Jonzi D

Jonzi

The name of the upcoming Sadler’s Wells dance festival is both a memorable pun and acknowledges that substantively, it’s breaking the conventions of both genres of performance art it has adopted. Breakin’ Convention  is hip hop theatre; a fascinating affront to both contemporary dance and standard b-boying (break dancing). Somewhere between the stagecraft of bourgeois theatres and the busting energy of South Bronx dancehalls, curator and host Jonzi D has found a beautiful niche.

But what of hip hop being ‘produced’ at a venue like Sadler’s Wells? What of a movement that was once so raw, rooted in the street, moving into the realms of ‘high art’?

“Breakin’ Convention  is an extension of hip hop” Jonzi tells me. “It keeps the real hip hop dynamics: graffiti, ciphers, circles, breaking… We’ve gone to the art and culture of the form, not the swagger side. We’re going deeper than the cosmetic side.”

Jonzi is one of those people you instantly warm to. We’d first met by chance at a house party in Kampala, Uganda, and then coincidentally again at Entebbe airport before sharing a flight back to the UK.

Now we talk at the Sadler’s Wells cafe. Beneath a huge bulbous hat filled with dreadlocks is a rounded, thoughtful face. Jonzi likes to enunciate words that are important, stretching them out and emphasising their syllables. He is clear and convincing. Yet still I question the philosophy of putting hip hop into theatres.

“You see, when I started getting into it, in the 1980s, hip hop was about doing something different” he says, drawing out the word, “Rappers didn’t do the same tracks. You’d be called a biter, someone copying from someone else. For me, bringing hip hop into the dance and theatre scenes was doing something different.”

Jonzi’s story goes right back to the origins of underground British hip hop, b-boying and MCing with the UK’s first wave from 1982. Increasingly drawn to breaking, he graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1993 and set up his first Hip Hop Theatre in 1995.

“I was bringing together two polarised entities in my life” he says. “I thought I was the only person in the world doing it. I felt like I was a bit of a hip hop missionary.”

Jonzi began touring a production called Lyrikal Fearta around Europe that year and realised that others were also onto this hip hop dance combination; it was a genre unto itself.

In 1999 Alistair Spalding, then working at the Royal Festival Hall, saw Jonzi’s production of Aeroplane Man, about a displaced young man of Grenadian origin living in east London. Spalding recognised the significance of Jonzi’s work and five years later, as artistic director at Sadler’s Wells, he commissioned Jonzi to develop a hip hop dance festival. Breakin’ Convention was born.

They hit it off immediately. Spalding gave Jonzi free license to fully capture the essence of hip hop culture, revolving around its four elements: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti.

“When Alistair Spalding supported our guys spraying graffiti on the walls of the mezzanine at Sadler’s Wells, I thought… this will work! The rest is history. We’ve been here every year. We’ve had three national tours. We’ve received money from the Arts Council. We’ve worked with the greatest breakdancers in the world: The Electric Boogaloos, Ken Swift, Mr Wiggles… We’ve become the pioneers of this culture.”

In this eighth successive year at Sadler’s Wells, Breakin’ Convention promises to capture the truly global nature of hip hop, with dancers representing France, Korea, Japan, the UK, US and Uganda.

“Chuck D pointed out that hip hop is developing faster outside the US today. We live in a global world now, with the internet and so on. Hip hop represents the culture of the world…”

One of the highlights of the programme is Ugandan crew, Tabu-Flo, the first time a group from sub-Saharan Africa have been involved in Breakin Convention. The group met at Kampala’s Breakdance Project, a non-profit organisation working to promote social change.  In a country where hip hop culture is phenomenally popular, it’s a direct way to connect with young people.

The piece Tabu-Flo created for their London show is inspired by the story of a battle with malevolent spirits. “Tabu-Flo are working with a local myth called the night dancers: that humans go into trances at night; they possess people; they dig up freshly buried bodies at night and eat them… it’s extraordinary”, explains  Jonzi.

Jonzi’s passion for Africa is obvious. “Africa is the cradle of so many artistic forms. To go near to central Africa, near to the Nile, and find an idea that relates to our concept is too exciting!”

