by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa, came into conflict with FRELIMO, and a devastating civil war ensues costing the country about a million lives, as people died in combat, from starvation. About five million people were displaced. Many were made amputees by landmines, which are still a problem even after the civil war ended in 1992.

Malangatana was active in FRELIMO during this period but he also continued his work as an artist. His work during this time is a reflection on the horrors of the civil war. According to art critic Holland Cotter in his obituary for Malangatana:

Most of the paintings and drawings Mr. Ngwenya did during this period were a direct response to the violence he witnessed. Densely packed with figures, they presented lurid, Boschian visions of the Last Judgment and the torments of hell rooted in images related to healing and witchcraft remembered from childhood. It was only after peace was finally declared in 1992 that the content and the look of his work changed: he introduced landscape images and cooled a palette dominated by charred reds and stained whites with greens and blues.

In 1997 he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace and received a Prince Claus Award.

He is survived by his wife, Sinkwenta Gelita Mhangwana, two daughters, and two sons.

According to Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell, who met Malangatana in 2005:

While on an assignment for the Guardian in Mozambique in 2005, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Malangatana, who was then living in a large house near the airport which was part gallery and part archive. I had already been shown some of his work, which was not only in public galleries in Maputo, but also widely used for book covers and CDs. What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they clearly held him in high esteem. “He is my general,” one of the young artists told me.

He was a generous and entertaining host, telling us with a smile that his father had been a cook for the British in South Africa. A volume of his paintings, entitled Cumplicidades, published in 2004 with a foreword by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto, illustrates the impressive range of his work. I treasure my copy, which is inscribed “for Dunken Cambell from my heart”.

Further Reading:

Obituary by Joe Pollitt from The Guardian available online

Obituary by Holland Cotter from The New York Times available online

Obituary from BBC News available online

Obituary by Pauline Wynter from Pambazuka News available online

Interview with Albie Sachs available online

Images of Malangatana’s paintings at the Contemporary African Art Gallery  available online

Images of Malangatan’s paintings at Kulungwana available online

Malangatana, edited by Julio Navarro,  “this superbly illustrated book of Malangatana’s paintings is a showcase of his work. The paintings are accompanied by two introductory essays, one on the artist’s biography, the other a critical essay situating the paintings and the importance of his work in context. To date only available in Portuguese, this English-language edition provides the opportunity for a wider audience to gain an in-depth appreciation and understanding of the background and meanings of the paintings” (description available online)

Webpage for the 2007 documentary film “Ngwenya, the Crocodile” about Malangatana

In search of new African art in the 1960s. Sponsorship and training in the decade of euphoria – Ulli Beier, Pancho Guedes and Julian Beinart by. A. Pomar (article available online)

Revisiting the Years When Pancho Guedes Lived in Mozambique: The Arts and the Artists by A. Costa (article available online)

Duncan Campbell’s 2005 Maputo Photo Gallery for The Guardian, includes a picture of Malangatana, available online

British Artist Joe Pollitt’s Blog

Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)

Black Canadian Profile: William Sylvester Alpheus Beal 1874 to 1968

I recently just got back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was my first time visiting this province so in honour of my trip, I decided to write a profile of one of the province’s first Black settlers. The Black population of the Canadian West grew quite slowly in the 19th and 20th Century, with most migrants coming from the United States. One of the first and best documented Blacks to migrate and settle in Manitoba was William S. A. Beal aka Billy Beal.

Billy Beal, Photo Taken by Beal himself

Billy Beal was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on January 16th 1874, the son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal. Billy Beal grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. Minnesota was a region where the Manitoba government was focusing its immigration advertising at the time. Beal immigrated to Canada in 1906 where he worked in the Swan River area of Manitoba as a steam engineer at a saw mill. The area was mainly settled by Icelandic, Scandinavian and German immigrants. Beal describes life on a pioneer homestead in the region as follows (I have made spelling corrections to the original):

The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at that time. It was in the fall of 1906 that one of my acquaintances asked me to spend the winter on his homestead. That was in the district that is called Lancaster now. We went out there to fix up the house and things because he had a wife to share his good fortune with him. The scrub was so dense out there that we had to climb a tree to see much of his possessions. I had originally come from the city and I thought a man must have an awful grudge against a woman to take her out in the woods like that.

Unlike many other Black immigrants to the Canadian West, Beal was not initially interested in building a homestead, but he soon changed his mind under the influence of men at the sawmill and a book he read. He decided to settle in the Big Woody region. He writes:

Two years after at the sawmill where I worked most of the men were homesteaders and there was nothing but homestead talk every evening in camp. They would set around the table talked and joked each other about their braking and clearing. […] This and a book that I read that summer inspired me to try homesteading myself. So in the fall when the summer season at the mill was over, I applied at the land office in Swan River for a permit to file on a homestead. The only land then available near Swan River was ten miles North West of town some new land just opened for settlement. It was not then even included in the municipality and I was the first one to locate there. This was in 1908. It was very discouraging looking then, all heavy bush or rather dense trees like a forest and I had to clear and break fifteen acres in three years. There were no roads of course of any kind. Then too, there was the Woody River between it and town and no bridge. I had to cut a road in to haul material in to build my first shack.

But instead of focusing on clearing his land and farming, he started building a library. He collected catalogues from publishing houses and sent away for hundreds of books including the works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Scientific Literature, Astronomy, and Philosophy. Unfortunately, Beal’s library was lost in 1911, burned to the ground in a spring fire which swept through the Swan River Valley. After this disaster, Beal focused on farming but gave it up in 1916 and returned to working for local lumber companies, just returning to his homestead on off seasons.

Beal was something of a renaissance man. Beal even built a homemade telescope out of lengths of stove pipe and rolled metal from tin cans. Some even believed he had medical training and he even assisted in giving inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the smallpox outbreak of 1920.

In 1912, he was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District and was elected its first Secretary Treasurer, a position that he held for 37 years. Beal helped to establish a circulating library within the school system. He was the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He also formed a literary society and debating teams, directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts.

On top of all this he was also an amateur photographer. Most of his photographs are of people from the Swan River Valley, pictured in their homes of outside in natural settings so that the photographs do not look staged. A selection of his photographs were featured in the self-published 1988 amateur biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly.

Beal was a life-long bachelor. After he retired, he moved to the volunteer run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless on January 25th 1968 at 94 years of age. He was buried in an unmarked grave in The Pas Cemetery.

Very little is known about Beal’s life before he immigrated to Manitoba. Beal wrote an 8 page memoir in the 1950s but it begins, unlike most memoirs, with his immigration to Manitoba, not his birth. The memoir begins:

I came up to this country during Laurier’s land boom and effort was being made to settle the west by giving every man a “homestead” for $10.00, three years residence and fifteen acres cleared and broke. I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then but to follow my trade of engineer as there [were] many saw mills being operated.

Barrow and Hambly, who wrote Beal’s biography, interviewed neighbours, friends, and aquaintances of Beal’s in order to learn more about his early life. Much that they uncovered was only rumour and speculation as Beal didn’t tell many people about his past. According to Tom and Mary Barrow, two acquaintances of Beal’s, Beal immigrated because he was the dark-skinned child of a family that could pass as white, in an interview they state: “Well, he was a—he had Negro blood in him and it really came out in him, and his family, I guess, persuaded him to come up to this country so they wouldn’t be embarrassed having this fella who showed so much Negro in the family.”

Filmmakers Ernesto Griffiths and Winston Washington Moxam have written and produced a feature film about Beal’s life, entitled Billy. Griffiths stars in the film, playing Billy Beal, and Moxam directs. The film’s webpage on Telefilm Canada provides the following description for the film:

In 1967, a young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94-year-old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life dating back to his early recollections of when he left the United States to move to northern Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography.

Billy is the story of one man’s constant search for acceptance.

The filmmakers received the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba for their film.

Further Reading:

The Black Prairies: History, Subjectivity, Writing by Karina Joan Vernon (thesis available online)

Billy Beal: One of the First Black Pioneers in Manitoba by G. Siamandas (article available online)

Profile of Beal by The Manitoba Historical Society available online

Webpage for the film Billy on the Telefilm Canada website

Interview with Ernesto Griffith about the film Billy Beal available online

Trailer for the film Billy Beal available online

Radio Documentary: Feeling Good The Nina Simone Story

Posted in Documentaries, Jazz, Nina Simone by the woyingi blogger on January 18, 2011

I just discovered that BBC Radio 2 is playing a two-part documentary about the life of Nina Simone. Unfortunately I missed the first part because I didn’t know about it. The documentary is narrated by Nina Simone’s daughter Simone (born Lisa Celeste Stroud), whose father, a former police officer, was Nina Simone’s manager for a time. According to the BBC Radio 2 site:

Nina’s daughter Simone explores the life and career of her mother – the protest singer, jazz chanteuse, blues artist and live performer – sharing her personal thoughts and providing a glimpse of the real woman behind the distinctive voice.

