Archive for December, 2010

Blue Clay People

December 31, 2010

I have just finished reading “The Blue Clay People” by William Powers – about a country familiar and very dear to me.

In his late twenties, Powers gets sent to Liberia as the director of food distribution of a large NGO. Charles Taylor’s violent and inept regime is in its second year, the notorious Oriental Timber Company (OTC) is tearing at Liberia’s bowels: the vast tropical rainforest. And war is once again on the horizon.

It’s good to see so many insights about the aid industry once again confirmed, even though his book deals mostly with the branch known as emergency aid. We have the privileged lifestyle of the foreign aid workers. Local boys are available for the “Madams” in the aid business; ditto the girls for the “Bossmen”. Just one small example of how the aid industry is, despite all its protestations to the contrary, the latest incarnation of colonialism.

Powers talks about the insidious patron-client relationships that aid reinforces. He talks about the fact that the stuff he helps bring in for free tends to get stolen by the people for whom it is not intended: it happens on his own watch. Yes, it happens by mistake – but much more often it happens by design, witness the manufactured famines in Ethiopia for instance. Linda Polman writes convincingly about that in “War Games”.

As his book illustrates, emergency aid frequently does not work, frequently prolongs violent conflict (as it did when it was first dispensed in Biafra in the 1960) and most of the time interferes with the lives and cultures of the “recipients”. And let’s not even get started on the elaborate bureaucracies that are employed to administer regular aid, the larger chunk of the US70 billion a year aid industry.

Getting it right means that those who work in the aid industry do something they are generally badly prepared for: shut up and listen. Powers manages to do just that in a place that rapidly becomes a home away from home: a village near the eerily beautiful dense tropical rainforest of Sapo National Park, which is directly threatened by the OTC thugs, with president Charles Taylor’s blessing. It is indeed a good thing to know that the trial against Dutchman Gus van Kouwenhoven, up to his neck in the OTC business, will reopen.

At times Powers gets a little too sentimental for my taste, but “The Blue Clay People” takes its place in the line of books such as Michael Maren’s “Road to Hell” (about Somalia) and Linda Polman’s work mentioned above.

It did bemuse me slightly, though, to read that he subsequently took up a post with the same NGO in Bolivia. I would have left the whole  business altogether.

NOW….for later, folks: Happy New Year All. Or as we say here: Deweneti!

Diamond Fingers

December 28, 2010

in full - and fast - flow

Certainly: not the best picture I could have taken but things were rather special on this otherwise so very ordinary Monday night. Round about midnight, a band strolls onto stage. Drums, bass, acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar and…

…another man, wearing one of his trademark multi-coloured shirts. Diamond Fingers, they call him. He chats a bit with the sounds engineers, his back to the audience.

Then the announcer comes on stage. He is in the wrong job. He should be reciting the telephone directory here. He massively improves the party atmosphere by reminding us all, in his flat-as-a-drone diction, that only a few hundred metres from here a traffic accident killed  one of Africa’s best-loved singers, Alpha Demba Camara. He and Diamond Fingers were founder members of the legendary Bembeya Jazz, in 1961…

Thanks heavens for Sékou “Bembeya” “Diamond Fingers” Diabaté and his beloved guitar! He made us forget the funereal introduction in less that 5 seconds flat. ‘Aaaah – this is music…’ I hear someone sigh. He’s Guinean, like Sékou, like most of the audience tonight.

Oh yes, this is music.

For the next hour or so, Diamond Fingers regales us with some classics (Sou), weaves bits and pieces of other classics into his own songs at will (I think I heard some Armée Guinéenne, Ballaké, Dagna), his band following effortlessly. He walks off the stage with his guitar, notes cascading, falling over themselves as he serenades the front row. He turns the all-seater open air theatre into a heaving mass of dancing bodies, to the consternation of the security guards who are not used to such a carnival. He gets the singalongs going, cracks jokes, invites and old man onto the stage who jumps rope in time with his chords, sings a sentimental Guinean tune (very schmalzy that!) and gets the crowd moving again with a great Latinesque jive.

