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.



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?


Oumou Sangare – The Malian Songbird Returns

In the galaxy of West African music, Oumou Sangare really is one of the brightest stars. She was a star in Mali before Nick Gold went to Bamako in 1991. When the World Circuit label founder visited that year, he said he heard the same beautiful voice being played out on cassettes at markets, in cafés, shop stalls, bus stations. All over the city, Oumou Sangare was in the air. “You couldn’t escape that music. And you didn’t want to. It was everywhere. As soon as you left a café where they were playing it, the baton was taken up by a passing car and then the next market stall. I spent that week in Bamako hearing Oumou wherever I went. And I mean everywhere” he says. She was 22. After signing to Gold’s label, Sangare’s debut Moussoulou (‘Women’) became an international phenomenon and, along with Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré, she was an early global ambassador for music from Mali, a country that has more recently given us Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyaté.

Sangare is gifted with a voice that can ululate like birdsong yet carries with it enormous emotional depth. Her upbringing was anything but easy. With an absent father, and a mother who often had to leave the household when Sangare was a girl, she grew up fast. “I was the mother, I was the father, at the age of 13 I was already head of the family. And that’s what has given me strength in my life. I learnt very early how to be responsible.” At this early age Sangare learnt how to be tenacious, and how to make money. And her greatest resource was her voice. “I’d wait until I heard a djembe…I would throw myself in the middle of the crowd and sing. When I opened my mouth…wow! People would give me coins.” This combination of talent and determination eventually brought Sangare enormous success.

“Since I’d been absent for a while, my intention was to produce something joyful”, she says, then adds, “but in amongst that joy I always take the opportunity to slip in messages that educate my nation and my country.” Part of Sangare’s huge appeal is her ability to simultaneously communicate both traditional and modern themes within her songs. Seya is rich with reference to her family’s Wassoulou culture. Donso is a song about the hunter-warrior caste who used to protect towns in pre-colonial days. Other songs reflect Sangare’s more modern ideas, albeit set in time-honoured themes. Sounsoumba (‘Big tree’) concerns a girl who before marrying was a Sounsoum Ba, a big tree, vibrant and alive, whose many branches signify her many friendships, but once forced into marriage she becomes a lonely, little tree stump.

Sangare’s outspoken campaigns for women’s rights have made her a powerful, if at times controversial, figure in Africa. She is an Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as well as other organizations that look for role models who speak out against gender inequality on the continent. “In Mali I became famous for the message contained in my music – the rights of women, the rights of children too.” While there is often a social and political significance to her songs, Sangare’s popularity comes above all from the sheer quality of her music; the rhythms, the melodies, the instrumentation and of course, her extraordinary, deeply moving voice.


Oliver Mtukudzi – African Soul Rebel

“Music is life. Music gives hope to people. Without people there is no music”. Oliver Mtukudzi’s logic is clear and economical. They are the words of a musician whose career has been inexorably linked with Zimbabwe’s tumultuous history.

Yet from his 1975 debut single, Stop After Orange to today’s performances, he has tried to emphasize the intrinsic quality of music as its own entity, as something above politics. When I ask him about music’s function as a political tool, he replies,

“I wouldn’t understand the word ‘politics’ itself. In my culture music gives information, it gives hope, it gives life to the people. That is the reason for a song.”

In the context of Zimbabwe’s independence and postcolonial struggles, ‘information’ may inevitably be political, but Oliver’s message has always been rooted in social issues – the people come first. Dzandimonotera was Mtukudzi’s first big hit, produced in 1977 with Thomas Mapfumo and the Wagon Wheels Band. The song depicted the black population’s struggle under the oppressive white minority regime. It established Mtukudzi as a singer with substance.


In 1979 Mtukudzi went solo and formed his own band, The Black Spirits. A group of stylish, young ghetto boys, they fast became icons. And today, some 56 albums later, Mtukudzi remains a major figure in African music. Inspired by Zimbabwean traditional chimurenga, JIT music and South African mbaqanga, the Black Spirits produce liquid, guitar-based melodies that gravitate around Mtukudzi’s weighty voice and lyrics.

I ask him what makes him happy in life. The answers are as abrupt as my question.

“To be alive the next day” he states. I wait for him to continue. He does, after a long pause. “Just living”, he adds. “Having life”, he concludes. The simplicity of his response has the desired effect. I think of Zimbabwe, and its long troubles.

Right now Oliver Mtukudzi is touring the UK with fellow African Soul Rebels Senegalese legend Baaba Maal, and Obama favourites Extra Golden. “The idea of this tour is great. It shows how versatile African music is. We are traveling as three different groups, totally unique, but still as Africans.” Mtukudzi describes Baaba Maal as ‘a true African’, adding “there’s no doubt in his music.” Clearly, he relishes playing on a pan-African bill. “We click in our music. As Africans, we share the same sentiments. We are one and the same people.”

One thing is certain, listening to Mtukudzi is an educational experience. Throughout his career he has used the richness of the Shona language and his super-melodic music to carry metaphors and ideas that have provided Zimbabweans with a sense of identity and self-belief. Gracing the front cover of Time magazine a few years back, he was described as the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’.


Tunng with Tinariwen – Soho meets the Sahara

The BBC Radio 3 ‘Late Junction’ session was a grand experiment. Saharan desert blues legends Tinariwen shared the Maida Vale studio with Soho-based folktronica group Tunng to record three songs for broadcast in February 2009. The results were dazzling.

