Rhythms of Azania.... in The Guardian 7/12/08

(As published in the LIFE magazine of The Guardian of Sunday, December 7, 2008)

Azania Speaks, a conference on Spoken Word and Oral Literature in contemporary African literary discourse held between November 17 and 19, 2008 in Udine in the Northeastern part of Italy.
With the sub theme Visions of Patnership in Africa: The Art of the Spoken Word, the conference focused much of its deliberations on the power of oral poetry and storytelling; female voices in contemporary African oral poetry and contemporary African poetic production in connection to ancient African oral traditions. It was organised by the Faculty of Modern Languages of the University of Udine, under the leadership of the Dean, Prof Antonella Riem Natale as convener, backed by Dr Maria Bortoluzzi. The Doctoral research fellow, Raphael D’Abdon was coordinator of the conference with support of Laura Pecoraro and Piergiorgio Tresvan. Music was coordinated by the South African poet, Natalie Moletbasi while Tiziana Pers oversaw the Visual Arts segment.
Nduka Otiono, former Arts Editor of ThisDay newspaper and ex-Secretary General of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, gave the keynote in which he traced the origin of oral poetry and story telling performances in Africa, highlighting the current movement around countries on the continent.

. Otiono with Prof Itala Vivian, middle is Raphael, arrowhead of the conference secretariat

Speaking on Mind Grenades, Verbal Missiles: Spoken Wor(l)d and the Impoversihed Generation in Post Colonial Africa, Otiono, who is currently a Doctoral student at the University of Alberta, Canada, stressed on the development in Nigeria using the advent of such events as the now defunct Beautiful Nubia-initiated Word n’ Sound, British Council-sponsored Word and Picture, WAPI, the Culture Advocates caucus/Goethe Institut-driven WordSlam as well as Taruwa among others as example of the popularity that the form is gaining in the public performance space. He also noted that much of he content of the so-called Hip-Hop musical production in the country have their root in oral poetry performance. He however, paid tribute to the work of Sage Has.son (Rage) and Jumi Fola-Alade (Imole) – both of whom he said have focused their career on pushing the frontiers of the form. He also acknowledged the work of those regular features in WordSlam such as Awoko, Dagga Tolar, Edaoto and Cornerstone, naming them as artists who could be relied upon to continue to deepen public interest in the Spoken Word and Oral poetry act.
However, Otiono warned that except there is serious scholarship work trained at the work currently being produced, the potential gains of the Spoken Word form as a platform for free expression by the citizenry as well as a medium for advancing participatory democracy and good governance ideals may be missed. Sad enough, he observed that the Nigerian aged and seemingly un-dynamic academy culture does.
Exceptionally instructive, was Pierpaolo Martino’s (University of Bari) presentation titled Wi tired ah di degradation: Women’s dub poetry, in which he exposed the intrigues and politics of the sexes even in as neutral a genre as Poetry. He observed that much of the content of men’s dub poetry is full of condescending references to women, particularly summarizing women as simply objects of lascivious desires and libidinous fantasies. He said, however, that women themselves are beginning to respond although not as openly disrespectful of men – for instance, making uncomplimentary remarks about their genitalia – but in setting records straight by showing the men the straight face. They challenge men to change their tone and sing of more sensible subjects and behave responsibly. Intriguingly however, Martino said even as women wash up their sensuous personality to the vocation of dub poetry, they still have to rely on the ‘brawnish’ hard grind of male dub rhythms, which carries with it the atypical phallic aggression.

. The meeting of the continent: Ntsiki Mazwai, Nduka Otiono, Shailja Patel and Napo Mashaene; squatting is Jahman Anikulapo

