Sunday, 22 October 2017

CABO VERDE’S ELIDA ALMEIDA RELEASES SECOND ALBUM

Just two years ago, Elida Almeida burst onto the world scene with her debut album Ora doci Ora margos (Sweet Times Bitter Times), claiming her place as the new voice of Cabo Verde.

That album had a serious message for listeners, alongside the melodies and beats of Santiago - the island where Almeida spent part of her childhood - and it gained the singer a large international following. (See: http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/cape-verdes-newest-voice-sends-message-to-girls/)

Since then, Almeida has been touring and heightening her profile. She has performed in Europe, Africa and North America, where members of the Cabo Verdean Diaspora and other fans have welcomed her in clubs and at music festivals.

Now comes Kebrada, her second album, released Oct. 20.

Named for the village where she grew up, Kebrada asserts Almeida’s African identity. She seasons her Cabo Verdean beats - batuque, funaná, coladera and tabanka - with Latino rhythms, for that traditional musical journey: Africa to the Americas and back.

Almeida has written most of the lyrics and music, with arrangements by guitarist Hernani Almeida, and the album is catchy from the first song “Djam Odja”. As with the best music from Cabo Verde, the themes of joy and sadness intermingle, and the “danceable” tracks don’t undermine the album’s social criticism.

On “Forti Dor”, Almeida tells the story of young man who dies after falling in with a bad crowd, and this ballad is at the heart of the compilation, captivating listeners with the warm, rich voice.

Kebrada is a worthy follow-up to Ora Doci and shows an increased maturity and confidence. With Almeida being only 24 years old, listeners can look forward to a future of great songs from this talented Cabo Verdean artist.

Label: Lusafrica. Produced by José da Silva. Photo by N'Krumah Lawson Daku. 

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 5 October 2017

THROUGH THE LENS OF SENEGAL’S OMAR VICTOR DIOP

The fast-rising Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop is one of the featured artists in the “Festival Francophonie Mêtissée”, which runs until Oct. 19 in Paris.

One of the photos by Omar Victor Diop on show
at the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris.
The annual event is hosted by the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles (CWB), a Belgian cultural organization in the French capital that presents cutting-edge dance, cinema, literature, music and photography, mainly by Francophone artists.

Diop’s work comprises 10 photographs that are part of his early “Studio of Vanities” series.

They portray the “fresh faces of the continent's urban culture”, he says, adding that the objective was to showcase the African urban universe and its blossoming art production and exchanges.

Depicting singers, dancers, designers and others in the creative sector, the photos also reveal a new generation of young African talent, and present an “optimistic view of urban Africa, with a modern and pop aesthetic”, according to the CWB.

Photographer Omar Victor Diop. (Photo: SWAN)
At a talk to launch the exhibition, Diop said part of his motivation as an artist is to change how the African continent is represented.

“In most photographs of Africa, you never see a child with his mother, for instance – he’s always alone and barefooted,” he told the audience. “This lack of positive images, and lack even of truthful portrayal, gave me the desire to create my own images.”

Diop left a career in finance to devote himself to photography and has become particularly known for his 2014 “Project Diaspora” series – the staged portraits of himself in a range of ornate historical poses, which are based on actual paintings.

He produced these “metaphorical portraits” working “exclusively alone”, often writing out a kind of script before staging the photos, he said. The idea is not only to question the historical and contemporary representation of identity but to deconstruct stereotypes, he explained.

Diop's work being screened.
The “Diaspora” series has been shown internationally to wide acclaim, making Diop one of the most sought-after photographers of his generation. He has participated in shows in several African cities, as well as in Italy, Belgium and other European countries.

His work will also be on display during the Paris Photo photography fair, taking place Nov. 9 to 12.


For more information:
http://www.cwb.fr/programme/festival-francophonie-metissee_1

Follow SWAN on Twitter @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

NEUSTADT PRIZE CELEBRATES DIVERSE VOICES IN LIT

Nine renowned writers – including Edwidge Danticat, Amitav Ghosh, Mohsin Hamid and Jamaica Kincaid – are the finalists for the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, announced by the magazine World Literature Today.

Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, a finalist.
The nominees represent the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, France, the United States and other areas and are recognized for their global contributions to literature.

The prize, a $50,000 biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and its international literature and culture magazine, may boost efforts to achieve more diversity in publishing, at a time when there are concerns the industry excludes some voices.