And then it was over.

‘I saw a man cry,’ says a young Senegalese rapper who I meet on the way out. Of course. That’s what you do when you are finally allowed a glimpse of heaven, if only for an hour. Very nice, too, to just forget about journalism for an while and be a simple, awestruck fan…

Bembeya Jazz plays on New Year’s Eve, I was told. By the time they finish that show, the group will be…50. Not just the best but also the oldest band in the world.

FESMAN – one more week and one last thought

December 24, 2010

The Senegalese have a great sense of decorum. Europeans are far less equipped in that department. So one morning, we get an earful from an irate French woman who, like me, has missed a conference. Her parting shot: ‘…and then they expect us to take blacks seriously!!!!’ She was, without a doubt, enormously impressed with herself. What an annihilating parting shot!

She is, of course, dead wrong.

First, you must make a clear distinction between the previous two Global Festivals for the Black Arts (1966 and 1977) and this edition. The first two had the Arts in the centre. This one does not. It has the Ruling Family and Its Party in the centre and they use FESMAN to show off.

The newly rich and powerful (or in this case: both) always buy art. Not for the art itself – they don’t give a toss. No: it’s all about them. Look at me! How sophisticated I am!

But, and this is the second point, FESMAN is also a gathering of excellent people. You should enjoy it for the quality available. Just ignore the monstrously bad organisation; this mess is the logical consequence of who the organisers are.

The French woman has it backwards. She’s also in the worst possible position to make any statements about “taking blacks seriously”. Not even because she hails from the former coloniser. More so, because there are a lot of Francophone cultural circles in Africa where the colonial party has never ended. Just take a look at all those incestuous little gatherings at supposedly “African” cultural happenings…and feel your stomach churn. The cinema festival Fespaco in Ouagadougou was like that – until the Nigerians and South Africa broke up that cozy little côterie.  Here’s hoping that the Bamako Photo Biennale will be next. On and on it goes.

This festival is not about the Black Arts, it certainly is not for the Black Arts. But we don’t need some spoiled inconvenienced French visitor to remind us of that simple fact.

Fesman glimpses and it ain’t pretty

December 23, 2010

The Global Festival of the Black Arts (Fesman, in French) was originally planned for December 2009. It also costs something like 70 billion CFA Francs, according to the Gazette, a decent weekly here. That’s a cool €107 million. So here’s the question: what the @##!!$$ have the organisers been doing with all that time and all that money. Because Fesman is, in all honesty, a bloody shambles. Take a look at these:

1. In Walfadjri (one of Dakar’s better newspapers) today, the report of a bitter press conference by the architects who were supposed to have had their public conference about architecture and urban development in Africa, an incredibly important issue. They were, according to this report, chiefly talking among themselves and some of their exhibition material never left Customs. Fesman did not pony up the cash to have it released.

2. Upstairs from the restaurant area at the exhibition space CICES: two tables. Parked on top of them, still in their plastic packaging: eight brand new Apple G5 desktop computers. These things ain’t cheap. I bought mine four years ago for €1,700. Do the math, that’s easily 20 grand parked there, without supervision. Three days later I pass the same scene. They haven’t been used once. Ten days on, some have been switched on but left standing. In the “children’s corner…’ There’s only one word for that: waste.

3. Same week, the Gazette reports that the festival has splashed just shy of eleven million euros on roughly one hundred luxury vehicles, acquired through a non-existing company, Six Senegal. You get the picture, right?

a fleur de presse. The lady on the cover is the president's daughter and therefore a Fesman top boss.

4. I meet a local musician who tells me that the organisers had not even considered him for the music programme, even though he lives and works in Dakar. Then, he tells me he gets an SMS in which a show is announced – featuring himself and a few colleagues. An SMS…riiiiight.

