City Sounds Kampala

When Okot p’Bitek, a Ugandan poet, took over as Director of the National Theatre in Kampala in 1967, he promptly and ceremoniously replaced the British Council’s grand piano with a drum post driven into the ground outside, announcing “Our national instrument is not the piano – tinkle, tinkle, tinkle – but the drum – boom, boom, boom!”

The drum has always been central to this region’s musical heritage. The drum would beat at ceremonies among the kingdoms of Buganda, Busoga and Bunyoro across these lands before foreign traders, missionaries and colonists arrived.

The cow-hide drum still resides in churches and village bomas, where it sounds to the rituals of adulthood, marriage and death. And today the beat goes on, from the village to the dusty street, through genres rooted in the urban music culture of America’s African diaspora: hip hop and dancehall. Kampala’s mainstream music culture rests squarely around the beats, loops, cuts and samples that have come to define the first truly ‘global’ urban music genre.

Artists such as Bobi Wine combine the visual performance of US hip hop MCs with melodic dancehall delivery. Wine is the president of the Ghetto Republic of Uganja, a crew based in the Kampala slum called Kamwokya. The vice president is another artist called Buchaman. Their ‘cabinet’ includes a Defence Minister, a Minister for Disaster Preparedness and a Minister of Agriculture (whose policy, unsurprisingly, is to legalise cannabis).

The Ghetto Republic of Uganja might seem a frivolous endeavour, but these guys are national figures, with huge influence over their fans and politicians desperate to secure their patronage in the run-up to the general election in February 2011. Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni has inadvertently had a rap hit, after hip-hop producers remixed part of a speech featuring renditions of Ugandan folk songs by the leather-faced incumbent. Youngsters nationwide have adopted it as their ringtone. There are serious doubts Museveni himself can count on that level of popularity when it comes to the youth vote next year.

Wine wants to motivate people. “I call it edutainment. I want to reach out to the ghetto youth, and teach them about issues like condoms, but still keep aggressive and still keep entertaining…” Nightfall descends as we talk from the balcony of his recording studio, a bungalow covered in grasshoppers. In the slum nearby, a ‘farm’ made of white electric lights and huge cones of corrugated iron sheeting attract spectral clouds of the insects, which are cooked and sold as snacks.

Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan youths have also been drawn to the bright lights of the capital, exposed to a lifestyle so at odds with the rural, traditional lives of elder generations. Wine is the torchbearer of this brave new world. He offers pride and a sense of community to the scores of dispossessed, the slum kids fighting for a living. “We call it urban” he says. “Whereas rural music is narrative… informative… passive, urban music is more active and aggressive.”

As if p’Bitek’s words still hang in the ether, the city’s youthful hip hop culture can be experienced behind the National Theatre, at the ‘Bonfire’ outdoor gathering every Wednesday night. Bonfire comprises a hundred or so Kampalan b-boys and b-girls reciting poetry, and when the beats get dropped, rapping rhymes and hip hop verse in English or the preferred ‘Luga-flow’ (i.e. in the Buganda dialect, Lugandan). As the night progresses, beat boxers, break dancers and amateur acrobats emerge, shifting the emphasis from cerebral to corporal.

Breakdancers KLA

But Luga-flow, dancehall and reggaeton don’t entirely dominate Kampala’s city sounds. Rock, jazz fusion and traditional music have their niches. A seemingly incongruous Ugandan rock band called The Uneven, led by the sexy, charismatic Rachel K, gave a blistering performance at this year’s Bayimba Music Festival.  The jazz fusion scene revolves around Qwela and Baxmba Waves. Afro-fusion big band Qwela have developed a following after a succession of hugely popular all-singing hip-shaking concerts at bars and hotels across the city. Baxmba Waves are an accomplished jazz quintet, blending indigenous rhythms with contemporary jazz. But they play in Bubbles O’Leary, Kampala’s Irish pub, whose owner Declan shipped the interior out of a pub from the emerald isle. With sport showing on surrounding TV screens, even the all-consuming passion of their singer Ken Musoke fails to dispel the regular pub vibe. It begs the question: where’s the city’s ‘gig’ venue?

