Sunday, 19 October 2008


An African American icon in London, October 2008…

Spike Lee signs books at Waterstones

I wasn’t quite happy.
I wanted more time with the so called little man (he is not small at all; his size is accentuated by wit and intelligence,a strong personality, brilliant sense of humour, presence); I felt restricted.
He was actually quite modest when I approached him prior to the talk... and he said to write whatever I wanted to ask him down.
But at the meeting i felt restricted by the moderator at Waterstones….
Kwame Kwei- Armah
was a strict ( though fair) moderator, articulate, loud and clear. I was only allowed one question …because of time.
I felt restricted by one of the Waterstone’s staff who hissed:

After which I was matched out of the room. Yes, that is the world of celebrities and the famous. And a chance to see or meet people like Spike Lee is hard and rare...

The most regular question and re-occurring theme was why doesn’t Spike Lee make films about other blacks outside the USA. One chap mentioned Haiti. Another wondered if Lee would make a movie about Caribbean soldiers in the Second World War. Another inquired about Africans.

This particular one merely finished off where I wanted to continue. The industry is blooming in Nigeria and South Africa. Lee could collaborate with film makers from there.
The confident film maker had answers for all of them.
Answers that travelled in several strands.
Movie-making costs money. Who will foot the bill? (Here I wondered whether Spike Lee is a rich man or not. All these years? Can’t he produce an international film in Africa? I was questioning but there was no time for lengthy discussions). Who shall distribute the film? IT IS ALL ABOUT MONEY.
How much do we know about movie making?
He also gave hints and solutions.
The pirate industry, for instance. Meaning as long as there is a piracy and such shaky market we cannot convince the big guns of film making to invest in subzero film making. They cannot invest without using known faces of Brad Pritt, Tom Cruise, Will Smith. These guys demand huge salaries.
It is big business…
“Use the crew or gang mentality…”
Which means…
Getting together in groups and co-operating with each other. “Most new films by independent film makers are made by directors who have written their own scripts…”
That was the point he was making.
And then he rammed in the theme of the night. A theme that Kwame, the moderator had mentioned earlier, recalling the first time he had met (and heard) Spike in person back in 1988 (those days when theBrooklyn born
writer and film maker had released just released She's Gotta Have It….

Kwame said Spike Lee had advised black film makers in Britain to DO THEIR OWN THING.
And Kwame rephrased it into a political statement: “We need to self-determine, in other words be self reliant.”
(I could almost hear Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania back in the 1970’s)

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere first President of Tanzania, who died in 1999 always emphasized the self reliance and self determination that Spike Lee and Kwame Kwei-Armah are talking about.

Waterstones bookshop became a learning curve. Spike Lee was now speaking of African Americans and what they mean to the rest of the world. That everyone (especially blacks) depend and look up to them as saviours.
I agreed and disagreed at the same time.
Celebrities can play a huge role in developing other less fortunate people. This is because of their fame and recognition. Someone like Paul Simon twenty years ago, for example.
The singer-songwriter made albums with and in Africa and Brazil and they were quite controversial. A polemical project seen as exploitation. Here was a white successful artist from the richest country in the world going to poor countries, making music with them to enhance his credentials. That was one angle.
The other is the fact that the project had a positive result. A lot of musicians whose careers had dwindled like Miriam Makebawere once again in the limelight. And then there were groups that were out of the blue rocketed stardom and recognised.
Such as Olodum
from Brazil. Who did not enjoy
Obvious Child
on the Paul Simon’s album: Rhythm of the Saints ?
Soon after singer Michael Jackson recorded one of his videos
with Olodum. The director of the clip was Spike Lee.
Olodum is now one of the most known percussion bands in the world alongside mesmerising groups like the Japanese Kodo
That is the effect some of us are talking about.
It is not true that Africans have no film makers.
That we are waiting for redemption from our brothers in the Diaspora.
When Spike Lee was still a boy, the Senegalese film maker and novelist Ousmane Sembenewas already making films. Ousmane died last year. He has done so many films about the Senegalese condition as message oriented as Spike Lee’s films.
That is why I asked how does this Bronx brother research and find his scripts?
How many in the English speaking world (let alone rest of the globe know Ousmane’s films and work? How many?) Spike Lee could have collaborated with someone like Ousmane Sembene. Now …can you imagine the fire of creativity that would have erupted?