So basically, I ask him: you don’t know exactly when you are supposed to play, you don’t know where you are going to play, there is no contract and you have no time to rehearse. ‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘and that’s why I will be demanding cash up front. Otherwise, we won’t go. Besides, I have my own show coming up soon. I’ll concentrate on that – and my new clip. Fesman is secondary.’

5. The mayor of Saint Louis claims that his city’s organising committees never received any info about the Global Festival of the Black Arts. Corroborated by a few members in the organising committees. Quote: ‘In the morning we don’t know who will show up in the evening.’ Now this actually makes perfect sense: Saint Louis is run by the Opposition and this is very strictly a Dakar Showcase for the Ruling Family and Its Party.

6. Those hundreds of pretty festival hostesses in a special festival dress! Well, they only perk up when strictly necessary. Most of the time they spend talking among themselves, because the guests have – once again – failed to show up. Tell you what: when you are supposed to smile at incoming celebrities and VIPs but you don’t get paid as promised  (according to a report in Le Populaire), you quietly decide that said celebrities and VIPs can go %%##@@ themselves. You just don’t tell anyone.

PS: just done a spot check. They still haven’t been paid. There is a word for that but we’re trying to run a decent blog here…

7. Taximen!! Too may cars chasing too little money. Fesman would be manna from heaven…er…forget it. Quote: ‘We get nothing out of this festival. I tell you: nothing!’ All guests are transported by one and the same company, Senecartours. Here’s how.

‘Fesman?’ asks a man. Just him and the driver on a 40-seater passenger bus. ‘We’re going to town.’ I was actually just leaving for lunch in my own neigbourhood restaurant – otherwise I would have had an entire bus to myself. That’s why taximen don’t even bother to show up at the festival hotels and the festival sites. All business gone… and if you want to know how one company got to hog all Fesman transport, a trip to the Ruling Party headquarters might be instructive…the Fesman main site sits right opposite…

8. I really could go on. A few well-connected individuals and by chance also some small businesses are doing OK out of the festival but for most it’s like the FIFA World Cup in 2010: hot air, empty promises and no cash.

Some final thoughts on Fesman – tomorrow.

Random Exhibitions

December 19, 2010

Around the corner from my flat is CICES, a giant exhibition area. Every city’s got one – think of the RAI complex if you’re from Amsterdam.

CICES plays host to a series of conferences on cities, architecture and, as I found out by accident, cinema. All part of the massively disorganised shambles known as the Global Festival for the Black Arts, FESMAN being the French acronym. The Black Arts deserve a lot better than this presidential glorification party but I’ll stop boring you to tears with that…

So: last Monday, I went looking for the conference on cities, which finally took place – on Wednesday. I walked around the exhibition area…building site more like…when I was called. “Kai lekk!”, which means come and eat.

So instead of listening to some drone from academia discuss asymmetrical parallels (no, none of us knows what that means) or conceptual processes, deconstructivism (all in the conference program)…I was having thieboudien with Momar Thiam and his younger colleague, Mr Kassé. Thieboudien: – look that up, it’s among the top ten best dishes on the planet.

They were setting up an exhibition about the history of Senegalese cinema. Also intended to be a strong argument for a national museum of the national cinema. They don’t have to look far; Mr Thiam, himself a film director, keeps all the historical billboards, artefacts, press clippings and everything else…in his own home.

The caretaker of national cinema - and his private collection

Come last Saturday, five days after my first visit – and Mr Thiam’s exhibition is ready. The adjacent one on architecture still reverberates to the sounds of hammers pounding nails. There are very few visitors. Which he finds, quite naturally, disappointing. But he soldiers through with the interviews (first me, for Radio Netherlands, then a colleague for TV5) and still hopes that after years of non-committa promises, he will finally get his museum. I hope so too. But instead of a new home for Mr Thiam’s wonderful collection, we’re more likely to get this:

another monument that will dwarf another landmark...

This is from the architecture exhibition, featuring some work on traditional abodes in Benin, dwellings in Mauritania, a completely random set of new buildings and cityscapes in Ouagadougou, Accra, Dakar  and Bamako – and designs. Lots and lots of designs.