In part one, we hear about Nina’s musical beginnings as Eunice Waymon, a 5-year old child protégé, learning classical piano with the help of people in her home town. She won a place at New York’s famous Juilliard School but was turned down by the elite Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. This was an incredible blow to the young Eunice Waymon, who turned to teaching piano and playing in bars to make ends meet. At this point she took the stage name Nina Simone.

She moved to New York City and signed her first record deal [not reading the small print which would cost her dearly later in her career]. New York was the place to be and Nina became closely associated with the civil rights movement, connected with both the radical black playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. She wrote her first protest song, Mississippi Goddamn, in 1963 – an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Alabama.

She also met and married Andy Stroud, who became her manager [and Simone’s father]. Throughout the 60s her output was prolific and she toured constantly in the US and Europe, always highlighting the civil rights message. When her marriage ended in the 70s, she left the US and became a global nomad, moving between Liberia, Switzerland, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and finally France.

I was able to listen to the second part of the series, which concentrates on her later life, and her live performances. The second part is described as follows:

In part two, Simone explores her mother’s musical style and what she was like as a live performer. She began her performing career working as a singer-pianist in Atlantic City, taking her stage name from the French actress Simone Signoret. A commanding, if sometimes difficult, live performer, Nina often displayed an irrational temper but her shows were always an experience. Friends explain that this was due to her being bipolar, a condition she refused to admit to during her lifetime.

A fluke UK hit of My Baby Just Cares for Me, a resurrected 50s master, pushed the singer into the commercial spotlight when it reached number 5 in the 1987 UK charts, thanks to its use in a Chanel No 5 commercial. She also gave a series of mesmerising performances at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club during this decade. She recorded the classic album Baltimore and her last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993. We hear from A&R man Michael Alago about how he signed Nina and got her to record again.

Her musical style can only be described as fearless: she refused to be categorised and often sang soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and Broadway tunes over the course of an album or concert. An uncompromising personality, Nina Simone was one of popular music’s great divas.

During the documentary, Nina Simone’s friends and family are interviewed. So are her drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, and music producer turned photographer Michael Alago. But the majority of the documentary is occupied by Simone’s reflections on her mother’s life. Sometimes she shares anecdotes while recounting her mother’s career from the 198os to the time of her death.

Here are some of the highlights:

Mommy’s regal bearing and unique stage presence earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”. Her live performances were regarded not as mere concerts but as an experience. She compared it to mass hypnosis. On stage she moved from gospel to blues, jazz and folk and classical to numbers infused with all types of different stylings. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience and often used silence as a musical element.

She’d be under incredible pressure form a young age, being the musical genius and having the onus of a whole town depending on her success. It is understandable that she developed certain mental problems call it manic depression, call it bipolar disorder, whatever you choose to call it, she suffered.

She had quite a painful life. She lost many of her closest friends and family. She had a number of broken relationships, and she was angry with a lack of equal rights progress in America. But on a more personal level Mommy didn’t love herself and was always looking for peace outside of herself and not within. Amazingly, she was able to channel this, all of this, into her music.

She always paid great attention to the musical expression of emotions. Within one album or concert, Mommy could move from extreme happiness to tragic melancholy. You realized that on stage Mommy was truly free. She was able to express herself without being edited or judged and it was there that you actually saw the real Nina. Her gift to give new and deeper dimensions to songs resulted in remarkable versions.

Her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, but in later years Mommy particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting humorous anecdotes related her to career in music and soliciting requests.

At this point, we get to hear a recording a live performance by Nina Simone, where she chats with a very enthusiastic audience:

Love songs are never ending. Sometimes I listen to the radio and I say “They’re still at it!” (Audience laughs) No matter what the language, they’re still at it. They want it and when they get it they run from it. (Audience laughs) Then they say we want a natural woman. Then they get one. Scares them half to death (Audience laughs and bursts into applause)

Simone continues to tell her mother’s story of the reemergence of her mother’s career in the early 198os thanks to a perfume ad and in the early 1990s thanks to an action film. Simone explains:

30 years after Mommy had originally recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me” for her very first album, the song was re-released after it was used in a European advertising campaign for Chanel #5 perfume. It became a Top Ten Hit in the UK, bringing Mommy to a new generation of listeners and her career soared. And “My Baby…” became one of the most listened to songs of the 20th Century.

Mommy returned to Europe and as the 90s dawned, she enjoyed a revival of interest in her music that’s to the publication of her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You” and the release of the hit movie “Point of No Return” starring Bridget Fonda who played a character fascinated with the music of Nina Simone.

Towards the end of the documentary, we learn about Simone’s own career and her mother’s declining health:

Towards to end of the 90s, my own theatrical career was beginning to blossom. I was playing the role of Mimi Marquez in the musical Rent, on the first national tour of the United States. I remember we were in Chicago at the time, and I got a call from Mommy. “Hi darling, I’m here. Just flew in from Poland and I want to see your show. So typical. She came the next night and she came the night thereafter and enjoyed the show immensely as she sat right next to my husband who regaled me with her reactions to every scene.

There’s a point for every parent and child when suddenly the caring roles are reversed. This happened for my mother and I in January 1998 when I received a call that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had had to undergo and emergency mastectomy. I knew exactly where her mind was and that I had to get to her quick fast. Mommy had previously lost her father and her elder sister my aunt Lucille to the disease and it was something she hadn’t gotten over. When I got to her, she was almost catatonic with shock. But I pulled her out of it and I let her know how much I loved her and how much I needed her to stay with me. I told her not to let this thing beat her and that if she wanted to live, and not for herself, then perhaps for me. Then she looked at me and said “Baby, I’ll do it for you.” And sure enough a year later, I fulfilled my dream of sharing the stage with her at the Dublin Music Festival in Ireland, July 24th 1999.

My favourite parts of the documentary are the interviews with Michael Alago, who, at the time when he met and worked with Nina Simone, was the A&R representative for Elektra Records, during which time he also signed Metallica. Alago’s anecdotes about Nina are often outrageously funny. Here are a few:

I first met Nina in 1989. I knew she was coming to do a gig in New York. I had been in touch with her brother Sam Waymon. I told him I did A&R for Elektra and I wanted to meet her. So I decide that I’m going to go to sound check. She’s already at the piano. And the hall is half-lit and she sees me in the back of the room and she says “Hey, man! This ain’t a freak show. Who are you? What do you want?” I said “Hi, I’m Michael Alago. I work for Elektra Records.” “Ah! You’re the man.” And she starts laughing and she says “You have any money for me?” And I said “No, I came to say hello.” And I went up on the stage and I kissed her hand and she just kept staring at me curiously and I just kind of went off just telling her how much I loved her all these years. And, you know, of course she loved that so immediately she said “Would you like some tea?”. And I said “I’d love some tea.” Like did I know that her favourite tea was a Black Tea with honey, lemon, and tonnes of cayenne pepper. So I take a huge sip of this tea and I’m almost dead. I can’t speak for a moment. My eyes are watering and she’s laughing and when I got my bearings again, I was laughing. I think it was three years later in 1992 when I actually signed her. We made a beautiful recording in Los Angeles with a 50 piece orchestra. She was a big fan of Frank Sinatra. One of the records she loved most was called A Man Alone. She reinterpreted it as A Single Woman. Little did I know that that would be the last full-length record that she would make.

There was a story that one day there was a fire at her place. So immediately I dialled and I said “What happened?” They said “Oh, she doesn’t want to talk to you. She says the fire was your fault.” I’m sitting here in New York City and the fire is my fault. Explain. She says “You sent her too many faxes that day. She’s not a White Man, she’s an artist, and why are you sending her all this paper work?” I said I think you should remind her that I was sending her all that paper work ‘cause it was part of the advance that I needed to send her. And he said “Oh, when I tell her that, she’ll be happy.” And I said “I know that why I tell you. Now tell me the real story.” He said “Well, she was walking up to the second floor and underneath those stairs was a linen closet and unfortunately she dropped a cigarette, didn’t pay attention, and there was a fire.”