Sembene Ousmane

That is one perspective of the evening, from my point of view.
The other?
Spike Lee was a newspaper, a teacher, chronicler, narrator…

America has been the number one nation in the world solely on its use of culture. American thinking dominated the 20th century through music, hip hop, dressing and fashion, Coca cola, films, television…these things are powerful. Now America is going down. Just like the way Britain went down as a colonial power. There was an expression that Lee used, The Sun Never Sets in the Empire (“used to be expression of the British in the 19th Century”) which is no longer valid.
He reminded us.
He was also happy to say Barrack Obama is going to win. It is “historic” he said…That is why there are so many efforts to find faults in the presidential candidate.
I didn’t understand when Lee and his moderator, Kwame mentioned the “One Drop” thing in Obama’s ancestry. Is it because he is half Kenyan half American?
What did they mean exactly?
Spike Lee was in London to promote his new film and a book
The Miracle at St Anna
which he says is one of the three most difficult films he has made. The others were Malcolm X
because it was expensive… (He had to go to rich known black celebrities asking for money) and She’s Gotta to Have It… his very first commercial film in 1986.
Spike Lee at Waterstones, was much more than my words here.

There were questions some significant others totally stupid. One lady was told to do her homework because she wanted to know whether Spike makes TV documentaries. There is always a nice thing about silly questions though. The silly question made the African American reaffirm his main principles. He makes films. He loves cinema. He does not set out to make a documentary then a TV commercial or a feature film. “For me it is all moviemaking…”
Or the other lady who wondered why he wasn’t going somewhere, (I couldn’t quite hear her, but Spike and Kwame were visibly perplexed by her silly statement). Lee said he has a busy schedule; he had to make a 9 hour flight from New York. Meaning, he is a hard working guy.
Kwame wanted to know.

Kwame with admirers...

Lately Spike questionedClint Eastwoodabout lack of black soldiers in one of his latest war films. That was blown out of proportion Lee replied. All he wants is truth.
He is an outspoken guy who speaks his mind.
Lee was quiet, almost subdued.
The way he looked suddenly reminded me of the many looks I have seen in films, on the news, of people who have been tortured, betrayed, harassed, bullied, oppressed…for a long time. They have done nothing wrong.
When we were making these films, “we had to say how we felt…”
He did not, therefore, brag or that he is brave so and so.
He did not have to say that he is a tough chap, fearless artist. He is simply expressing himself, most of the time telling what Chinua Achebesaid last week, “his story.”

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Monday, 13 October 2008



They all came to see him.
At first he was perched by the door in a wheelchair. He was photographed, greeted, touched, stared at like something special, rare.

A fan seem not to want to miss any thing the great novelist was saying...

His family was present too. In fact his grandson took a photo with him on stage afterwards.

Authors make us curious.
We read them, travelling with their tales to places we never knew. To see them in flesh is always a surprise: they might be complete turn offs; could be timid, unappealing, charming, whatever; but they are still fascinating especially if we adore them like the huge crowd at SOAS last weekend.

People came from every corner of the world; ranging from academicians, students, writers, your average lover of books and multi-media people like Peter Kayode Adegbie Nigerian born camera man from New Castle.
Many talks and discussions and even music had been held for two days (10th and 11th October) and to finalise the epic, Simon Kigandi who in his own right is an expert on Achebe became his inquisitor, prodding and digging:
“I don’t know.”
Chinua Achebe was as succinct and as simple as his books.

On stage the two men; like father and son; author and critic, Achebe and Kenyan scholar Professor Simon Gikandi from Princeton University exchange good hearted blows, for our benefit...
After the long laughter (and I tell you the one hour plus inquisition was plastered with loads and loads of guffaws)…. and the pause…. of a man nearing 80 years (His son Ike almost proud to tell me); with a patience that is as noble as the one I saw in Nelson Mandela when he just strolled out of prison, he enchanted us. When do you get to hear the elderly speaking? Do we listen to our elders anymore? Don’t we call them pensioners, the Boring Elders?
“I was young…everything was possible. I had to tell this story. I began to listen to my father’s friends…then I listened to the women…their folk tales were very interesting than the men’s…both men and women were interesting but the folk tales of the women were more fascinating.”

Now if you want to be a writer and you are listening to an octogenarian talking you don’t need a better ocassion. We had began to chuckle and giggle from the jokes of the Inquisitor thinking he was funny, but as soon as the slow talking, unassuming Professor Chinua Achebe opened his mouth, we were captured. We were in a super class listening to a master talking…. So quietly that the microphone had to be pushed closer to him.
Lesson number one. If you want to write a novel, if you want to write anything as substantial as this maestro does…learn to listen.

Louisa from Stand-up for Africa organisation She asked Achebe whether his essayspublished in 1983 were still valid today.