Like the one above.

This is not a copy of the “sail” building in Dubai. Nor is it the locally planned equivalent of a section of the Sydney Opera House. No. It’s…a Monument, a Memorial. We don’t nearly have enough of these in Dakar. It will sit off the historical island of Gorée, which over centuries of Portuguese, Dutch, French and English rule acted as a transit port for spices, hides, gold, gum arabic and most notoriously, slaves. Gorée’s role, though, has been much exaggerated; the main centre of the slave trade in Senegal was the old capital, St. Louis.

If this ever gets built, it will dwarf everything on this tiny island – just 900 metres long and a few hundred metres wide. It’s estimated to cost something of the order of €35m – that’s more than that other Monument. No-one will like it but the president wants it and what the president wants, happens.

Back to the lives of lesser mortals. On my way out of the CICES complex I ran into two young men from Pikine, miles and miles away. ‘We’re not connected to FESMAN…’ Well, that makes you part of the vast majority of Senegalese…

‘This is our marketing: walking around with our arts.’ Would I come and visit them? Definitely, as they gave away glimpses of their lives in the few minutes we spoke: failed overseas migration, life in one of Dakar’s poorest areas, struggling to make money through arts and not being shy about wandering into a party to which they were obviously not invited.

Moral of the story? Ignore official programs. Always accept an invitation to eat. Talk to everyone who does not carry an official badge.


December 17, 2010

Well, it takes all kinds at this Third Global Festival of the Black Arts. Although the more apt name would be the Umpteenth Festival to increase the Profile and Glory of the President of this nominal Republic and his Family. Price tag apparently some €50m.

So here I was, gazing up at this:

Playing under the giant. Pic taken of Etran Finatawa, Tuesday December 14

(remember this)

and…waiting for the Kora Jazz Trio, whose glorious output will certainly outlast anything Senegal’s current crop of megalomaniac leaders throw at the good folks of this country. And mind you, now that the North Korean pomposity known as the Monument for the African Renaissance is there, you might as well enjoy it. It is festively lighted up in the evening, you can walk up its stairs and enjoy and absolutely stunning view of the Great Fantastic City of Dakar.

I can (almost) see my house from here. Lights in the middle: the airport

When I walked down the stairs, I heard the gravel voice and rough-around-the edges saxophone of Archie Shepp. One of the greats from the 20th Century’s most important contribution to music: jazz.

He was, in spite of his advanced age, in good form on that chilly, unprotected windy Monumental hillside. But many visitors were neither aware nor cared much about the man, his music. Case in point: the brief but charming development of a Chinese-Senegalese friendship, built around what appears to be a Monumental obsession of people all around the world: taking pictures of themselves and each other. Maybe God knows why. Or president Wade. He knows everything.

Mr Shepp is playing. A standard, a city blues or a nice bit of the real classic stuff: melody – sax – piano – bass – drums. All are excellent. Oblivious about all this, a few Chinese workers, probably plucked straight from China’s vast rural labour reserves, traipse around the premises, shooting films and taking pictures. Two rather large and very well constructed Senegalese ladies enter the scene, dressed, as always, to the nines. They start taking pictures of themselves and each other as well and very soon there is a whole series of musical chairs going on right in front of me: Chinese and Senegalese pose in all possible combinations and take pictures of each other. Then the China guys are getting a little too friendly and the two dames depart with their dignity fully intact. Meanwhile, Mr Shepp plays.

And it is somewhat disorienting to hear him rail against injustices of the past, when most of the United States was an apartheid state, and then cry “Revolution” – under a Monument whose only raison d’être, as every Senegalese will tell you, is the glorification of the ruling family. This is how one commenter put it the next day: whenever there is a problem in this country, no money, no food, no transport, all that Wade does is tell the Senegalese to go and dance!

Down the stairs and dance!