Alago also makes a great observation about Nina Simone’s covers of other artists. I know that I personally often prefer the Nina Simone version of a song than the original. Alago states:

When she sung Bob Dylan, Kurt Weil, George Harrison, it made you feel like she wrote those songs. She sang with such heart and soul that it could tear your heart out, it could make you smile and that was the beauty of her.

Nina Simone’s drummer for 18 years, Paul Robinson, also has some interesting anecdotes about working with Nina, who he met at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. He recalls:

She would look sometimes and she’d give you this look and you’re not sure what it was. So if you were unsure of yourself, you might take that look as being a look of hatred, whereas really she was just trying to find out what’s going on. Nina never told anybody what to play, or how to play, she didn’t even tell to what key you were going to play in, she would just start going and the guys, if they didn’t know it, had to find it pretty quickly and then get on with it. You never really knew where we were going, which, you know, was sort of spiritual jazz. That was the beginning of creating a chemistry between Nina and myself. And it was working really well. But we went backstage and I said “Nina, I got to talk to you about money.” And she had a glass of champagne in her hand, and she got angry and she threw this glass of champagne. But I’m still staring at her and I’m only a couple of feet away. And it hit the wall right next to me and I knew that I got my money because otherwise she’d have punched me or the glass would have hit me. It just hit the wall. She was just showing her anger that I’d broached the subject. And I went away feeling quite confident that at the end of the week I was going to get it, and I did, I got the extra money, which was great.

At list of songs available on Youtube that were played during the documentary and that I particularly like:

Sinnerman (Original), Sinnerman (Remix by Felix Da Housecat)

Baltimore (Written by Randy Newman)

Pirate Jenny (Written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil)

Wild Is The Wind

Feeling Good

See-Line Woman (originally an American Folk song) See Line Woman (Remix by Masters at Work)

Further Reading:

Nina Simone

Interview (1999) with BBC News available online

Obituary on BBC News available online

Profile by James Gavin the New York Times available online

Profile available online

Audio Profile on NPR available online

Excerpts from the biography of Nina Simone Princesse Noire : The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas available online

‘Why?’: Remembering Nina Simone’s Tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. on NPR interview available online

1969 Documentary by Peter Rodis about Nina Simone available online

Simone

Simone’s World: The Website of Nina Simone’s Daughter

Interview (2006) with Simone on the All About Jazz site available online

Simone, daughter of famed singer Nina Simone, wins rave reviews for her performance in ‘Rent.’ article available online

Michael Alago

Interview (2009) with Michael Alago in Gay Life Maryland available online

Play Review: Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano

Recently, I got to listen to BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play entitled Burned to Nothing by Rex Obano. The BBC Radio 4’s synopsis of the play states:

Matthew returns to Nigeria, the land of his birth. He has come to secure the release of his son who has become caught up in the politics of a land in turmoil; a land he has fallen in love with.

The cast of the play is as follows:

Matthew …. Lucian Msamati

The General …. Jude Akuwudike

Medina …. Lorraine Burroughs

Keith …. David Ajala

Sunday …. Obi Abili

Inenevwerha …. Gbemisola Ikumelo

Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.

The story begins in Britain with couple Matthew and Medina being interrupted by a telephone call from Nigeria. The scene changes rapidly to an airport in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Medina is upset because thieves have run off with her bag and the houseboy, Sunday, did nothing to stop them. Matthew doesn’t seem to really care; he is more concerned with why he and Medina have come to Nigeria-to find his teenage son who is missing after reportedly been involved in an oil fire that has killed many people. He speaks with local Area Boys in order to find someone who can help him locate his son and they direct him to The General. From the General, Matthew learns that his son has become an activist for the rights of the people negatively affected by oil drilling and has joined the group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). He demands that Matthew bring money in order to continue the search for his son and bribe the police who are also searching for his son because of his involvement in the fire. 

As the story progresses, we learn that Matthew, a British Nigerian widower and engineer who grew up in Warri but left when he was 10, sent his then 13 year old son, Keith, to live with his aunt in Warri after his son shot him. His son Keith was getting involved with local gangs in Peckham and also was very unhappy about his father’s relationship with British Jamaican Medina. Five years later, and Keith has gone missing.

Medina is very uncomfortable in Nigeria and looks for comfort and advice from her father who used to work in the Jamaican Embassy in Nigeria. Matthew asks Medina for the money to give to the General, some $20,000, and her father helps her get it into the country. After reading a news article about the devastation of the oil fire which is blamed on Keith, Medina concludes that Keith is dead but Matthew doesn’t believe her. According to the article, Keith, as well as other Niger Delta militants, was involved in illegal oil bunkering, basically stealing oil from oil pipelines. As many of the local people can’t get access to or afford fuel, they often try to come and collect some of this oil as well, although most of the oil is collected by militants in order to pay for supplies and arms in their struggle. Fires often break out at these pipelines, as had happened in this case, and many people died. Matthew and Medina go to visit the site of the oil fire with Sunday and they meet Inenevwerha, who lives in abject poverty and whose brother died in the fire. Matthew was told that she had seen his son but she doesn’t speak of him and instead breaks down after talking about the devastation of the oil fire which burned people down to their bones. Medina is deeply moved by Inenevwerha’s story.

Matthew is still convince that his son did not die in the fire. He confronts the General who admits that Keith is not dead and that he is actually hiding him from the police. It is the General who indoctrinated Keith into the resistance movement of the Niger Delta. The General considers Keith to be like his son, as he and his wife have been unable to have children due to infertility produced by oil pollution. Matthew gets to see Keith, who now wants to be called by his Nigerian name Keefay. Keith tells his father how abandoned he felt when he was sent to Nigeria but he is also happy because it is in Nigeria that he learned to be a man. Matthew learns that Keith is actually in a relationship with Inenevwerha and they are expecting a child. Matthew asks for Keith’s forgiveness and the father and son are reconciled. Matthew leaves the money with Keith and says that he will stay in Port Harcourt as he wishes to see the birth of his grandchild.

Personal Reflections:

The play explores identity as we see through out that Matthew is trying to assert his “Nigerianness” but constantly fails because he is out of touch with the political situation and can’t even really understand the local language anymore, apart from pidgin English. When he finally meets his son, he has to demand that he speak to him in English. Medina and Matthew’s relationship seems to fracture also because of identity. Medina, although Black, isn’t African or Nigerian and feels very out of place in the Niger Delta. Matthew doesn’t seem to appreciate the situation he’s put her in and goes on to demand to borrow a large sum of money from her. At the end of the play, he dismisses Keith’s concerns that Medina might not be happy to learn that Matthew wants to stay in Nigeria. Matthew’s lack of consideration for Medina upset me and seemed completely disrespectful, particularly after he borrowed the money from her. It’s as if in reclaiming his Nigerian identity and thus being able to connect with his son, he feels he must reject Medina and her Black British identity. It seems that Matthew is asked to choose between Medina and what she represents and his son, the choice which Keith had demanded his father make five years earlier when he shot him. Medina’s character is not played or written to be unlikable, quite the opposite, which makes Matthew’s treatment of her even more troubling.

The injustices facing the peoples of the Niger Delta are very clearly laid out in the play and will hopefully draw Westerners’ attention to the ever worsening situation in the area.

Further Reading:

Interview (2009) with Rex Obano available online

Interview (2010) with Rex Obano available online

Interview with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview (2010) with Lorraine Burroughs available online

Interview with Gbemisola Ikumelo available online

Interview (2003) with Femi Elufowoju Jr.available online

Interview (2009) with Femi Elufowoju Jr. available online

Interview (2010) with Femi Elufowouju Jr. avaialble online

Blood Oil dripping from Nigeria by A. Walker (BBC article available online)

Documentary Review: BBC Radio 2’s The Story of Funk

Posted in Documentaries, Funk, James Brown, Sly Stone, The Last Poets by the woyingi blogger on January 13, 2011

As you know, I love that I can listen to the BBC online. Bizarrely, I have probably gotten more high-brow Black, African, and Caribbean programing off the BBC than off of Canadian or American radio or television.

I just finished listening to part one of BBC Radio 2’s One Station Under the Groove, The Story of Funk, hosted by Blaxploitation film diva, Pam Grier.  The first part of the series, Funk Used to be a Bad Word, can be summarized as follows:

In this first part, Pam goes back to the source, when funk – in the words of George Clinton – ‘used to be a bad word’. Pam reveals how jazz and the R ‘n’ B music of the 50s informed the rhythms and energy of funk music. As well as the all important architects of the sound like James Brown and Sly Stone, the programme also shines a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes such as Charles Wright and the Last Poets.