The inquisitor went on.
It was a time of great change, Achebe responded; movement for independence in West Africa, led by Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria then Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Mood of freedom …
That is history; and it was within that framework of time and place that he felt he had to tell his story. And you know what? He BELIEVED in his story.
In 1958 Things Fall Apart was published by Heinemann in London…
“I had very good reviews…but I don’t remember what the good reviews said. I do remember what one bad review though.”
Funny yet true.
Human nature, human behaviour, human condition. We remember bad things. Isn’t that another lesson; of life?
This particular critic (in the UK) had alleged that stories about the past were useless.
... If history is that “useless” how come we are in 2008 meeting at some remarkable college to discuss a remarkable topic and hear a remarkable man in a wheel chair talking about a novel written half a century ago?
Since then the book has been read everywhere and translated into at least 40 languages world wide.

James Currey, seen here in the hubbub at SOAS ... has known Achebe since the 1960's while involved with Heinemann and the Africa Witer's Series publications.

Professor Gikandi, ever the inquisitor moiled and persevered.
Again the simple answer and the pause.
“I don’t know…Ask IT…”
What is it?
The story itself. The power of the narrative, the magic of storytelling, the listener who was now the driver of his books and what else?
We heard more funny tales, like the audience in Korea who loved the novel’s main protagonist…charging that he Achebe “should not have killed Okonkwo the hero…”
Or of the Igbo people (for who the story is based on) who always wonder WHERE the story was actually based.
After more revelations it was time for us the audience to become inquisitors.

Dr. Ide Corley from the National University of Ireland chats with Dr. Mpalive-Hangson Msiska of University of Birkbeck. This was proper network event for sure.

The issue of languages for non- English writers writing in English will always be something. He told the tale in English. He is now translating the novel into Igbo. Like Ngugi has done with some of his books.
Still on the issue of language…I wanted an elaboration on the story I read years ago about Achebe meeting the great Kiswahili writer Shaaban Robert ….a while before he died in 1962. Although Professor Achebe knew and respected the legend he had not read his works because they were all in Kiswahili.
Achebe admitted it is a tough issue. The answer is not easy. And to this day Shaaban Robert whose colossal work has earned him father of Kiswahili, has not been thoroughly translated; perhaps a few of his poems, but not much.

Aisha, Kiswahili Ph.D student at SOAS.

As for African politics today.
Are Achebe’s essays The Trouble with Nigeria (published in the 1983)still valid today?
Yes, Achebe responded.
The crisis of Nigeria is goes on and he and other Nigerians are still concerned.
I wanted to know how he writes.

NO, he said.
He writes by pen. Likes feeling his writing, physically.

I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway who said he writes standing up because he regards writing as a physical job just any other be it carpentry, farming, etc.
Yes, writing is work.

Professor Lynn Innes, who put the whole thing together...

With Kenyan writer, Ronald Wanda.

Independent jornalist Christina Okoli back to camera, left, and Louisa chat to unidentified participant after the event.

With writers Kadija George, Segun Lee French, Raimi Gbadamosi

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Friday, 10 October 2008


..."Things fall apart;
The centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

With this quote from "Second Coming" by the Nobel Prize winning poet, William Butler Yeats,, Things Fall Apart, the first novel of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was published in 1958.
50 years ago.
When I was a sixteen year old back at Ilboru Secondary School that historical book was one of the few (the very first few) to have a profound impact on me. Mainly because we had a great teacher, Mama Victoria Chitepo exiled from Zimbabwe -who opened our eyes to literature, other parts of the world and what Achebe was trying to say. The story of Obi Okonkwo a village wrestler with a strong character who crumbles during the coming of the Europeans in Nigerian society really fascinated us.
I recall some of the more funny classmates like Albert Kanuya, a natural gifted comic (nowadays a consultant publishing editor in Dar es Salaam and still a humorous gentleman) jostling with Amalinze the Cat, one of the characters in the novel. We seemed to live in the book. It was like a real place for us.
When you are a teenager you just gulp, swallow and take in knowledge. When made possible (like it was thru Mama Chitepo) you have real, good fun.

...Playing music with classmates ( also great fans of Achebe's novels at the time) middle Rashid Othman and the late Mike Kiwelu in 1972. Pic by Emmanuel Yuda.