Kampala’s traditional music scene has no such dilemma. The Ndere Centre provides an ideal setting for traditional music lovers. Established in 2003, the spacious theatre and open air auditorium are located in parkland in the north of Kampala. Or there’s the National Theatre, with its unchanged 1960s interior. National kora maestro Joel Sebunjo will perform there in his annual “diplomats tour” concert next month.

Joel Sebunjo

“More and more musicians in Uganda are drawing from their traditional roots and blending it with contemporary urban music” says Sebunjo. “Artists like Mesach Semakula or rapper Navio are using traditional themes in their songs and fusing that with an urban approach.” Sebunjo recalls a hugely popular song Mesach produced that referred to the Kabaka (King of Buganda). “When artists sing about something from their culture, people respond so much more than to songs with abstract ideas, where people can’t relate.” Sebunjo is a passionate promoter of more traditional African music. “I’m proud to see that major world music artists are coming to Kampala,” he says, “Salif Keita was here in October, we’ve had Oliver Mtukudzi, Miriam Makeba – they inspire people to discover the world music scene.”

It may not have the vibrancy of Dakar or Kinshasa just yet, but Kampala is undergoing a quiet musical revolution. The city’s hip hop, dancehall, rock, jazz fusion and traditional world music scenes are developing fast. Improved production and recording equipment, a burgeoning market, and an ambitious, outward-looking collection of artists are making it happen. Tinkling they are not.

Mondomix

Bayimba Cultural Foundation, Kampala www.bayimba.org

Evolution of Visual Art in Uganda

Across sub-saharan Africa, contemporary art remains particularly influenced by the agglomeration of historical and political forces that have shaped the country in question.

In Europe art patronage has been dominated by the tastes and demands of bourgeois collectors for centuries: the art market. Given the relative fluidity of European culture and tastes since the 20th century, and the transition of art into a marketplace of ideas and concepts, today’s British contemporary art is increasingly conceptual, and cannot be recognised as distinct from, say, the German equivalent in terms of form.  Expressions of cultural or national difference have been replaced instead by highly individualistic, polymorphous pieces that may ‘represent’ specific ideas pertaining to contemporary Western society.

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In black Africa this kind of art market and its vagaries has not developed to the same extent. Only in the past few decades has an urban middle class consumer emerged. But where sustained royal patronage did exist in Africa, patterns of artistic production have largely resisted recent economic developments.

Countries like Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire and Congo, held robust patronage networks based around strong, centralized traditional patterns of authority. Under such powerful systems of rule the arts could flourish. The kingdom of Benin, for example, covering parts of contemporary Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, reached its imperial and artistic zenith in the 15th century, producing the famous bronze wall plaques and life-sized bronze heads of their Obas of Benin (King). Even after the kingdom’s decline from the 16th century, a deeply-rooted culture for anthropomorphic sculpture and design had been developed.  The Ga people of contemporary Ghana claim their descent from the kingdom of Benin and have continued to produce stunning face masks through the 19th and 20th centuries up to today.

Neither Kenya nor Uganda’s precolonial ethnic groups had the unified, centralized organization or the sustained political and economic strength to develop such lasting art patronage networks.

“Uganda is not very well known for having a strong plastic [figurative] arts tradition” says George Kyeyune, Ugandan artist, scholar and teacher, and former Dean of Makerere University School of Fine Art.

“If you start with West Africa and Congo, we [Uganda] don’t have the masks, we don’t have the masquerades, we don’t have the bronze casts. We didn’t inherit that”.

Relatively few precolonial statuettes and masks have been discovered in Eastern Africa compared to those along the heavily forested southern belt of West and Central Africa. But this dearth of traditional production has allowed Uganda and Kenya more scope to create afresh, as literacy, urbanization and a growing consumerism brought new kinds of artist, art and collector to the scene.

Kyeyune, who holds a PhD on ‘Art in Uganda’ from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), gives me an overview of the evolution of Ugandan art since independence. He speaks quietly from his office-cum-studio on Makerere campus, where he continues to write, paint and teach.

“In the 1960s, some felt we should dispense with the past and embrace the new, forge forward, whereas others felt ‘no, we’ve been cheated for such a long time out of our inheritance, we need to recover aspects of our past that are still relevant and important’. Others chose a middle ground, combining the past and the future…”

“From the 1970s onwards, when Idi Amin took power, a lot of things went to the dogs…” he reflects. “The subject matter changed. It became morbid. The colours used were very dark”. Art became a tool for protest.