At the beginning of the documentary, Pam states:

…Funk was not just the soundtrack to my films but also to a very important time in African American history, a time of struggle and self-discovery and ultimately finding pride in who we were. The music reflected all of that.

But the fact that this music came to be known as Funk is strange, seeing as Funk used to be a bad word. According to journalist Rickey Vincent, who wrote the book Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s Press):

Funk was in the vernacular as something dirty, something downtrodden, something kind of country and unrefined. If it’s funky it’s not quite refined, it’s not smooth, it’s not together.

One of the first times the word funky was used in the title of a song  was with Funky Butt, controversially attributed to Buddy Boldon (1877-1931), of of the key figures in the development of jazz. The song goes: She got stinky butt, funky butt,/leave it alone `Cause I don’t like it nohow.

The documentary explores the possible origins of funk. According to Grier: “Many people credit Little Richard as the originator of Funk for switching the emphasis of the beat to the beginning of the bar.” But it is clear that James Brown was the key figure in the development of funk, even though he is also the “Godfather of Soul”. But Brown’s choice of musicians was also very important. He worked with some of the best musicians in the industry such as Alfred Ellis, Maceo Parker, and Jimmy Nolen. Brown and these musicians created the blueprint for funk. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, is considered the first funk hit because of “its funky backbeat, choppy guitar licks and syncopated brass riffs. Brown’s success did not blind him to the conflicts of his times, and he risked his career by going political but he found support in the Black community. According to Grier:

This is when James Brown realized that he was in a position of power that could affect change. He assumed the role of a soul-powered preacher standing up for the rights of African Americans like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also advocating, Brown encouraged African American communities to stand on their own two feet and run their own affairs. He led by example, purchasing his own businesses like radio stations, restaurants and hotels.

According to journalist Rickey Vincent:

Even at his shows, backstage, he would hold court with local leaders in the community and by leaders I don’t mean city council people and that type of thing, it would be folks who are respected in the community for doing activist work, organizing work, preachers, spiritual work, and so in every town James Brown went to he was hearing, he was aware of what was happening in these communities and these communities were filled with rage and anger and a sense that its time for change to come.

It was during this time that Brown wrote a song that would become an anthem for that time in African American history: Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud. According to Adiodun Oyewole, from The Last Poets:

That was a very important piece because it really served almost as a chant for our movement. I don’t think there was anybody in America, Black or White, who did not know “Say it Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” and as a matter of fact even today if I say it to the kids in the classroom they know it, they’ve heard it, it’s in their DNA.

According to Khalis Bayyan (formerly Ronald Bell) of Kool and the Gang: “The music’s part of that besides the message. That’s some serious funk, I mean listen to that, that’s some hot stuff, man.” According to journalist Rickey Vincent:

Say it Loud, it kind of was a watershed event, he was saying what people were feeling but weren’t sure if they had the courage to say that out to the world in triumph and Brown gave a whole generation of Black people the freedom and the courage to say that to do something like that to say yes, I’m black and I’m proud and the whole world needs to know it.

James Brown was a notoriously strict bandleader who would fine his band members if they made mistakes on stage, eventually, most of the musicians who help to make Brown’s sound in the 60s left by the 70s. However, he would find other great musicians to work with, such as bassist Bootsy Collins who recorded such funk hits with Brown as Get Up-Sex Machine, Soul Power and Super Bad. Brown’s tracks were key to the development of hip hop in the 80s and 90s as it was often his tracks that were sampled from to form the backbeat of hip hop hits.

The documentary continued by focusing on the group The Last Poets.

One of the most influential to funk and later hip hop was a New York band of Soul Brothers called The Last Poets. The Last Poets were the single clearest articulation of revolution in Black music. Nobody delivered the message harder, or clearer or with more insight and love for Black people than The Last Poets were able to do.

According to The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole:

Gotta understand Martin had just been killed on April 4th of that same year so I was fired up ‘cause I had completely changed when they killed Martin Luther King even though I would never had marched with Martin because Martin was letting the dogs bite him and letting people call him names and pushing him and mistreating and abusing him and I’m a fighter I mean you push me I’m gonna push you back, you know, you get a dog to bite me I’m gonna get a bigger dog but I really respected what he was trying to do because somebody had to do something in the south, it was just total out of control.

At this time, the Last Poets included Abiodun Oyewole, Jalal Mansur Nurridin, Umar Bin Hassan,  and percussionist Nilaja Obabi. The purpose of their music was to wake Black people up. Their style included the use of proto-raps/Spoken Word over conga drums. Key songs from this time included Niggers are Scared of Revolution.

Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, ruled pop at the time and Berry Gordy despised the word funk so much that he would veto any record with the word on it. But the studio’s musicians, who backed most of Motown’s tracks from 1959 to 1972, were nicknamed the Funk Brothers  and are considered the unsung heroes of funk, most notably drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson. Motown producer, Norman Whitfield, kept the label competitive while funk became the dance music of choice. He’s considered responsible for turning The Temptations funky with tracks like Cloud 9. Motown’s Southern counterpart, Stax Records, based in Memphis, Tennessee, took to funk more easily and produced funk hits like Rufus Thomas’s Do The Funky Chicken.

On the West Coast, Charles Wright, another of Funk’s unsung heroes, was writing great funk tracks like Express Yourself. Wright grew up in Mississippi with no education. His exposure to music began in church. But although blues legend Muddy Waters lived across from his grandmother he didn’t get to hear much R’n’B until he left home because his father considered it to be the devil’s music. In the documentary, Wright spoke about his experiences of police brutality and how this was leading to civil unrest at the time:

You know that at that time I had moved out of town because the police were giving me a hard time, the police were really really brutal. They are the reason it happened because of their brutality and the way they were treating people. I mean they would stop me-I hate to say this on the radio-and feel my testicles, you know I just got tired of that and I moved out of that part of town.

Wright worked with DJ Magnificent Montague, who was key in turning on thousands of West Coast radio listeners to Funk. His famous catch phrase, “Burn, Baby, Burn!” became the rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots.

According to British soul singer Beverly Knight:

One of the great funk classic songs is Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” which very famously was sampled by N.W.A. and became a world-wide smash hit record and again took on that mantle of civil rights struggle , the whole I’m black and I’m proud thing which he was at the forefront of.

The documentary then went on to explore the contributions to Funk of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) and is considered the “Godfather of Funk”. His creation of Sly and the Family Stone was innovative as bringing together male and female vocalists, as well as Black and White musicians, was unprecedented at the time, and also spoke to the group’s values of racial harmony at a time of racial conflict. They were initially not very commercially successful, with only a few hits, like Dance to the Music. But with the album Stand! (1969), the band achieved mainstream success, with tracks promoting racial harmony like Everyday People, written by Sly. They even performed at Woodstock.

In the documentary, Italian American Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico reflected on an incident with National Guard Troops:

Just looking for a gas station in an inner-city somewhere, you know we get pulled over by National Guard Troops protecting a city that is in riot, racial riot, pulling over a van full of male and female, black and white, dressed funny and “what are you doing here?” “what are you” and it was like get out of the car, hands up against the wall, spread your legs and we got machine guns . The thing that made it a little more scarier was Sylvester was frisky at this point and he kind of challenged the situation and it got hairy and you don’t want to do that when you got 20 guys with whatever kind of machine guns they were lining you up against a brick wall in the inner-city during a riot at 2 o clock in the morning.

Unfortunately, Sly Stone’s growing drug addiction led to erratic behaviour, like not showing up to shows when thousands of people had bought tickets. Eventually, the band slip up. Sly Stone’s addiction continued, eventually leading to imprisonment. In the documentary, Grier states that he now lives as a virtual recluse, in relative poverty as he had signed away his recording rights.

BBC’s The Story of Funk Part Two can be heard online for the next 7 days.

Further Reading:

Rickey Vincent

Rickey Vincent’s Website

Interview (2009) with Rickey Vincent available online

James Brown

Interview (1980) with James Brown and Al Sharpton available online

The Last Poets

Profile of The Last Poets on the PBS Website

Profile of The Last Poets by Russell Porter available online

Profile of The Last Poets by Jalal Nurriddin available online

Interview (2009) with The Last Poets available online

Jalal Mansur Nurriddin’s Website

Umar Bin Hassan’s Website

Charles Wright and DJ Magnificent Montague

Charles Wright’s Website

DJ Magnificent Montague’s Website

Film Review: Flirting

Posted in Australian Film, Black British Actors, Films, Interracial Romance, Uganda on Film by the woyingi blogger on January 10, 2011

While scouring the cheap DVD bin at my local Giant Tiger, I struck gold. I found one of my all-time favourite films, Flirting (1991). It was only $2! Flirting is definitely one of my “Top 5 Desert Island Films”. I’ve loved it since the first time it played on Canadian Cable when I was about twelve or thirteen.