I was struggling to learn the guitar to express myself. My late father an extremely skilled musician had inspired and encouraged me (he and my mother recorded few songs at the same time Achebe was writing the said novel, in Mombasa, Kenya).
I eventually read more writers dealing with similar themes and by late 1970's was working as a reporter and columnist. Come 1980’s now in my twenties I was composing music, writing songs and performing professionally with Sayari Band.
In 1985 I read Ngugi wa Thiong’o the Kenyan writer commenting about the ongoing Live Aid concert in London in 1985. He questioned whether charity was a solution to Africa's problems...
I had similar thoughts so I was suddenly inspired.
We were touring in Scandinavia with Sayari when I began writing “Song of Ethiopia.” I performed the song at a concert in Stockholm in memory of 100 years since the infamous Berlin Conference chaired by Emperor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany. It was this conference that initiated the scramble for Africa and colonialism in 1884.
Only now do I realise how Ngugi’s interview and Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" indirectly influenced my lyrics. The sense of history, the fallacy of neo colonialism.
In 2000 I recorded “Song of Ethiopia” in Constipation.
This week a conference on Achebe’s novel fifty years anniversary is on at Brunei Gallery, SOAS in London. Kadija George is part of the organising which will feature various writers who like myself got touched by this eminent Nigerian.

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Monday, 6 October 2008


Mingling and joining in the Network Dance of the 21st Century

Anusha, and brilliant partner, Shrikant Subramaniam of Beeja Dance company giving us a taste of India.

As I write this I cannot help laughing to myself recalling the lady parking a bike at Bloomsbury Square off Theobalds road close to Holborn railway station.
“Gloucester is out of London,” she said almost vehemently when I asked directions to Old Gloucester road which happened to be just two streets away. Looking back I am wondering whether she might have recognised the building i was going to but not the road's name.
And it is October Gallery that I was searching for on that warm evening of September 26th on a Friday. A jovial fellow pointed Old Gloucester road, barely a minute away.
As I entered the Gallery I kind of felt a quietness that made me think perhaps the chick with the bike was right; maybe, I should be in another town. Maybe the chap with a happy mood was wrong. October Gallery was a basin of beauty and the floor clanked under my shoes. Soon I was engulfed with joy as a woman with a happy smile , whose name is Maya Henebry, beckoned.
“What is your name?”
On a table were the badges. Mine was waiting with Kitoto Band engraved alongside.

Italian Singer-songwriter,Silvia Rox, left, networking...

People of all colours, age and gender strolled around drinking; mouths busy munching. I was directed to the back where a table of grubs laid in wait. It was nice. Everyone busy chatting, muffling away, sipping wine, water, beers, juice or tea.

Acoustic Jazz...

Performers kept on rolling their tunes and words while we listened, subsequently entertained to the most awesome high quality acoustic music, poetry and dancing that would make Mr. Jools Holland envious.
Oh yes; there is alot more than BBC’s unique, albeit great, monopoly.

Modeste Hugues guitarist and musician from Madagascar.

Percussionist Neville Murray (right) was part of those who enjoyed the tasty buzz...

London is littered with unknown artists and musicians of quality. And that is what networking organisations like Cultural Co-operation are proving.

Cultural Co-operationinitiated London Diaspora Capital (LDC) as a unique London-wide network in 1998. It currently comprises over 250 artists: musicians, visual artists, poets,, storytellers and dancers who represent over 60 national and faith communities resident in the city.

Asafo Gyata whose sing along with audience; included chant, poetry and accapella music.

The remarkable evening of September 26th , 2008 was not just a networking event, though. LDC had arranged heavyweights to come and see artists hungry and thirsty for promotion. They included agents, promoters, the press, DJ’s and so on.

Jasmine Esme, MC for the evening

As I made my way out chatting to one of the DJ’s she remarked that Prakash Daswani, Emma da Costa and Zaira Araguete, the hardworking self less team at the helm of Cultural Co-operation should be knighted for their unsung heroism. I tried to smell the lady’s mouth to see whether she was tipsy.
“I have been drinking juice and water all through this wonderful night,” she laughed.
Sober thoughts, noble appreciation.

Safroman veteran singer songwriter, guitarist from Congo-Zaire with Senegalese master drummer musician ,Malo Sonko

Tel: +44-20 7264 0000
Fax: +44-20 7264 0009

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Thursday, 2 October 2008


...Call it world music, international culture, home and away; call it what you feel.
This combination of music, food, drink and confluent arts is an example of a small pretty place taking the world by storm.
I just got the news of beautifulCafe Sanaa based in the second largest city of Norway, Bergen. Dont be dissappointed if you cannot read their website which is in Norwegian.
However, most clientele, artists and hosts at Cafe Sanaa speak multiple languages.
The place is run by a bubbling multi-talented couple: jazz musician, linguist and doctor Bjørn Blombergand world travelled scholar, theatre artist and woman life campaigner:Chiku Ali.

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