“Artists criticised the leaders a lot. Not directly, as this was dangerous. They would use myths and legends to disguise their criticisms to the corrupt and inepts leaders. And they would also use the bible to speak about the injustices in their government”

Kyeyune told me skeletons were commonly depicted in 1970s visual arts. The 1980s became a decade of “self-reflection”, where artists “showed disgust with their leaders”, emphasising Francis Nnaggenda’s work in particular. But by the 1990s, Yoweri Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement, had brought stability and a liberalised, growing economy.

Artists reacted positively to this freedom; they began experimenting in form and style, using new motifs, textures and colours. If a period can, the 1990s represented “some kind of avant garde for Ugandan art” says Kyeyune.

Ronex Ahimbisibwe’s work conveys the diversity and complexity of Uganda’s new generation of artists. Short and wide-eyed, Ronex shows me around his house and studio near Makerere as dusk falls upon Kampala. It’s a temple to creativity; inside, a photography studio, walls covered in paintings and rooms filled with home-made furniture. The actual studio is crammed with mixed media artistry: pixelated images, collages, barkcloth, rollers, powder and binder liquid, acryllic – these are the diverse media and textures he adopts to conjure his visual art. Around the grounds outside lie metal carcasses: sculptures or furniture half-produced.

TindiArtists like Ronnie Tindi also promote the new vibrancy in Ugandan art. Tindi hails from western Uganda, from the Banyankole (President Yoweri Museveni’s clan), but has lived in Kampala for years, now working at the Njovu Studio in Bukoto district. Tindi’s most striking paintings are strange, fantastical African faces, an indigenous take on pop art, with bright red lips and a brash originality that’s perhaps at odds with his gentle demeanour.

 

Donald Wasswa is another young artist whose work is abstract but milder on the eye. For the past few years he’s been painting or what he calls ‘masking’ magical, childish scenes of floating elephants among trees.  The originality of these pieces, sometimes using pen, coffee, magazines and acrylic, reflect his desire to move beyond an art scene that deals in the tourist or ex-pat trade, confined to commercial pictures of cockerels and African women in primary colours.

“Lots of artists today find shortcuts” says Kyeyune. “They use colours with rollers, iconic features – geckos, fish – in some cases it becomes a bit of a cliché. There is little attention to detail”.

“Artists are starting to realise some of the problems that need to be rectified” says Wasswa. “Five years ago, many artists were mass-producing work that began to look very similar.” Wasswa says he realised you can’t produce work solely in view of where it could sell. Though he recognised you have to “evaluate a little”.

“It’s fine for a gallery to take your work but they need to promote it, which they are currently not doing” says Wasswa. Currently the city’s galleries will hardly inspire major collectors anyway; most are a few small rooms inside cramped bungalows with little if any lighting. Kampala urgently needs a large building with clean bright white spaces to honour its artists’ work.

“Some of us are thinking of developing a contemporary art gallery. We’ve looked at converting an old soap factory in Mbuya [a Kampala suburb]” he says. This was used in a one-off exhibition by the Goethe Institute some years ago and could be an interesting prospect.

We talked about the practical and touristic appeal of a Village des Arts (Dakar) equivalent in Kampala. Referring to tinga tinga, the Tanzanian art movement, Wasswa tells me he and some artists are looking to buy land down in Masaka district, west of Lake Victoria, to construct a series of large studios.

Clearly underfunding and government mismanagement means most of Uganda’s artists struggle to start, let alone survive. Wasswa describes the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, where artists were asked to submit their work which would be displayed around the city.

“Pieces were lost. Artists didn’t get rent fees. I lost a piece of work somewhere in Entebbe airport” he says. “Money does go to the Ministry of Culture but doesn’t trickle down to artists” Wasswa concludes.

Bruno SBruno Sserunkuuma could be seen as one of the old guard, who has survived working in Uganda. Originally a painter, Sserunkuuma became a potter who benefitted from his association as pupil and graduate fellow with Makerere University, a critical source of sustainable funding and resources as well as technical instruction.