So, why did an Australian Film set in 1965 at a Boarding School speak to me so deeply as a tween?

Thandie Newton and Noah Taylor, Pic Retrieved from Queensland Art Gallery website

Flirting (1991)

Starring: Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts

Written and Directed by John Duigan

Flirting is the sequel to Australian writer and director John Duigan’s 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke (a film I also adore). It is narrated by the central character of both films Danny Embling (Noah Taylor). Danny has been sent away to boarding school in New South Wales by his parents in the hopes he won’t become a delinquent after the events that occurred in The Year My Voice Broke. At boarding school, 17 year old Danny is the butt of jokes because of his stutter and long nose (for which he is nicknamed “Bird”). He describes life in Boarding School as follows:

One thing about boarding school, 24 hours a day you’re surrounded. Either you abandoned yourself and became a herd animal or you dug a cave deep into your head and skulked inside, peering through your eye sockets.

His only friend is Gilbert, who likes to smoke a pipe and is hardly any more popular than Danny himself. Danny looks down on his fellow classmates as imbeciles and oafs and prefers to read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But, as he is a teenage boy, he does long for female companionship and takes as much pleasure as the other boys at any opportunity given to see the girls from Cirencester Ladies’ College, the girls’ boarding school on the opposite side of the lake.

At a rugby match, Danny’s clever remark that he is only interested in rugby from an anthropological viewpoint because it’s a mating ritual catches the attention of Thandiwe Adjewa, played by the amazing Black British actress Thandie Newton, who has just arrived from school in England. Her father, a Ugandan, is lecturing at university in Canberra. Thandiwe has befriended Melissa and Janet (played by Naomi Watts) but she also sees herself as “above” her fellow students and has to put up with their racism which includes taunts about bananas and Ugandans being only able to compete in the Zoo Olympics. At a debate between the two schools in which Danny, despite his stutter, is able to deliver an eloquent speech on how rugby exemplifies the epitome of human endeavour and Thandiwe throws the debate by quoting the song Tutti Fruitti Au Rutti, the two finally get a chance to speak and Thandiwe invites Danny to the Boarders’ Dance.

Danny ends up not being able to attend the dance because his headmaster thinks his hair is too long. Thandiwe breaks the rules by going to look for him and the two sneak away to his dormitory. Thandiwe explains that although her father is Ugandan, her mother, who is deceased, was Kenyan and had an English mother. After finding a copy of an English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Intimacy and Other Stories on his bed, Thandiwe tells Danny that she met Sartre in Paris.

Danny: What did you say to Sartre?

Thandiwe: I suggested marriage was a doomed institution.

Danny: What did he say?

Thandiwe: He agreed most people marry to please their parents or society.

Danny: Not keen on marriage yourself?

Thandiwe: I see so many terrible ones. People just stop communicating. My father and stepmother are brilliant communicators. They hardly ever talk to each other these days, except in public. Anyway, I doubt I’ll ever find anyone complex enough to keep me interested. I lose interest in people. I imagine they’re far more fascinating than they are. So I’m always disappointed.

Danny: Hard Life.

Thandiwe: Hmm.

It’s clear that Thandiwe and Danny are well matched as they both think that are too smart for their surroundings. Thandiwe kisses Danny and demands that he write her. Thandiwe is punished by the headmistress for leaving the dance without permission and is given chores by the prefect, Nicola Radcliffe, played by Nicole Kidman. Soon after, Thandiwe’s letter to Danny is taken by Burke, one of Danny’s constant tormentors and the school’s boxing champion, and is read allowed to his classmates. In the letter, Thandiwe writes: “I’m told your nickname is Bird. Well I like long noses it means your well-endowed-with brains of course”. Word of the letter spreads and Thandiwe ends up getting teased about it. She doesn’t believe Danny when he calls her, pretending to be her father and putting on an “African” accent, and tells her that the letter was stolen. She refuses to partner with him when the two schools work together to put on a school musical. Danny is determined to win Thandiwe back and fains illness in order to take a boat across the lake and find Thandiwe at her school. While at dance class, Nicola Radcliffe explains to Thandiwe that the letter really was stolen. Thandiwe regrets not trusting Danny. By this time, Danny has gotten into the school by climbing into the dormintory window of some of the College’s younger students. They help him find Thandiwe and the two are reunited.

In a fascinating scene which is accompanied by a montage of “African” images from the 40s, 50s and 60s in print and on film, Danny reflects about his knowledge of where Thandiwe comes from:

When I started thinking about Africa I realized that the only images I knew were from old annuals, Tarzan comics and Hollywood movies. Cannibals with bones through their noses, lions tearing the throats out of antelopes, and a lot of wondrous, moving words like Limpopo, Zambezi, Mombasa, Tanganyika.

As Danny and Thandiwe’s relationship grows, he gets to learn about Africa from Thandiwe’s perspective, although he doesn’t really take it all in. He reflects:

Thandiwe started telling me about Africa as she knew it. How her mother was killed during the Mau Mau period in Kenya. How her father wrote books about African nationalism and the problems created as the colonial government scrambled to get out. There had been terrible times for the last few years: The Belgian Congo, Zanzibar, Angola, Kenya, places I’d barely heard of. Often, I never really heard what she said. I’d be staring at her legs. They were very comforting ‘cause sometimes there would be little bruises or marks around her ankles from the elastics in her socks. That’s how come I knew she was real.

While getting ready to perform the musical, the boys discover that they can see the girls getting changed and Burke decides to take a picture. Danny attacks Burke and their fight is broken up by their prefect who proposes that they instead box each other later in the week. Danny and Burke end up boxing and of course Danny is beaten severely. At one point, after sustaining hard blows to the head by Burke, Danny hallucinates that he can see Jean-Paul Sartre in the crowd of students watching the fight. Gilbert and Thandiwe take Danny to the school’s infirmary.

After the performance of the musical, Danny introduces his parents to Thandiwe and her parents. Danny’s mother is obviously shocked and unsettled to be meeting Africans but his father is quite charmed by Milton Adjewa, Thandiwe’s father. Danny and Thandiwe meet later that night and make out in an amusing and awkward scene. Things seem to be going so well for the young couple but the political crisis building in Uganda leads Thandiwe’s parents to return to the country. Thandiwe fears that her father, who has written about government corruption in the country might be a target as he has many enemies. She is right and soon after her father’s return, he is arrested. Thandiwe feels he must return to the country in order to look after her younger brother and sister as her stepmother might also be arrested. Lying about her true departure date, Thandiwe leaves the school a day early in order to spend the night in a motel with Danny. The two get a chance to make love but soon after they are caught by school officials.

Because of his indiscretion, Danny is expelled from St. Albans and returns home to work in his father’s pub. Thandiwe regularly writes him letters from Uganda. In the letters, Danny learns about the deteriorating situation in Uganda, an army general named Idi Amin, and of Thandiwe’s father’s execution. Then the letters stop.

People have speculated that John Duigan’s Danny Embling films are autobiographical. This is not the case, as Duigan explained in a 1996 interview:

To some extent. I used that character to describe my evolving sensibilities on various things, but it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical, except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar. I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had. Like meeting Thandie Newton at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography because you can do anything.

I really love the main theme The Lark Ascending, a composition by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams for violin and orchestra which Duigan uses in both Flirting and The Year My Voice Broke. According to John Duigan, he chose this theme because he thought it reflected Danny’s adolescent yearning.

Personal Reflections:

I watched Flirting during a very dark and troubling time in my life. I had dropped out of junior high and was spending my days watching TV, listening to Ottawa’s Classic Rock Station Chez 106 (This is how I became a fan of Led Zeppelin) and wondering why I was such a freak. I would eventually return to high school but have to withdraw and receive visiting teachers because my social anxiety and depression made attending regular school unbearable. Ever since I can remember, I had felt like an outsider, a misfit and I couldn’t relate to children my age. At the beginning of the film, when Danny talks about digging a cave in his head and skulking inside, I felt that he was describing what I had been doing my whole life. I longed to find someone who would understand and appreciate me. I wanted to fall in love and do pretty much what other teenagers wanted to do when they were in love. But my prospects seemed so slim. The film Flirting gave me hope that I could find love with someone as awkward and intellectually precocious as myself.