Under the creative control of Jonzi, and amid the dynamics of global hip hop and diverse ethnic cultures, the possibilities are endless. The impetus is to keep exploring; to do something different. So far, Breakin’ Convention  is living up to its name.

Mondomix

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Tiken Jah Fakoly: Political War

This was a concert with an edge. Circumstances conspired to lift this performance from one of beautifully arranged and composed music onto another level; here crowd and artist shared not only in each others’ sounds, but in their souls too.

Arguably Ivory Coast’s most political contemporary musician was performing his most politically conscious album, at a time when his country had sunk into a civil war that has cost some 1500 lives.

“Nobody hoped the situation would reach this stage. Il faut cedez le fauteuil, le pouvoir  [literally, you must hand over the ‘presidential armchair’, power]” Tiken Jah Fakoly tells me, in reference to Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election to Alassane Ouattara but refused to cede control. At the time of this interview, Gbagbo was desperately clinging to power whilst hiding in a bunker under his house in Abidjan.

That night, 4 April 2011, the Barbican theatre was almost entirely on its feet, swaying to reggae melodies layered with distinctly West African sounds drawn from the charms of the kora, ngoni, and balafon (all recently added to his band). An Ivorian fan from the crowd, draped in his national flag, ran across the theatre and up onto the stage, handing Tiken the emblem in a purely symbolic gesture.

“The European Union, the United States, the African Union – they all demanded Gbagbo leave, and he refused. In history, sometimes force is the only way. Negotiating didn’t work. Sadly we arrived at this situation” laments Tiken, whose rusty voice in itself seems to carry the pain of a nation’s suffering.

tiken

One could be forgiven for believing Tiken Jah Fakoly had been building his entire career up to this moment. African Revolution was released in late 2010. Perhaps the album’s most memorable song is Political War, featuring Nigerian soul singer Asa, who performed alongside Tiken at the Barbican. It’s a plaintive story of political disillusion based on their parents’ experiences in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Their eponymous chorus rings in the ears like the wailing of the bereaved. Tiken was performing for the first time in London just as the violence in Ivory Coast had intensified into one of the world’s worsening humanitarian crises. This was a concert that mattered.

But in fact, lyrically, Tiken’s music has been politically conscious for some time. From 1993 he began to move away from the metaphor traditionally adopted by griot musicians, which is his heritage, into more direct political attacks after the death of Ivory Coast’s long-standing president Félix Houphouey-Boigny.

“I think if the politicians had listened to me years ago, things would not have turned out this way. In Le Caméléon (first released across West Africa in 2000, then internationally in 2008), I made it clear to people in West Africa that things were bad, that they had to stop, and I wasn’t alone – Alpha Blondy and Ismaël Isaac were also saying politicians needed to be checked.

This approach has both increased his regional and international popularity and risked him his life. Subjected to death threats, he left Abidjan in 2003. He was then banned from Senegal after criticizing its president in 2007 and over the past few years exiled himself in Bamako, Mali, due to the political instability blighting the Ivory Coast.

In the complex world of international politics and advocacy in which Tiken now operates, which would be the one change he would like to see in African politics.

“The struggle against corruption in Africa. With corruption, development is difficult. The wealth of natural resources cannot go to the people. Politicians need to stop talking about ending corruption and put together effective laws and acts that will prevent it from happening.”

What of the role of the external actors, the western donors?

“I don’t think the international community needs to help us. We are not children. We are sovereign. We can take our own route.”

If any artist could embody this route, it would be Tiken Jah Fakoly. Musically, African Revolution is a conscious statement. It encompasses his early adoption of roots reggae, particularly Bob Marley’s, and indeed was partly recorded at Tuff Gong studio in Kingston. But the bulk of the album was produced and recorded in Bamako, under the instrumental influence of West Africa, his homeland. Ideologically, he’s clasped the torch of Peter Tosh, Marley and Ivorian reggae musicians to become a ‘truth teller’, speaking up against injustice. And for sheer on-stage bravura – with statuesque Black Panther salutes, cross-stage sprints, jumps, and flying kicks to drum beats – I saw him as African reggae’s answer to Mick Jagger.