Sserunkuuma’s artistry has clearly been influenced by the vision of the original founder of Makerere’s School of Fine Art, Margaret Trowell. Director of Makerere Art School from 1939-45, Trowell represented a colonial pedagogy. She wished to respect existing traditional methods while introducing technical knowledge as a pragmatic way to develop the visual arts in a region where representational art was rare. ‘We start from it, study it, and honour it’ was her dictum.Makerere School of Art & Design

The ceramicist’s output is a product of this philosophy. He produces pots and vases that demonstrate both acute cultural sensitivity as well as clear technical mastery.  Women feature heavily in his tall, minutely-detailed vases and pots.

“I was very close to my mother and as a result the role of women, particularly in rural settings, is very prominent in my work”. These pieces earned him 2nd prize in UNESCO’s Craft Prize for Africa in 2000. He has since exhibited globally.

Bruno is a kind of national ambassador for visual arts. His work is founded on good draftsmanship. When I asked George Kyeyune what was the fundamental strength of art in this country, he replied: “resilience”. “Lots of European artists have stopped painting images. Here we are still very traditional. We value drawing as a foundation for artists. To me that’s a strength.”

With further state and market investment as well publicity (a need identified by Kyeyune) an artist like Sserunkuuma could develop a genuinely global renown. Others would surely follow.

South Sudan Referendum

Queue in S Sudan

Millions of southern Sudanese took small steps towards their own independence this week as they queued in lines across the region to vote in the historic referendum.

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On Saturday 8th January a fleet of a dozen buses packed with Sudanese exiles drove up through Uganda’s dusty roads and crossed the border on Sunday morning to reach Abila, a village that lies at the very south of Sudan.  The buses could have been filled with revellers or football fans after a cup victory. Horns blasted out of the windows. South Sudan flags waved gleefully. On arrival they found and embraced their family members.  In a more solemn mood, they queued and cast their ballot that morning.

“I want to vote for separation so that tomorrow, I’ll be free to do anything” said James, a Sudanese student living in Kampala. He said he would move back to Sudan as soon as he completes his studies. He may have an eye on the business opportunities that independence will offer.

Later that Sunday Abila saw traditional Dinka dances scuffing up the dust, casting golden clouds around us in the late afternoon light. Christians paraded through the town with banners and crosses. Women ululated throughout the day, their shrill cries catalysing the sense of exhilaration.

Dinka dancing

“Home is home” said the student, “being away from home, you’re like a river without a source”.   “Today is a very wonderful day” smiled Santino Garang, a southerner from the Dinka tribe. It was Sunday 9th January, the first day of voting.

The results will be announced next month. The required 60 percent turnout to validate the vote has reportedly been achieved. The vote for secession is assured. Southern Sudan has suffered from deliberate neglect by successive Arab-dominated, Muslim governments. And two north-south civil wars lasting 37 of the 54 years since independence have shattered what little infrastructure existed in the region. Most of those voting were Christian or animist. Should the country remain peaceful, secession will split Africa’s largest country, making South Sudan the world’s youngest country. Africa will become home to 54 states.

The referendum is the culmination of the six-year Comprehensive Peace Agreement that started in January 2005. This deal between President Omar al-Bashir’s ruling party, then called the National Islamic Front, and southern rebel leader John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) ended a 21-year conflict that resulted in some 2 million deaths and 4 million people – half the population of southern Sudan – becoming displaced.

Santino was one of the homeless. “I was born in 1983, during the war. I grew up in the bush” he said. His childhood was inextricably linked with war. “I became a child soldier. I was taught under the trees” he said.  Eventually Santino moved to a refugee camp in Yei, a town in central Equatoria, southern Sudan. Now he’s in exile, living in Kampala, Uganda. Soon he hopes to return to an independent South Sudan.

“Goodbye Khartoum! Goodbye Khartoum!” ran one of the chants among Sudanese exiles who had travelled from Uganda and gathered outside Abila on the first morning of voting. “Goodbye northern government” a man exclaimed as he dipped his finger into an inkwell to prove his vote at one of the town’s polling stations. The sentiment is clear but opposition to Khartoum may not form an adequate basis for effective national government. Southerners have little experience in governance.

The region is particularly ethnically diverse, with a history of inter-ethnic feuds with the other southern tribes. The Nuer and Shilluk, for example, fought against the Dinka during the second north-south civil war.    The country is landlocked and one of the world’s poorest. South Sudan will inherit 80 percent of the country’s oil, but this could be more of a curse than a blessing for ordinary southerners, with huge potential to create corruption and political instability.