Thandie Newton, who was only 16 when she starred in Flirting, began a romantic relationship with John Duigan, who was 39 at the time. She has described the relationship, which lasted for six years, as “traumatic”. In a 2006 interview she stated: “Sexual abuse is shaming. I was in a relationship with a much older person and in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced.” In a 2009 interview she stated: “I was 16. I didn’t tell my parents about it (the relationship) but really young people who are vulnerable have to be looked out for. I’ve just been out to South Africa to Oprah’s Leadership Academy. I looked at the 16-year-old girls there. How can it possibly be right to start a serious relationship with someone that age when you are so much older? I’ve been through a lot of therapy so I sort of know why people do things now.” Despite this rather disturbing revelation, I still love Flirting, even if some parts of it now seem a bit pervy in light of  Newton’s relationship with Duigan.

If my older wiser self could speak to my younger lonelier miserable self, I would tell her that “it gets better” and that friendship is really what you should be looking for. For lonely loners who are too smart for their own good, friendship can be far harder to find and maintain than romance. I was able to get into a romantic relationship at 17 with a 25 year old before I had any real friends. This was disastrous and pretty traumatic. But soon after, I made two of my dearest friends, who I’m proud to say are still in my life after all these years. So, for all you lovely lonely losers out there like I was, watch Flirting, it’s a film made for us, but make good friends before you go out trying to find love.

Interesting Trivia: Flirting won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. The film ranked #46 on Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies and The Guardian included Flirting in its list of the Five Best Boarding School Movies.  John Duigan would go on to direct Thandie Newton in The Journey of August King (1995) and The Leading Man (1996) starring Jon Bon Jovi.

Further Reading:

American Trailer for Flirting available online

Interview (1996) with John Duigan available online

Interview (2006) with Thandie Newton available online

Interview (2009) with Thandie Newton available online

Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies  gallery available online

Top of the Class: The Five Best Boarding School Movies 2009 article in The Guardian available online

A List of other great Australian Coming of Age Films courtesy of Queensland Gallery of Modern Art available online

Being Black, Being Muslim: Michael Jackson and the Need for Converts

Recently, while reading the essay Things that Make us Muslim, by Kashmiri Canadian writer Rahat Kurd, I was reminded of the hullabaloo in the Muslim World leading up to Michael Jackson’s funeral as so many Muslims believed that Jackson was one of us. Kurd discusses the appeal that the King of Pop had for young Muslims of her generation and even their parents. She writes:

Fortunately, Thriller is released in 1983. It makes music as a cultural phenomenon suddenly intelligible not only to Muslim kids but also, crucially, to our parents, who stop whatever they’re doing to watch the “Billie Jean” video with us every time it comes on. Somehow, when we watch Michael dance, everything about pop that had seemed previously inaccessible becomes ours. To see him at the same time as millions of other people, to react with the same pleasure and awe, is at once to become part of the same culture, and to begin to feel a certain confidence in our own tastes, our own creative potential.

But what about Michael Jackson put Muslim parents at ease? Simple Answer: He was Black. Kurd writes:

This confidence has to do with the fact that Michael Jackson is an African-American. As religious teachers and imams, black American men were unquestioned authorities in our eyes: they were the funniest, the coolest, the most engaging role models we had. We liked their easy, friendly style of talk, so different from our parents. They were highly sought after as public speakers; their sermons and lectures eagerly attended, often tape-recorded and passed around among teenagers. Kids who were reluctant to talk to their own parents could talk to the imams.

Living amongst Muslims in Canada, where only in the last twenty years there has developed a significant Black Muslim population, presents a great deal of frustration. Because although Blacks are definitely looked up to as speakers, particularly African Americans, you will seldom find us in leadership positions in Muslim Canadian organizations. Although many young Muslims are drawn to the radicalism of someone like Malcolm X, the critique is directed entirely at White Western society, not the racial dynamics of the Muslim world. Blacks are liked as long as we are supporting what Muslims already feel about the West. The appeal of African American Muslim preachers in particular is that they are harsh critics of Western racism, something which many Muslim immigrant communities have to face themselves but they are not expected to criticize racism within Muslim spaces.

As a Black convert to Islam you quickly learn that a great deal of your appeal lies in your ability to praise Islam to the detriment of your “former” Christian or “Western” lifestyle. You also learn that White converts are far more popular than you…particularly when it comes to marriage prospects. But I didn’t convert to Islam for popularity or to get married and most of the Muslims I am close to are either Black themselves or aren’t the type of Muslims who need to hear other religions being put down in order to feel good about being Muslim.

To be fair, everyone loves a convert. The popularity of figures like Ayaan Ali Hirsi can only be understood by the Western Conservative need for a conversion story. The way Hirsi talks about Islam and the West is so Black and White that it can only be understood if you realize that she is a true believer…and a fanatic one at that. The problem with many converts is that they are often incapable of seeing the flaws that exist in the way of life they have converted to and seem to only see the flaws in the way of life they have left. But conversion is seldom really about what religion or ideology is being chosen as it is about what these things represent to the person converting.

Unlike many other converts I know, I had really no interest in trying to convert my friends and family to Islam because most of them were quite fine as they were. I don’t see Muslims as being any more at peace than any other people of faith I know. I was the one who needed grounding; I was the one who needed to build a relationship with my creator. Following Islam is about making me a less selfish, greedy, arrogant, spiteful, envious, unkind, gluttonous, dishonest and miserable person.  If I were to concentrate my energy in finding fault with other people’s immorality, it would probably be because I’m trying to avoid confronting my own. Being self-righteous is a cop-out and it’s often this self-righteousness that alienates people from religious communities. I would even argue that spending too much energy in analysing just how messed up Western civilization is actually leads to moral bankruptcy within non-Western communities. If our “intellectuals” took up half as much energy scrutinizing our own problems they might be on their way to solving them by now. That’s why so many “revolutionaries” just end up dictators-you need to be self-critical, you need to be humble, you need to realize that even if right now you are among “the oppressed” if you are a selfish, arrogant, unkind person (and being “oppressed” doesn’t stop you from being these things), if the tables were turned, you would be just as vicious as your “oppressors” maybe even more so. But I digress.

Another reason for the popularity of African Americans is, quite simply, they are cool. There is something inherently cool about African Americans.  Western Muslim Youth culture often takes cues from African American Hip Hop Culture, even going as far as having Muslim kids of Arab or South Asian descent calling each other “niggas“, as was most dramatically witnessed by convicted Canadian terrorist and fellow Ottawan Momin Khawaja’s e-mail exchanges with his co-conspirators. The sense of being “an underdog” and resisting oppression definitely are key to the appeal.

An important factor of African American coolness is the African American voice. The African American tradition of oratory goes back to our common ancestors in West and Central Africa and has been honed through Black church traditions. Obama definitely picked up his public oration skills and accent from the preaching of Jeremy Wright in Chicago. It is the Black Church that also fostered African American musical traditions as well and many young African American singers, from Sam Cooke to Whitney Houston, got their start in the church choir. Michael Jackson is something of an anomaly in this respect. He wasn’t raised in the Black Church tradition. His musical skills were honed under the strict and violent discipline of his stagefather, Joe Jackson.  When it came to religion, MJ was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household after his mother, Katherine, converted to the religion in the early ’60s.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims living in the West have something in common: mainstream society is almost completely ignorant about who we really are and what we really are about and as a consequence we totally WEIRD them out.  Founded in the United States in the late 19th Century, Jehovah’s Witnesses have experienced religious persecution in North America and Europe, most notably within Nazi Germany, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were executed for refusing military service and thousands were put in concentration camps. I grew up watching media coverage of Jehovah’s Witnesses that was usually sensationalist, centering around their refusal of blood transfusions, objection to military service, mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse, or their shunning of those who left the religion or seriously broke its rules. (For example, MJ’s notorious sister Latoya Jackson was disfellowshipped (shunned) by the community in 1988.)

I remember growing up with classmates who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t allowed to celebrate birthdays or sing the national anthem. One time, one of my classmates and her parents went going door to door in my neighbourhood passing out Watchtower Magazines and trying to get my neighbours to convert to their faith. When she came to my door she was visibly embarrassed and I was embarrassed for her, unlike on other occasions when I would run my juvenile mouth off at these folks for having the audacity to knock on my door on a weekend and try to save my immortal soul by converting me to their religion, I just smiled, took the magazine and said thank you but I wasn’t interested.

I have come to realize that Ottawa’s local Jehovah’s Witness population has many Black members, most originally from the Caribbean but now a growing number from the African refugee and immigrant populations settling in the city. Being Black and really wanting to support the community and “up the race” means having to learn all about the varieties of Christianity that exist because Black people are members of all of them.