The creative head of Culture Advocates Caucus, CAC, (conveners of the quarterly live poetry performances, WordSlam, also spoke on Popular Music and politics citing works of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, his contemporaries and the protégés of their type of music such as Lagbaja, Femi Kuti, Seyi Solagbade among others as well as the work of the so-referenced Ajegunle musicians and a few of the Hip hop and Afro-pop acts. Specifically on Spoken Word, he gave credit to Mode 9, whom he said is about the most eloquent of the form. He informed that the future of Spoken Word and Oral Poetry in popular musical idiom depends on the encouragement from the larger consuming public, who would at some point need to start demanding more meaningful and serious lyrical content from the Hip-hop singers and musicians. “For now, much of the music that is coming out from these chaps is flat, lack depth or worthy themes. The lewd and sleazy lyrics have become the norm, giving strength to the claim that philosophy and critical thinking have taken flight from the faculty of many of the current generation of artists”, he said.
There were other remarkable presentations including ‘The Brave New World of African Women Fighting Through Words’, by Prof. Itala Vivian from the University of Milan, who in conclusion urged for producers of cultural events on the continent to give more rooms to expression by women, especially through the arts. Prof Itala was indeed an inspirational presence at the conference; her knowledge of African literature is vast and she seems to have met virtually everybody who was important to the great cultural movement that produced the literature of the 60s through the 90s and beyond. She recalled with nostalgia her meeting with Ken Saro-Wiwa, especially, “the huge laughter from the smallish man… he was full of life and it was sad that the Nigerian government killed him so violently”, she said, recalling that she and a few friends had few hours after the writer, environmental activist was hanged in November 1995, organized a quick conference to draw world attention to the madness that had just transpired in Nigeria.

. Pierpaolo speaking on Women Dub poetry

“I remember that people from AGIP were invited and they came… making attempt in their presentation to show that unlike the other oil companies in Nigeria, they had been responsive to the needs of their host communities”.
Aside the various presentations, the conference was suffused with performances, mostly by the South
Africans, whose vibrant voices were led by the compulsive crowd teaser and thriller, the poet Natalia Moletbasi, who also played active role in the organization of the conference. The performers were no doubt drawn from the past work of the coordinator-in-chief of the conference, D’Abdon, who had done an earlier research: The Post-Apartheid South African Poetry. The star performer was Ntsiki Mazwai, whose cute act leans more towards dub poetry. The audience members were instruments in her fingers and she knows how to twiddle them to her will and rhythms – with music as a strong feature of her work. Napo Masheane, did not rely on music but her sensuality even while she invokes the spirit of the heroines of the motherland and talked about political issues was winsome. She drove the audience to passion with every of her rendition. There were other poets too, encouraged to perform in either Italian or their native languages. Sardanian Alberto Masala, whom Prof Vivian described as a very sensitive poet but who needs to organize his live acts, articulated the anxiety of his people, which he described as one of the fast disappearing tribes in the world. “my language is fading away, my people are disappearing”, he wailed.

. Tahar Lamri, the Algerian migrant poet in Italy, in performance

Lance Henson, however, whom Otiono critiqued as intensely sensitive is a poet in the natural fare of the griot of old, who engage nature to explain the foibles of man and living. His subjects are often the unexpected and his poem very short, such that just as the listener is warming up into the act, he has already finished his words leaving his voice and his evocative words lingering in the consciousness.

. A cross section of the audience

A brief screening of recordings from WordSlam also gave a hint of what is currently happening in Nigeria. It’s elaborate staging technique and often charged atmosphere coupled with the involvement of children, was applauded by many in the audience.
Perhaps the most affective lesson taken away from Azania Speaks was the performance possibilities that were exposed for the Short Story form. Shailja Patel, the Kenyan Word artist’s performance of excerpts from her published work, Migritude: An Epic Journey in Four Movements remained the most applauded presentation at the conference. On her stage, the cold word of the short story gained a narrative strength that is executed in intense dramatics and vocal colourings; her voices rose and dipped according to the cadencies of the characters of the historical facts she was narrating – she drove every of her conviction about the narration into the heart and heads of her audience. The silences in the room were an attestation to the veiled accord between her and her listeners.

. Lance Henson...

Sharing of Patel’s new wave of performance Short Story form was Tahar Lamri, the Algerian migrant artist who is based in Italy. Lamri’s reputation in the story telling vocation actually runs ahead of him. He has earned immense credit as a public performer, and this was what he proved with his presentation in Udine, in which he recapped the story of the decimation of Africa and its human and natural resources in his The Voices Pilgrimage. There was also Gabriella Ghermandi from Ethiopia presenting Queen of Pearls and flowers: A Story of Ethiopian patriots Resisting Italian Colonisation.
Azania Speaks is indeed a testimony to the power of the spoken word to help in quickening the democratic in post colonial Africa. As was observed at the conference, in a continent that has not managed to master the ideals of democratic governance, where despots and irresponsible leaders deliberately cripple participation of their people in national political debate, Spoken Word and Oral Literature could manifest as platform of free expression of the wills of the people.


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