“We are ecstatic to have such a diverse and powerful group of writers representing the Neustadt Prize this year,” said Roberto Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today.

“This truly international slate of finalists – with diverse voices from the United States and as far away as Pakistan and Russia – reminds us that important literature knows no borders,” he added.

According to the magazine, the Neustadt Prize charter stipulates that the award “be given in recognition of outstanding achievement in poetry, fiction, or drama and that it be conferred solely on the basis of literary merit”.

A recent cover of World Literature Today.
Any living author writing in any language is eligible, “provided only that at least a representative portion of his or her work is available in English, the language used during the jury deliberations”, the sponsors say.

The prestigious prize (sometimes referred to as “the American Nobel”) may serve to crown a writer’s lifetime achievement or to direct attention to an important body of work that is still developing.

The award is not open to application; authors are nominated by a jury of “outstanding writers”. The jury will announce the 2018 winner on Nov. 9 during the 2017 Neustadt Festival of International Literature & Culture, hosted by World Literature Today and the University of Oklahoma.

The festival will also honour American writer Marilyn Nelson, who will receive a separate 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, and it will feature jury members reading their own work. The university will hold a ceremony next year for the winner of the 2018 Neustadt Prize

In an email interview, Davis-Undiano answered questions about the prize and its significance to international literature and publishing.

Q: The nine finalists selected for the 2018 Neustadt Prize reflect the rich diversity of world-class literature. Is this one of the aims of the prize – to highlight such diversity – and, if so, why?
Davis- Undiano: Yes, the Neustadt Prize planners have always wanted to promote world literature and global understanding of diverse cultures around the world. The founders of the prize long ago realized that most places in the world are provincial – whether it is the south of France or the south of Oklahoma – and need access to a broader view of what other cultures and literatures are like. When those goals are even partially reached, the world becomes a better and richer place.

Robert Con Davis-Undiano,
executive director of World Literature Today.
Q: With the general lack of diversity in publishing being a concern in countries such as the United Kingdom, can the Neustadt Prize have an impact on publishers’ choices? If so, in what way?
D-U: Yes, it can. The Neustadt Prize is one of the gatekeepers of world lit. Recognition received from this prize routinely affects other prizes, even the Nobel. The Nobel committee has even gone on record explaining that the Neustadt Prize influences the choices that they make.

Q: Related to this, how significant is a magazine such as World Literature Today in helping to achieve change?
D-U: WLT, too, is one of the gatekeepers of world literature. The magazine often recognizes and discusses trends before anyone else can comment on them. In this way, WLT is frequently in the role of introducing great literature, often from under-appreciated regions, to the rest of the world.

Q: What are some of the most important considerations for Neustadt jurors in making their choice?
D-U: The jurors are bound by the Neustadt charter to isolate literary impact and quality as much as possible from other factors. In practice, they often choose young writers on their way up in terms of importance and recognition. The jurors can serve only once.

Q: What are the requirements to be a Neustadt juror?
D-U: The Neustadt jurors are generally writers of the same calibre as the nominees. It is just understood that a writers helping to choose the next Neustadt laureate should be someone at the same level in terms of achievements and brilliance.

One of Danticat's notable books.
Q: The award is described as “one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights are equally eligible”. Do you think there should be more multi-genre awards like this, and, if so, why?
D-U: We like the Neustadt Prize having this unique status. The sponsors of an award often have their own interests to serve in terms of what is being judged to give the prize.  The Neustadt Prize, like the Nobel, is simply trying to identify writers who are having an impact and will likely have more.

Q: Two Caribbean-born writers (Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid) are among the finalists. Following a number of international awards for writers from the region, how do you see “Caribbean literature” on the global literary scene?

D-U: I think that the world is gradually opening to the culture and literature of the Americas, from the Caribbean to the southern cone. There is still a tendency toward “amnesia” about the history and the cultures of the Americas, and I want to see as much cultural recovery happening to highlight the Caribbean and the full expanse of the Americas.

(The nine finalists are: Emmanuel Carrère (France), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti/US), Amitav Ghosh (India), Aracelis Girmay (US), Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua/US), Yusef Komunyakaa (US), Patricia Smith (US), and Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia).

Monday, 4 September 2017

REVIEW: ‘CAIRO CONFIDENTIAL’ EXPLORES THE DARK

By Dimitri Keramitas

Cairo Confidential (also titled The Nile Hilton Incident) is an Arabic-language, Egypt-set movie, but made with Northern European funding. This may provide an explanation for the production values Swedish director Tarik Saleh was able to give his work. Even at its most grotty, this film noir has the elegance and assurance of a top-budget movie.