As Muslims were eagerly awaiting the announcement that MJ was being buried as a Muslim facing Mecca, Jehovah’s Witnesses were wondering if he was going to be buried as a Jehovah’s Witness, meaning with minimal pomp and circumstance. You can imagine their horror when it got out that he was going to be buried in a 14 karat  Gold-Plated coffin!!! Rumours that MJ was a Muslim had begun to spread among Muslims and in the tabloids after his brother Jermaine Jackson, who is a Muslim, said that MJ was expressing interest in learning about Islam. In Canadian Muslim circles, alleged statements by singer-songwriter and convert to Islam Dawud Wharnsby got Muslims’ hopes up (After Jackson’s death, Wharnsby had to go on the record denying that he had even met Jackson; it seems that this rumour was spread by the British Tabloid The Sun and Canadian Muslims ran with it, without consulting Wharnsby himself). These rumours were further fueled when MJ spent a lot of time in Bahrain with its royal family. Of course, this ended badly with MJ getting sued by the King of Bahrain’s son, who fancied himself a pop song writer.

Judging from the final memorial service, all that I could conclude with certainty was that Jackson was buried as a Christian. Celebrities, being sort of like the “popular kids” of the universe, can make something seem more appealing by endorsing it. That’s why they are sought after by companies to advertise their products. But religion should never be a “product”, something that you sell (The film The Big Kahuna, based on a play by Roger Rueff, starring Danny Devito and Kevin Spacey, about three salesmen stuck in a hotel trying to cut a deal has a great monologue about this). Faith isn’t a commodity; it can’t be consumed. Faith should never be something that you need others to buy into so that you can feel more confident about your own choices.

So, I don’t care if Michael Jackson wasn’t a Muslim. His choosing to be Muslim would not make me “prouder” to be Muslim. (Frankly, I’m not proud to be Muslim, that would fly in the face of my attempts to cultivate humility. But I’m certainly not ashamed.) I think it would have been good for MJ to have followed a life path that surrounded him with good, honest people who wouldn’t have taken advantage of him. That’s what I hope for myself. May my brother in Blackness rest in peace.

Further Reading:

Things that Make Us Muslim by Rahat Kurd (article available online)

Will Michael Jackson’s Funeral be Jehovah’s Witness or Muslim? by L. Gornstein (article available online)

M. J. You Take My Breath Away by Shelina Merani (article available online)

Jehovah’s Witness Interactive Map of World Wide Work available online

Mixed Race Lives: Jean Ping

Jean Ping, a Gabonese politician, is a well-known African diplomat who currently holds the position of Chairman of the Commission of the African Union. My interest in writing about him is because he is a person of mixed race; although his political career alongside Omar Bongo, the world’s longest serving non-Monarch ruler is also fascinating.

Gabonese Politician Jean Ping

Jean Ping was born on November 24th 1942 in the village of Omboué, south of Port-Gentil , to a Gabonese mother, the daughter of a local leader, and a Chinese father, Cheng Zhiping. Cheng Zhiping was from the port city of Wenzhou, China. Wenzhou’s eastern coast looks out to the East China Sea and the city boasts successful emigrant communities which made their fortunes in business in Europe and the United States. Wenzhou was one of the few ports that remained under Chinese control during the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937.

The most I have been able to learn about Jean Ping’s Chinese father has been from a badly translated 2010 article originally written by Wang Qin, a Chinese diplomat in Africa,  for the Chinese Online Magazine, Africa Magazine that states that its aim is to get its Chinese readers to know and love Africa. It is unclear when Cheng Zhiping settled in West Africa. According to Wang Qin, it was in the late 1930s but according to Wikipedia it was the 1920s. Cheng Zhiping came as a labourer but soon became a merchant, selling wood, Chinaware, and seafood. He also ran a bakery. According to Wang Qin, when Jean was a month old, his father took him to be baptized in order to respect his Christian Gabonese mother’s wishes. It was also his father who named him Jean. His father sent Jean Ping to be educated in France. Jean Ping would eventually receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).

Jean Ping’s political career inside and outside Gabon has been charmed. In 1972, began working for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In 1978, he became Gabon’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO until 1984. Subsequently, he became President of the Civil Cabinet of Omar Bongo, a position in which he served until 1990. According to Africa Confidential, it was this period that was pivotal for his career: “The career of Gabon’s consummate diplomat owes its success less to the impact he made as President of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004-05 than his accomplishments as head of cabinet to the country’s veteran President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1984-90.”

Ping’s connection with Bongo goes beyond politics. Jean Ping had a romantic relationship with Omar Bongo’s daugther, Pascaline, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite being married to another woman who he had no intention of divorcing. Ping and Pascaline had two children together while working side by side  in Bongo’s Cabinet. Ping took over from Pascaline as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994, when she became the Director of the Presidential Cabinet. Pascaline eventually married another Gabonese politician in 1995. Ping would hold the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs for nine years. In 2002, Jean Ping wrote the book “Mondialisation, Paix, Démocratie et Développent: l’expérience du Gabon, published by Editions de l’Harmattan.

In 2004, Jean Ping was elected as the 59th President of the United Nations General Assembly.

Jean Ping has been a key figure in encouraging African trade with China. He helped to organize Chinese President Hu Jintao‘s visit to Gabon in 2004. According to Africa Confidential:

As Foreign Minister since 1999, he has led Gabon’s campaign to open up trade with non-traditional partners including China, Brazil and South Africa. Ping is uncritical of the Chinese, who signed a controversial US$3 billion iron ore-backed deal for the development of the Bélinga deposit in northeastern Gabon in 2006, saying: ‘With China, everything is simple. She gives us debt forgiveness or long-term loans without interest or conditions.’

Jean Ping would eventually visit his father’s town of Wenzhou in 1987.  According to Wang Qin:

When Jean Ping first returned his hometown, the people there welcomed him heatedly just like they were celebrating a festival. The most exciting was to see his ninety-four-years-old aunt. One of his cousin even excitedly said it was unimaginable to have such a black and great cousin. They were filled with the happiness of family reunion. Even though they could not understand what each other said, their hearts were together.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping discussing the role of the African Union in economic development and peace-keeping:

You have talked about regional integration as a priority for the African Union. How do you explain why trade among African countries accounts for less than 10 percent of the continent’s total imports and exports?

I think that this is due to lack of infrastructure. You need roads and railways; otherwise you can’t provide goods among yourselves. It is not easy. In the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, the 15 member countries have succeeded in creating a free zone for about 170 million inhabitants, [built around] the economic strength of South Africa, which produces goods, not just raw materials.

It would be good for the rest of the continent to sell to each other, but you need infrastructure and a common market. We now have a market of one billion inhabitants. But, unfortunately, 165 borders divide the continent into 53 countries. Some of these [places] have less than half a million people. Progress has been slow, but progress has been made and things are moving faster, especially in two sub-regions – SADC and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States]. ECOWAS has the same land area and population size – about 390 million inhabitants – as Europe, but a smaller economy. The first step is regional, and then you move to the continental market. The key is taking down barriers to foster economic growth.

Is there a danger that integration could exacerbate other problems? There have been, for example, outbreaks of xenophobia in countries as disparate as South Africa and Ghana.

We can’t wait. We have some obstacles but can you imagine a project like that without obstacles? One of the big problems has been sovereignty – the principal of non-interference in internal affairs. Our charter, which has been ratified by all 53 countries, says clearly that in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, we have the duty to interfere, immediately, without asking permission [from] anybody.

Africa is probably the only continent in the world that has codified that principle. This gives us the right to go into Somalia, the right to send an army to The Comoros and re-establish a constitutional government on the island of Anjouan by force. But you use force when you have no other means. You have to try all the other means and, if you can’t succeed, think about using force. Using force is not something, which can be routine.

Conflict resolution and peacekeeping are central to the mission of the African Union. How would you measure progress in that area?

We have moved a lot from 15 or 20 years ago. In 1996, the continent was confronted with more than 15 conflicts responsible for half of the deaths caused by war in the whole world. Half of them! Recall the situations in Liberia; Sierra Leone; the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ten countries were fighting inside one country; the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many countries in the north of Africa were confronted with terrorism – Algeria, Egypt. The continent was in blood. But mainly Africans themselves have resolved these conflicts. We still have the problem of consolidation of peace, because countries like Liberia are vulnerable, Congo has not yet achieved peace in the eastern part. And we still have two remaining conflicts: Darfur and Somalia.