“The Dinka and Nuer will be unified after the referendum” says Juach Deng, a young observer for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the political wing of the SPLA. “The oil issue won’t be a problem” said Deng confidently.

It may be for the North. President al-Bashir is under pressure from oppositionists who have long disagreed with his hostile stance to non-Muslims. Many feel he ‘lost’ the south, and with it, significant oil revenue.   “We feel an incredible sadness that a … very loved part of Sudan will separate from us,” said Sara Nuqdullah, a northern opposition Umma Party official.

Leaving aside future worries, fighting threatens to break out between the North and South. Violence blighted the first day of voting with over 30 people dying in clashes between the Massiriya and Ngok Dinka in Abyei, an area which lies on the envisaged border between North and South Sudan. The following day a bus carrying voters in South Khordofan state was ambushed, killing 10 people.

In spite of this, southerners enjoyed their moment, when history finally seemed to be on their side.

Mondomix

Hunger

Locust Control in Madagascar

What is hunger? An abdominal pang you feel around midday? A craving for snacks at five in the afternoon? For over a billion people worldwide, hunger is a chronic state: suffered almost all the time, every day.

It’s a struggle of mental endurance as well as sustenance. I once went five days without eating, but I knew at some point I’d be able to eat, so while I became thin and tired, I was never mentally weakened. Chronic hunger leaves no such comfort; it’s as psychologically debilitating as it is physically emaciating.

This month the United Nations meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Despite what those assembled will say, MDG 1, to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people suffering from hunger, is an embarrassing failure. There were 817 million hungry people in 1990. We were aiming at close to 400 million. Today there are over a billion. So why have we failed so spectacularly to solve the problem of hunger, what causes it and can we do anything to solve it?

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, man has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

Before trying to prescribe solutions to it, we should understand that hunger is not a distinct entity; there is no single hunger, but multiple hungers, of diverse forms, severity, duration, origin and consequence. Hunger can be seen as a nested concept, within the larger bracket of ‘food insecurity’, and part of a process that leads to undernutrition,  or clinical forms of hunger, resulting from serious deficiencies in one or a number of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins and minerals). A food insecure person can become hungry if their food availability, access or utilization fails.

Decades of research and indeed the lessons of history have shown that hunger does not necessarily stem from inadequacy of food output and supply, as alarmists from the production side and neo-Malthusian development theorists are prone to propagate. The warnings that world food output is falling behind population growth not only fail to address the causes of hunger, but also blind us from the complex range of causes that demand our attention.

Steve Wiggins from development think tank ODI says, “It’s never about food availability [production]. The big issue is distribution.” Wiggins adds that “people go hungry because they are poor.” Wiggins proposes poverty reduction and a focus on child healthcare as macro and micro level solutions to hunger. However, macro increases in income have not translated into proportional decreases in hunger.

Oxfam’s Chris Leather describes political will, community-based participation, good governance, fulfilment of ODA pledges, social protection, appropriate humanitarian assistance, international systems, multilateral collaboration and accountability mechanisms as priority areas for solving hunger. The list is exhaustive, and narrated with weariness, so as to make these concepts mundane, like a shopping list. Hunger is always highly localised; such all-encompassing prescriptions seem almost abstract.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s most renowned scholar on famine and poverty, has maintained the need for a nuanced analytical approach, yet even he veers into prescriptive overload. Economic growth, expansion of gainful employment, diversification of production, enhanced medical and health care, safety nets for vulnerable women and children, increasing basic education and literacy, strengthening democracy and reducing gender inequalities are, he argues, the right causal avenues to address.

The problems lie in our social, political and economic systems; most were not designed for the purpose of sharing goods equitably. The ‘smaller’ our world appears to have become through miraculous transport and communications achievements, the more tragically evident this fact becomes. Despite the advantages of globalization and the supposed dominance of liberalism in the international system, we nevertheless remain unable to re-organise these systems according to all peoples’ equal needs. This failure is ultimately an ethical one.