“We sat down together in a circle”, explains Mike Lindsay from Tunng.“The third tune we made kind of came out of jamming that led into an eight minute trance. Someone pressed play and then eventually stop on the recorder. It was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

“Then someone had an idea to go further and actually organize a tour together”, says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni from Tinariwen, “We were keen on the idea, because as musicians, it’s very important to interact with and learn from other musicians.”

I ask them how their different sounds complement each other.

Abdallah: “It’s clear that their music is very different from ours, but it’s very open too. It’s the kind of music that invites other musicians and other sounds to join in.”

Mike: “The recordings together were very fresh, almost a new music entirely. In some instances we’ll need to be careful not to go overboard on certain electronics.” Mike is sensitive to the cultural and musical differences between the groups. Tinariwen’s distinctive desert blues, whose fans include Thom Yorke and Bono, is charged with powerful electric guitar chords and singing that carries the full weight of their message. Their music encompasses their mission: to raise awareness for desert peoples living in political and economic isolation in the southern Sahara. You can easily imagine their songs resonating across vast desert plains.

Tunng, on the other hand, fuse delicate electronic touches with contemporary folky sounds. Hearing the melodies that underscore their songs, it comes as no surprise to learn that Tunng member Sam Genders is a big Beatles fan. Both bands’ originality stems from the collective groups of individuals producing their music. I ask them how their environment has inspired them as artists and what currently influences them.

Abdallah: “Everything we sing, every word we say, everything we think and do has been shaped by the Sahara. The Sahara is our home, our cradle, our teacher and our inspiration. Until most of us were adults, we didn’t know anything except the Sahara.”

Mike: “Being in London hasn’t really influenced our music. Perhaps subconsciously the city has influenced the urban electronic work me and Phil (Winter) come up with. Other influences; dodgy ‘80s powerpop, Journey, Electric Light Orchestra. And I’m not really joking! We listen to all sorts. Moondog recently. All sorts of Latin percussion. Deerhoof.”

The ensemble, which features three members of Tinariwen, have spent some intense time together preparing their set before the tour kicks off. Their music encompasses “entirely different subject matters” says Mike.

Abdallah admits, “I can’t claim that I really understood Tunng’s music before”. Will the universal language of music transcend these enormous differences? On their own, both these bands have had an extraordinary impact crossing genres and reaching new audiences. This collaborative effort promises to be inspiring.


Baaba Maal – Voice of the people

One of Africa’s biggest stars, Baaba Maal, will be playing ten concerts across the UK in March with his acclaimed band Daande Lenol (Voice Of The People) as part of the African Soul Rebels tour. The bill also features the Kenyan-American benga-rock band Extra Golden, and Zimbabwean giant Oliver Mtukudzi with the Black Spirits.

Maal is clearly excited at the prospect.

‘It’s always great to tour with other people. It’s a great opportunity for us to play together, discover together, share our music and bring new ideas and combinations to people.’

His unique voice and frenetic stage dances are as youthful as ever, but Baaba Maal is not new to the game. Born in the 1950s in Podor in Senegal, his early influences are as diverse as his music suggests.

‘My parents were musicians. My father was a religious musician, a muezzin. My mother was a popular singer. I watched them. I used to sing with my mother. Everyone noticed I had a great voice – me too! I realised I wanted to be a musician.’

From an early age Maal was aware of his Fula heritage.

‘The place where I was born in central Senegal was an important cultural centre. Nomadic groups from Mauritania and other neighbouring countries would stay in our town, and the Fula people shared this nomadic culture, which of course included music.’

Maal grew up during Africa’s wave of independence movements. He was strongly influenced, he says, by the theme of liberation that marked the music of the 1960s, particularly in Guinea, with legendary orchestra Bembeya Jazz getting special mention.

Maal’s music education was furthered by a postgraduate music scholarship at the Beaux-Arts University in Paris where he spent several years with his close friend, the blind griot guitarist Mansour Seck. After a number of prior cassettes and albums, they collaborated to produce the beautifully serene ‘Djam Leelii’ in 1989. The album was my introduction to West African music and it remains an absolute classic. Mostly complex string patterns overlaid with Maal’s crisp, high, distinctive voice; sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, here he set a precedent for producing songs that evoke an unusual range of human emotions.

‘When I write a song or go to the studio or go on stage to perform’, he says, ‘I sing music like melodies. But the words that come from my mouth are, I think, the words of the people. It is the people inside me. In Africa, people live with music. Music accompanies ceremonies that teach people about responsibilities and society.’

Having played concerts all over Africa, Maal is familiar with many of the challenges facing the continent and takes an active position when it comes to using his music as a platform for social and health issues. He represents the United Nations Development Program as a spokesman on the issue of HIV/Aids in Africa as well as being an ambassador for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 campaign. Two decades on Baaba Maal remains a key figure in African music. He has performed all over the world and produced over a dozen albums, at times embarking on brave fusion experiments incorporating ragga, rap, salsa and even Breton harp into his repertoire. He has worked with a range of producers, including Brian Eno on 1998 release Nomad Soul.

More recently he took part in Africa Express shows in London, Lagos and Liverpool – the live collaboration project conceived by Damon Albarn feature African, American and UK musicians including Franz Ferdinand, Amadou & Mariam, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Daara J and many more.

The new édition bootleg On the Road, a collection of his favourite live acoustic performances, is the artist’s first album release in seven years. Acoustic sets will define Baaba Maal’s African Soul Rebels performances this March – it is always a huge treat to hear him play with Daande Lenol, a line-up which still includes long-time collaborator and friend Mansour Seck, this is an all-time classic African live music act. Not to be missed!