In Somalia, the AU has the primary peacekeeping responsibility. What are the prospects for ending the war there?

This is the only country in the world with no government and no institutions for 18 years. The country is no longer a country. The terrorists are doing everything that is forbidden, including piracy. It is not acceptable. A few years ago, [people might have said]: ‘This is happening in Africa; I’m not concerned’. But then the piracy happened. Somalia became a threat to world peace, a threat to the world economy. All these warships went to that region. But pirates were not born in the ocean and they don’t live there. They come from Somalia. If you want sustainable peace you have to go where they come from, which is on the land.

This is a collective responsibility. The United Nations belongs to all of us. Of the 192 [member] countries, 53 are African. But when we asked the Security Council to go there they don’t agree. Some said that there is no peace to keep in Somalia, which means we have to bring peace first, and then they would come to keep the peace. We are alone there. We are maintaining the security of the transitional government of Sheik Sharif Ahmed. We protect them according to the mandate that we have received. But Somalia should be a state like all others [with] their own government. They should maintain their own peace. To do that we’re training their security forces, about 10,000 troops.

How many peacekeepers does the AU have in Somalia?

Today we have 5,200 troops. We plan to have 8,000. But we are not going to be there forever, so we train, equip and pay [the Somalis]. There is an embargo on armaments, so we’re asking for a lift on the embargo for government troops. There is a road map.

In Darfur, the AU is working alongside the United Nations. How is that progressing?

In the beginning, when the conflict started, we sent our troops alone, like in Somalia. It was called AMIS, the African Mission to Sudan. It was a very difficult time. Some of our troops died, so we called on the UN to be there. They accepted to come to Darfur and we have a joint mission, a hybrid operation. It is the biggest operation ever organized by the UN. When we reach full force, it would be 26,000. Let me tell you that 95 or 96 per cent of troops there are Africans. None are from western countries. The commander is Rwandese. Rwanda has four battalions there, and Nigeria has four battalions. It’s an African component trying to bring peace to Darfur.

Today, there are no more killings, really, which means that we are moving in the right direction.

The AU is now using the term ‘low intensity fighting’ to describe the situation in Darfur. But many NGOs working there take issue with that characterization and say the conflict is still serious. In Darfur, the NGOs [are now] an industry. So you can understand that, sometimes, maybe people want to stay there. I am sorry to say it as [plain] as that. But it should be clear enough that you have four main issues in Darfur. In the African Union, we take them in a holistic manner – all of them. The NGOs consider justice here, peace there. There is a problem of security and we have UNAMID [the African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur] to bring peace. But since the civil war there is a need for reconciliation. It is not the army that will solve the problem; it is dialogue and reconciliation among the population. It is not only to stop war or to give food to refugee camps, but to solve the root causes of the war and we have a political joint mediator working there

Further Reading:

AU President Jean Ping went back to hometown, Wenzhou, for many times by Wang Qin (2010 article translated from Chinese for Africa Magazine available online)

Jean Ping’s Profile from Africa Confidential available online

Excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping available online

Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines: A Filipina American Grandaughter remembers her African American Grandfather

While researching Buffalo Soldiers, I stumbled upon an interview by Evangeline Buell, a Filipina American activist, discussing her grandfather, an African American who had fought in the Philippines. My knowledge of Filipino History isn’t what it should be so this interview and my subsequent research was really an eye opener.

The Spanish American War began in 1898, and was fought in several Spanish colonies around the globe, including the Philippines. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in December 1898, and the United States took over control of the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Filipino Nationalists, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, were not happy about having to trade one colonizer for another and resisted American occupation. In February 1899, these Filipino insurgents (insurectos) began attacking U.S. Troops. Thus began the Philippine American War (1899 to 1902). During these wars, African American soldiers were recruited to fight for the United States in the segregated Black regiments of the 24th and 25th Infantry, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and African American National guardsmen.

Evangeline “Vangie” Canonizado Buell is a leading Filipina American writer and activist living in San Francisco, California. She is the co-founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s East Bay Area Chapter and is the retired Events Coordinator of the University of California-Berkeley International House. She has written books about Filipino American history, including a memoir about her family, Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride: Growing Up in a Filipino Immigrant Family (T’Boli Publishing, 2006). Her family immigrated to the United States in 1928 and she was one of the few Filipinos growing up in West Oakland, California in the 1930s and 40s, a difficult time for Asian Americans. She remembers seeing signs stating “No Filipinos or dogs allowed” posted at restaurants. During World War II, she had to wear a button that declared “I am a loyal Filipino” in order to avoid harassment if she was mistaken for Japanese.

This memoir also records the life of her grandfather, Ernest Stokes, an African American who came to the Philippines as a Buffalo Soldier during the Spanish American War and stayed during the subsequent Philippine American War. According to Buell, her grandfather joined the military in order to escape racism in the American South. In a reading from her memoir for a 2007 podcast of San Francisco Chronicle’s Pinoy Exchange commemorating Black History Month, Buell states:

My grandfather Ernest Stokes was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee around 1870. Grandpa Stokes wanted to escape from the South where he had experienced oppressive racial prejudice. In 1898, he found an opportunity to leave for an overseas assignment, hoping for a life free of racial discrimination in another country. He responded to a call for volunteers for the Spanish American War in the Philippines and travelled with a group from Tennessee to San Francisco to receive training at the Presidio Army Camp. The windy and cold military base on the scenic hills overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Grandpa Stokes and the other Tennessee volunteers would cross the largest and deepest sea in the world to fight a war in a land they knew nothing about and later on in life Grandpa Stokes explained to his second wife, Roberta: “We had to leave this deplorable country even if it meant facing the unknown, at least we had a chance for a new destiny, perhaps a better life than here.” Grandpa Stokes was among 6,000 African American soldiers who were sent to the Philippines in 1898 to fight in the Spanish American War. Upon arriving in the Philippines he became part of the 9th Calvary of the United States Army. My grandfather became a sergeant in that unit consisting of African American members who were called Buffalo Soldiers.

But he, as well as his fellow Black soldiers, still faced discrimination in the US Military. As Buell explains: “He was sent out by the Caucasian soldiers into the front line to take the bullets from the opposite side. It was only their cunning and their street-wise defiance that they were able to not get shot.”

Buell says that Stokes loved life in the Philippines, including its people, culture and food. While in the Philippines, Stokes, like many other Buffalo Soldiers, married a Filipina woman, Maria Bunag, Buell’s grandmother and lived in a Filipino village. They had three daughters, including Felicia, Buell’s mother. According to Buell, Stokes was accepted by most of Maria’s family. Maria died in 1917, and Stokes could not raise his daughters and serve in the military at the same time so he sent one sister to live with her grandmother, and  two of the sisters, including Felicia, to live with their mother’s cousins. This was a troubling time for these Black Filipina sisters. These relatives were not accepting of these darker-skinned and coarse-haired girls. According to Buell, her mother and aunt were treated like servants and beaten. They were also repeatedly raped by older male cousins. This went on for five years, until their father discovered what was going on and rescued them.

Buell’s grandfather later remarried another Filipina, Roberta Dungca. It is from Roberta that Buell learned about her grandfather’s life in the Philippines and his early life in the United States. According to Roberta, Stokes refused to shoot Filipino insurgents because he understood their resistance to American colonial rule. Many African American soldiers felt torn about fighting Filipinos and African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells, were outspoken in their opposition to the Philippine American War.

After living in the Philippines for 25 years, Stokes returned to the United States with all his children and Dungca. They settled in West Oakland, California in 1928.

Buell remembers her grandfather fondly. She stated that:

…her favorite memories are of her grandfather bouncing her, her younger sister and their cousin on his knee while he counted to them in Cantonese and sang in Tagalog. Stokes learned eight languages while in the Philippines, including Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish and various Philippine dialects.

Stokes died in 1936 and is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. According to Buell:

The relations between the African Americans and the Filipinos, the beginning of that, was in the Philippines. … And it’s important today in terms of Filipinos getting to know black Americans and (black people) getting to know the Filipinos — to know that we have had that relationship way back, a hundred years ago.

Further Reading:

Filipina activist Buell writes family history to understand herself (2007 article available online)

Buffalo Soldier came to Philippines to fight, instead found new way of life (2007 Audio Interview available online)

The Philippine War: A Conflict of Conscience for African Americans (article available online from the National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco Website)

White Backlash and the Aftermath of Fagen’s Rebellion: The Fates of Three African-American Soldiers in the Philippines, 1901-1902 by S. Brown (essay available online)