At the global level, tackling hunger requires structural changes, like transforming global trading systems. U.S. and European subsidies schemes render their leaders’ rhetoric on the benefits of the free market hypocritical. Most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today. As the prices of imported commodities creep up again, millions more risk going hungry. At the rural community level, where most of the hungry are located, we need to focus our efforts on expanding social protection and promoting nutritionally-enhanced, pro-poor agricultural development.

Progress should be about fulfilling mankind’s needs. Today’s political, economic and ethical systems incentivise economic growth and individual wealth over real human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century; it doesn’t have to be. We need to galvanise our moral and political strength to change this.

The East African

Kampala’s African Film Festival

Kampala’s National Theatre was abuzz. Crowds gathered in the floodlit surroundings of the colonial-era theatre, milling with anticipation. Pockets of young, glamorous and arty types in close circles; excited voices in animated conversations; beer bottles checked at security clearance, (which remains tight since the 11 July bombings). Why? This theatre was playing host to Kampala’s 1st Annual Maisha African Film Festival (13-15 August 2010). A sense of occasion carried outside its doors.

The festival is a new part of the Maisha Film Lab programme – the brainchild of Mira Nair, acclaimed director of films such as Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala. Maisha was conceived as a non-profit training initiative for emerging East African filmmakers and has been running workshops in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya since 2004. Their international board of advisors and mentors includes directors Spike Lee, Raoul Peck and Sofia Coppola, and Rwanda Cinema Centre founder Eric Kabera. The Kampala film festival is part of their vision to stimulate the growth and development of African filmmaking and hopefully generate the investment local artists need.

Sadly technical mishaps meant the opening film petered out. The film started to skip and freeze. Distinct tuts and whistles from the crowd. The place was rammed. And it became hot and frustrated.  After forty minutes the opening film, Caroline Kamya’s iMANi, which showed three separate Ugandan lives in tandem (a la Magnolia) – a child soldier returning to normality, a woman fighting for the release of her sister from jail, and a dance troop leader trying to get through a hometown performance – was no more. We squeezed out into the cooler air. It was a great shame since this award-winning film was beautifully shot and captured some strong performances.

“Kampala’s a cosmopolitan city” says Mugisha, “You have lots of different tribes; people from the east, west, north and south. People from Kenya, Tanzania, Congo. That’s good in a way. It makes you liberal, accommodative… but in a way you lose your background.”

The contrast between rural tradition and urban modernity clearly interests Mugisha. His previous film Divisionz was shot in Kampala and also starred national hip hop stars Bobi Wine and Buchaman, who come from the capital’s slums or “ghettos”, as Mugisha calls them. These guys were cheered when they came on screen. Their characters conform to type; dealing in a raw and humorous dialogue, they gladly smoke ganja and offer no illusions about their sexual desires. “It’s a balance” says Mugisha “You want the spirit of the countryside and the spirit of the hustle”, he smiles.

The range of narratives and imagery being screened at Maisha was impressive. Such productions attest to the richness of storytelling traditions and tremendous visual potential for film on the continent. Baganda tribal myth, trans-African road trips, a satire on dislocation, femininity and sexuality in the Sahara – these were some of the fascinating themes coming out of the films. Despite the first night hiccup, the Maisha film festival looks set to have a bright future and we look forward to next year’s edition.

Mondomix

Dead Aid

Dead Aid is almost a good title. Like dead wood, argues Dambisa Moyo, today’s aid is both useless and obstructive. The Zambian economist makes a strong case against the use of systematic aid money given yearly by Western donors to African governments, but her book lacks nuance. No one writing about “Africa” can escape the charge of generalizing, but Moyo’s prescriptions for a better future rest too narrowly and too optimistically on private sector-driven economic growth.

Moyo begins by discussing fifty years of rich countries’ wasted aid to Africa, in the form of concessional loans or grants that are frequently forgiven by donors. This leads to the most compelling (if unoriginal) argument in the book; namely, that aid fosters corruption, which in turn hampers growth.

Dirty money is not easy to track, but Moyo could have substantiated her principal argument with more exact cases of aid corruption and stated specifically where and how this has corroded growth. There are few detailed examples, which could lead readers to make assumptions about African politicians – precisely the kind of thinking Moyo wants to change. There are also oversights: she calls “glamour aid” a phenomenon of the past decade, although it began with Live Aid in 1985. Others would trace the birth of the African cause célèbre to the late nineteenth century when Joseph Conrad and Arthur Conan Doyle reported on King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo.