Well put. But dance we did, in the end, under the Monument. Thanks to another giant with a career spanning more than half a century. Manu Dibango guided his 13 piece band through the motions, greatly helped along by a characteristically boisterous Cameroonian delegation, how did they find out that Manu would show up here? He was nowhere on the programme…

‘Ah you’re all working tomorrow, right? OK, we’ll keep it brief…’ He did, sort of. As I left well after midnight, he had just announced the last piece, having taken us on a ride through jazz, makossa, latin, salsa, afrobeat, funk and whatever else in a great Pan-Africa, Pan-World, Pan-Whatever, planetary fashion. Maybe, if he manages to get some Chinese sounds woven into the mix, these guys will for a minute stop taking pictures…

PS: the Kora Jazz Trio did not play that night. Maybe another time…

Book, theatre, broken glass

December 15, 2010



(Who, incidentally, made an album called Dakar – in 1961 I think it was.)

The stage is dark but you can see the contours of a simple bar, made out of wood. There are large windows and those simple plastic tables and chairs, garden variety. You see them in every neighbourhood bar up and down the continent. Bottles parked on top.

We are about to see a stage rendition of  “Verre cassé”. It means “broken glass” or in this case you might argue for the stronger “smashed glass”. “We”, that is, the beau monde gathered here tonight in the Institut français Léopold Sedar Senghor, formerly known as the CCF, the Centre culturel français., in the centre of Dakar. Apart from the name, nothing much has changed and certainly not the composition of the audience: mostly ex-pat, mostly French, and therefore extremely unlikely to have ever set foot in such a neighbourhood – let alone a bar like this, the haunt of “Verre cassé” and his friend, le patron, the owner.

This, then, is an adaptation of a book that I read from cover to cover in a rush a few years ago. It’s written by the Congolese author Alain Mbanckou. Open it, and you’ll plunge right into it. Like Verre cassé plunges onto the stage as soon as the lights go up. He’s got work to do, this alcoholic ex-teacher. He must write the stories of the people who frequent the bar. That is why the owner has given him a notebook.

Le Crédit a voyagé. Pay-as-you-drink. That’s the name of the bar. And drink they do, the men who come in to tell their stories. Business has been so good that politics and religion conspire to shut the place down. And we all know, once these two get involved, everything turns to shit. But for now, the folks talk and Verre cassé writes, if he is not meticulously re-aligning the cheap plastic chairs. Or drinking. Or pontificating about writers, the French language, or his ex-wife. There is definitely something simultaneously sane and unhinged about the man.

Anyway: he writes. About the man who thought he had a great marriage with a nice white French lady – until he found her in bed with their son. Now, he’s broken: he stutters – and he drinks. About the man who can no longer sit in his chair. He has been gang-raped in prison once the inmates found out that he had been put in the slammer on suspicion of paedophilia, spread by his estranged wife. Which, he claims, is not true. He did go and see the young prostitutes down the road though. Now, he just drinks. Verre cassé tries the same ladies of the night ‘because it’s been a long time since I have been lucky’ – but they send him on his way.

So that is what we saw, tonight. Smashed glasses. Broken lives. All written up in a notebook without a beginning or an end. When Verre cassé’s friend gets to see the notebook, he is astonished. What? No commas, no upper and lower case, no end points, no quotation marks, how can he tell when someone is talking? It’s the exact way in which Alain Mbanckou wrote “Verre cassé”.

There is something strangely uplifting in seeing this wonderful production, played by two Paris-based actors, Tadié Tuéné and Jean Bédiébé. Just like there is something inexplicably exhilarating about reading Mbanckou’s rollercoaster novel – or indeed listening to Coltrane’s reckless “sheets of sounds” tumbling through the speakers. You don’t want to miss the ride, even though you know it will end badly.

Or will it? Verre cassé does not think so. He’s done his job, as far as he’s concerned. He’s off, to Paradise. ‘And if they don’t let me in through the door, I’ll climb in through the window!’

The end.

And if you can’t see the play, then go and read that book. All of you.