“The role of the reggae musician is very important” he says. “The role is to wake up our children. Music can make people understand what is happening, when politicians say one thing and something else is happening.”

Tiken has developed an enormous following in West Africa. His 2003 Victoires de la Musique Award is a testament to his popularity in France. The growing fanbase across the world support him not just for his wonderful music but for his courage.  At the time of writing, his country’s erstwhile despot has reportedly fallen and the curfew has been lifted. Perhaps a new chapter is opening for Ivory Coast. Everyone is hoping it won’t be one of violence. Come what may, Tiken’s voice will continue to sound, loud and clear.

Rokia Traore

Rokia Traoré looks poised. The Malian songstress sits thoughtfully at the edge of her seat. She considers my questions backstage at the Maison des Arts in Paris. In a few hours she will be performing her rich, soulful music to another rapt audience. Traoré has amassed a sizeable following since breaking onto the scene over ten years ago with her first album, Mouneïssa, released in 1998. 40,000 copies were sold in Europe. Traoré became an African music sensation. But one senses that fame means little to her.  “I could never do anything commercial” she says. “I don’t think like that. I just do what I feel.”

Traoré is complex, intelligent and sensitive. She ‘feels’ a lot in her speech. She tells me “sometimes I react more to peoples’ way of behaving than what they say. I’m very sensitive to people”. Her experience as a diplomat’s daughter, growing up in Nigeria, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, gave her the time and experiences conducive to seek avenues for creative expression. “I started by writing. Travelling a lot, I had lots of time and began using music as a way of expressing myself,” she pauses, “it was a kind of therapy. There’s a paradox, as singing is both selfish and generous.”

Traoré grew up listening to the music of legendary Guinean griot Sory Kandia Kouyate and British group Dire Straits. Traditional West African and guitar-based western music were already becoming broad sources of musical inspiration.  But ironically it was rap that made Traoré’s name in Mali. Influenced by the likes of Public Enemy and Snap! Traoré and her brothers formed a hip hop collective called “Let’s fight”. Two of their songs were aired on national TV.

Following her mother’s advice, however, Rokia returned to her roots. By 1997 she was collaborating with Ali Farka Touré, who would become a major figure in her life, and over the next six years Traoré produced three critically acclaimed albums. The latest, Tchamantché, won her the best artist award of the 2009 Songlines Music Awards. The album is an intriguing collection of music, sensuously combining bluesy Gretsch guitar licks with West African ngoni plucks to produce a distinct sound, softened by jazz drum patter and Traoré’s feminine voice that can somehow sound forceful yet fragile.

Traoré sings mostly in Bambara, yet the album includes songs in French and English. Her dazzlingly original version of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ reflects her willingness to invert existing standards. This same characteristic saw Traoré construe Mozart as a thirteenth century griot of the Mande Empire for director Peter Sellars at the New Crowned Hope festival in 2006. Held in London and Vienna, the festival was celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Austrian composer. Traoré’s artistry clearly doesn’t shirk from the big occasion.

Her continuing desire to experiment sees her touring the UK in April and May with Sweet Billy Pilgrim, the Mercury Prize-nominated British trio likened to Radiohead for their wistful art-pop pieces. They and Traoré performed beautifully together at the Barbican last year, and the upcoming shows promise to be especially intriguing. “I’m very happy and excited about the idea. I love collaborations, especially with people with a music background so different from mine as it means I will learn.”

As we near the end of our interview, I understand that Rokia keenly wants others less fortunate to have the chance to learn too. Since December 2009 Traoré has invested her energies in Passerelle, (meaning ‘bridge’ in French) her foundation which aims to help develop Mali’s music industry by providing artists with greater opportunities to play. She has the advantage of her childhood upbringing, giving her know-how when it comes to forging third sector partnerships. The Fondation Passerelle’s first live event will take place on the Niger riverside by Mali’s capital in mid-May. If she can achieve a fraction of her success as a singer songwriter in this endeavour then Bamako’s young hopefuls should be counting themselves very lucky.

Mondomix