Dead Aid simplifies and in so doing ignores the fact that Africa has been a site for multiple competing growth and policy discourses at various levels since aid began. The second part of the book proposes a narrow focus on foreign direct investment, trade with China and microfinance as the best routes for African aid-free growth.

Aid itself is not the factor obstructing an otherwise inevitable stream of private capital; by pushing these approaches, Moyo overestimates the singularity of African markets. Aid is controversial for its historical and political connotations, but in reality its impact on Africa is secondary to structural factors such as global trading systems.

That most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today is enormously significant for the livelihoods of Africans. Increasingly driven to cities, partly because of the effects of economic liberalization in the 1980s, millions now cannot afford to buy imported commodities. One issue Moyo neglects is agriculture. Ensuring more effective, equitable agricultural development will do more to promote growth in Africa than ending institutional aid.

Times Literary Supplement

Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo is published by Penguin.

Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio

L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio

If ‘world music’ could be encompassed by a single group, Rome’s Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio (OPV) might just be it. They are a phenomenon which has sprung out of the city’s diversity; 15 players from 9 countries, spanning continents and cultures, religions and backgrounds, some with music diplomas, others whose education came from busking in the streets.

Effortlessly transcending genres, OPV’s music is classless, limitless, undefinable. You’ll hear all kinds of cross-cultural collaborations – fusions of fusions, and improvisations within improvisations. Songs like ‘Sahara blues’ may resemble Tinariwen’s sound but with more emphasis on Arab lyricism and with guitar instrumentation that echoes rhythms from the south of the US. ‘Tarareando’, meanwhile, is a mix of bossa nova with jazzy vocals, flute and tempo changes throughout. “We don’t care about conventions. We just do it” says Pino Pecorelli, the group’s Italian double bass player. “The Senegalese or Tunisians explain afterwards what they are saying in the songs…I don’t know! Everything,” he continues, “is connected to the feel, the rhythm.”

The Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio story began in 2002 when Italian classically-trained composer Mario Tronco joined forces with a group of artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers who were battling to save the Apollo. This old theatre in the Esquiline district was threatened with being converted into a Bingo Hall but the ‘Apollo 11’ campaigned to create a pluralistic cultural hub there. Since the Piazza Vittorio neighbourhood was home to some 60 nationalities at the time, it seemed only right for Tronco to name his eclectic Orchestra after one of the capital’s most vibrant multicultural spaces.

That OPV have become an internationally recognised group is an extraordinary achievement. Tronco was once quoted as saying he never expected the group to be self-financing, nor to perform very much. Over 300 concerts and several albums later, and an acclaimed documentary produced by Agostino Ferrente, growing financial resources and an international fan-base, OPV are doing just fine. In July they play their UK debut in London’s Barbican Hall.

What keeps this modern medley going? How can a line up which sometimes features over 20 musicians, many of whom don’t speak the same language, function as a travelling band? “How many things can you do with so many musicians, with so many instruments?” retorts Pecorelli. “It’s like a laboratory in which every day you can have an incredible experience.” This is why OPV functions. More than most bands, OPV entirely depend on their raw creative instincts. Music is the only language they can all speak.

But for Pecorelli and others, OPV’s music is more than a common language. It is also the basis for a more substantial education. “Every day you get to feel part of the whole world. Physically, I get to travel so much. Musically, I learn aspects of other cultures that you can’t learn reading a book. One day Senegalese, the next Cuban, the next Tunisian. It’s unbelievable!” he laughs.

Italy’s controversial 2002 Bossi-Fini immigration law was arguably the start of an Italian political shift towards a Right that continues to celebrate the politics of Mussolini. In May 2009 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said publicly that he did not consider Italy to be a multicultural society. As the Italian state and media becomes increasingly intolerant of immigration, the symbolic power of OPV has become widely upheld by artists, academics and social commentators.

OPV have come to represent and embody the enormous benefits that a tolerant, culturally diverse society can bring. The band has spawned a host of imitators across the country. New multicultural orchestras have emerged in Padova, Milan, Trento, Naples, Genova and other Italian cities. Why? Because in Italy OPV now stand for more than simply artistic freedom, but for freedom in the broadest sense, freedom to exist. Can there be a more popular calling?

Mondomix