There is a need for a cultural rebirth in Africa as part of the radical economic and social transformation of the continent. A new African consciousness that is free from the chains of ‘colonial’, ‘post-colonial’ and ‘decolonial’ must be located in African reference points
‘Since time immemorial the apprentice has sat at the foot of the griot
listening to images of a forgotten past and bygone eras lost in the epoch
of human memory. For generations every son has sat at the foot of his
father retracing ancestral legacy and receiving the veil of the word’
How will we pass on legacy, cultural knowledge and wisdom to the next generation when our traditions and values are being lost and eroded all the time? How will we evolve into a global force, culturally, economically and politically when we are no longer able to conceive of the intangible in our own image?
For me, cultural rebirth through an African Renaissance is not just necessary but essential as one of the only strategies to enable this form of transformation, which is badly needed right across the continent. Africa is the continent of potential, but unrealized. It is in need of a renaissance which calls upon us to embrace a new consciousness connecting our past to our present and thereby our future. We cannot, and should not, deny our past but allow ourselves to release our own future.
NECESSARY DEBATES TO BE HAD
One of the most unfortunate stumbling blocks of emerging from beneath the cloud of a colonial past is the lack of original and independent reference points. Geographical independence does not always signify independence of the mind or thought. After 50 years of independence the axis of our reference points for thinking in all areas of life are still essentially European. The debate of what an African consciousness is in the 21st century is still one to be had and aired.
When we think of literature is our first thought Shakespeare or Soyinka? When we think of classical music is our first thought Beethoven or the Griot tradition? I am not suggesting any over the other but simply putting forward some questions for our own personal internal reflection. From the arts we can move to the more controversial arena of religion. How is it that the St. James version of the bible and its Christianity superseded African Coptic Christianity and the legacy of the desert fathers? Why has the modern Islam of Saudi Arabia superseded the African Islam that proceeded it and which gave birth to the mosques of Medieval Mali? If both these religions are already part of our heritage why do we constantly look to outside reference points for total guidance? From literature to music from Christianity to Islam it seems we continually look outside ourselves when perhaps we should be looking within.
WINDOWS OF PERCEPTION
I recently created a new theatre piece entitled, ‘The Griot’s Tale’ which centred around the tale of a boatman carrying a young man across a river and relaying fables to him as they crossed. It came about as part of a residency at the celebrated Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare’s studio. Yinka Shonibare has just set up a Guest Projects Africa programme at his studio in recognition of the need to have a space in London for the development of new experimental African work. We showcased two performances at the studio and had a great response from a highly mixed audience but one thing struck me from the subsequent feedback, that even the framing of our compliments are often not our own.
‘Excellent. It subtly brings out classical concepts from African thinking, links them to some European ones and makes them timeless. The Griot and the Greek ferryman.’
This astute audience-member made many valuable observations for the piece and his first sentence hits on much of what we were striving for in the piece. However, for me the second statement begins to undo what has just been said. There is an assumption that the Boatman or Ferryman is a Greek/Western construction but it is not. In the piece itself we had projected Egyptian images of a boatman from antiquity as well as our own contemporary ones but none of these could destabilize the Western construct planted in our minds of the boatman being a European idea with its origins in ancient Greece. It illustrates and points to a wider human predicament that if something is repeated often enough over time it becomes fact in our mind’s eye whether it is true or not.
I have found these windows of perception in all walks of life and especially in the arts where it is of profound importance. As a composer and classically trained musician I studied both Western and African Classical music. I learnt the cello and European classical music at a music conservatoire in UK and the Griot Tradition under the tutelage of Master of the Kora, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh. I never regarded one as higher than the other just simply different traditions reflecting different value systems and ideas. All of these valuable resources adding to the universal tapestry of music, art and culture. It is a natural process for culture to continue to realign itself constantly with the creative moment but only divisive learnt constrictive modes/structures of thinking would try to unnaturally control this process.
WINDOWS OF CHANGE
There are several ways to begin to change our window of perception through which we see the world. After this I believe all else is possible. The first is to elevate the position of the traditional artist within African societies and encourage them to update their practice in a way that is conducive to the principles from which the tradition was born out of in the first place. These traditions urgently need support and infrastructure but not necessarily to become institutionalised. At the moment there is very little infrastructure for their long-term sustenance leaving them susceptible to outside influences and consequently many of Africa’s finest and most successful traditional musicians and artists inevitably end up working and living in the West.
This artistic and intellectual drain of experiential knowledge is having dire repercussions for the younger generation who are no longer steeped in or exposed to the work of these great cultural practitioners. A case in point is The Gambia where most of their finest musicians now live and work outside the country due to economic circumstances and lack of opportunities rather than choice, as there is currently no support infrastructure for the work they do. It is not a coincidence that, by necessity, all of the members of my African Classical Music Ensemble including the international Riti virtuoso, Juldeh Camara are currently all based outside of The Gambia.
One of the last beacons of light for traditional African Music was the Pan African Orchestra in Ghana, which was the first African Orchestra made up solely of traditional African instruments. Yet, despite several classic recordings and international tours they finally had to disband after ten years due to lack of infrastructural support. For young emerging artists working in traditional music today it is almost impossible to find a space, organisation or body willing to support their endeavor. They are therefore at the mercy of the local and international commercial music industry whose aims are often at odds with the development and maintenance of cultural legacy. This has created a very dangerous state of affairs for traditional music in West Africa and one that urgently needs to be addressed.
At the same time we see the rapid onslaught of globalization and popular culture
on society and how this process is affecting the very perception and inherent value system of a generation who are clearly disassociating themselves from their cultural heritage. Ironically, it is this very same sector of society who represent a huge untapped source and potential pool of talent, which is currently not being realized. One of the main hurdles and stumbling blocks to their development is a severe lack of infrastructure and expertise in certain key areas.
Today one of the only bright lights in traditional music I can point to is in Mali where there is still a very high regard for traditional music within society. The legendary Kora player, Toumani Diabaté has used his status as an international musician to create a space where traditional musicians are supported and can come together under the banner of his symmetric orchestra. There is also a connection between the generations with several of his sons emerging with the new generation of artists coming through. Unfortunately, Mali today is quickly becoming a focal point of international military tension, which casts a large shadow over these important cultural developments.
I believe there is a need to create institutes of traditional music in many African countries to address these endemic problems by creating a bridge between the old world and the new. One of the crucial roles of these institutes in the wider fabric of society would be to act as a catalyst between rural traditions and disenfranchised youth who are either unaware or disconnected from their own rich cultural inheritance. These institutes, by necessity, would need to adopt a two-fold approach, which embraces and balances the preservation and dissemination of African music and culture with the development and training of a younger generation in music and the arts. For, it is the new generation that will ultimately hold the key to the future’s long-term sustainability of traditional music and its related art forms.
An example of what is possible is the Jant-Bi dance academy in Senegal led by the extraordinary choreographer/dancer, Germaine Agony. She has been training young dancers from across the continent to the highest international standards in her centre for over ten years. Jant-Bi has become a cradle for dancers from the whole of Africa, where they can feel at home and benefit from professional training, giving them a solid foundation for life as an artist and creating an openness towards international dance.
So can a model such as this be applied to other art-forms in Africa such as music and the visual arts? In Zimbabwe the graphic designer and filmmaker, Safi Mafundikwa returned to his homeland after many years working and living in the states to set up the first institute for visual arts in his country. After 10 years he is still going strong but as always funding and support for these pioneers of the continent is always a struggle. It seems that so far it has taken these extraordinary individuals and their passion to draw from their personal resources to pioneer these initiatives rather than through the accountability of African governments or the AU. Perhaps if respective governments on the continent could lend their real support behind such initiatives in the future it will surely be beneficial to us all.
WINDOWS OF POSSIBILITY
I was recently asked to become involved with a newly formed symphony orchestra in Abuja, Nigeria. Right now, Nigeria is at an interesting crossroads. One could say the nation is on the cusp of a new renaissance, which can be seen in the growth of the independent film and commercial music sector with a new generation of practitioners leading the way. There is a desire for expansion and a birth of new ideas and possibilities, which is only held back by a lack of expertise in certain areas. This can be identified as the biggest challenge facing the huge untapped source and pool of talent that currently resides in Nigeria and indeed the wider continent. What is needed is an institution, or academy, to target this untapped resource and provide necessary training and skills, thereby bridging the gap between potential and its realization.
A useful model to draw from what is possible with limited resources to develop such a complex institution as a symphony orchestra can be seen with the unique success story of El Sistema in Venezuela. The results and figures speak for themselves. El Sistema is a music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu under the name of Social Action for Music. Beginning with just a handful of children at inception the foundation now watches over 125 youth orchestras as well as the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. Seventy to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The key to this development programme is that it was internal rather than external and came from within the society itself. It was about cultural development and exchange rather than the usual mindset of charity and external assistance. It is always better to learn from cases which share a similar economic and cultural circumstance and situation. For this reason I feel models and structures developed in the West are not always useful for building institutions in ‘developing countries.’
Even for a model that is tried and tested such as El Sistema, there will always have to be adaptations made to tailor to the particular needs and circumstances of the local region one is working within. Though there are many similarities culturally and historically with Venezuela and South America there are also important differences. Where they were able to use the orchestra as a central tool for their musical cultural policy, to bring together elements of their diasporic experience (from European, indigenous Indian and African influences), the form is a much more complex tool in Africa with its close cultural association with colonization. It is a matter of treading the thin line between modernisation on a world platform and the danger of leaving one’s own ancestral cultural legacy behind inadvertently in the process. A balancing act of reconciling our past with our future is necessary.
We cannot run away from our past, our history so we may as well run towards it, grasp and use it to our advantage. As a result of our ‘education’ both equally in Africa and its diaspora over the last hundred years we are steeped in Western culture and all its inherent reference points. This in itself is not a problem as it is great to be widely versed and be able to draw from a wide pallet of influences. However, when this pre-determines our intrinsic value system, which in turn shapes our understanding and perception, we lose balance in our opinion and judgment of ourselves and our world. We no longer see ourselves in the image of the Creator and the Creator in the image of ourselves. I believe if we can simply change this we can lift many of the clouds that hang over our potentially bright future.
Africa’s richest asset is its human resource. There is already a pool of talent within the continent with the will and ambition waiting to be trained and it is only a matter of supplying facilities and the expertise to realise this potential. Better still the solution to this expertise lies within our own wider community. In some parts of Africa more money is sent back to the continent from its own diaspora than in charity and world aid and yet this contribution has often gone unacknowledged and ignored as a very real tool for development. It only requires connections, dedicated networks and trust. But, which African government will be the first to really pioneer and lead such an initiative, giving it the support and infrastructure from the highest level that it would need? Could the AU provide the leadership over the next 50 years?
For me, I see a vision of African modernity, which draws from our rich cultural inheritance and traditions. It should be a 21st century African consciousness which is no longer about post-colonial or de-colonial discourse but about transcending a colonial mind-set altogether. Our existing mind-set still so often determines our daily reference points but we must move beyond. It is rather about the identification and development of a value system based on our own unique ancient principles, which have been proven to work in our favour for thousands of years. Ultimately we all need to carry our past with us into our own modernity.
*Tunde Jegede is a musician who lives in London
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