A poster of the film in France.
The film also melds crime and punishment with politics, and so we might wonder how close to the bone the director permitted himself to go. Probably further than when you don’t have adequate funding, as Saleh journeys to the heart of rottenness: in relationships and political affairs. The crime story is set in the last violent, corruption-filled days of the Hosni Mubarak era, although much of the film was shot on location in Morocco, not Egypt.

Officer Noredin Mostafa (wonderfully played by Fares Fares) is a mid-level plainclothes cop. In classic noir tradition, he’s a widower living a spare lifestyle which does not exclude alcohol, cigarettes and the occasional joint of kif.

He’s assigned to look into a murder, the kind of sordid crime he should be used to. Perhaps because he lost his wife, he gives the case of a murdered woman more than his usual attention. It takes him through a complicated investigation with many lethal twists - and the viewer on a dizzying tour of the underside of Cairo. The director’s dark vision and the quality with which it’s expressed recall the novelist James Elroy (and film adaptations of his work) at his best.

The director, of Egyptian descent but born in Stockholm, has a feel for contemporary Egypt and its people. Saleh also has a background in the visual arts, including animation. Paradoxically, this sensibility enables him to make details resonate not just as aesthetic motifs but as reality that is both social and emotional. Whether his outsider status, and that of the production in general, distorts that reality is a question that’s difficult to answer, but should be considered.

Sudanese model Mari Malek plays a hotel worker
in Cairo Confidential.
Cairo Confidential (winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize) is a film noir in the most literal sense, almost exclusively shot in dark hues via street lighting, indoor lights, or natural twilight. The effect is as handsome as it is forbidding - you want to join the habitués in a café and puff on a nargileh.

The vision of Egyptian society is one of poverty but also the teeming energy of a people kept from emerging from that poverty by a darkness that is more than physical - and by the bonds that stifle. The bonds are political, but also social, even familial. Just as the darkness has its romantic side, so the stress on family gives the story a strangely intimate flavour.

As long as the case stays within the seedy depths of Cairo - petty criminals, fences, shady barmen, entertainers moonlighting as prostitutes - Noredin can rely on his “family” of fellow policemen. In a milieu where official salaries are low, and rules need to be bent, complicity is taken for granted.

But then one of the nightclub entertainers turns out to have a higher profile than expected, and a person of interest turns out to be a rich industrialist. Noredin needs the protection of his superior, a high-level inspector who happens to be his uncle Kammal (Yasser Ali Maher). The uncle assures him that he has his back, and so Noredin digs deeper.

A scene from the film.
The story will take us to the upper levels of Egyptian society, but also to the hidden world of African migrants, including hotel worker Salwa, played by Mari Malek, a former refugee from Sudan who is now a top model, DJ and actress in the United States. It also takes us into Noredin’s darkly romantic heart, when he gets involved with the nightclub singer, Gina (Hania Amar). All the actors in Cairo Confidential are convincing, their authenticity etched in the acid bath of corruption. But Fares Fares stands out for his rendition of one supremely complex cop - dogged, melancholic, tough, smart, fair but also corrupt.

The deeper the obsessed Noredin gets into his case, the closer it gets to the Power. Ironically, the time-line creeps closer and closer to the Tahrir Square Revolution, the Power’s end. Noredin himself, whatever his intentions, can hardly claim to be divorced from the Power’s perfidy and its consequences: it’s all in the family. But, as we in the audience know, it’s not really the end of the Power. Although our hero gets battered as much as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow, and threatened with much worse, he will probably live to see another bribe. Who says there are no more Happy Endings?

Production: Atmo Production/Chimney/Copenhagen Film Fund. Distribution: Memento Films (France), Strand Releasing (USA)

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.

Friday, 25 August 2017

THE ‘SOUL' OF A NATION ON DISPLAY AT LONDON’S TATE

“Art is a way to express oneself, it’s not about race or colour, but this exhibition is about giving a voice to a community so as not to forget,” says Elaine Harris, a British art consultant, speaking of a popular show at London’s Tate Modern.

The exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, takes 1963 as its starting point – “the height of the Civil Rights movement and its dreams of integration” – and brings together 150 artworks by more than 60 artists.

Benny Andrews: Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree, 1969.
Emmanuel Collection (c) Estate of  Benny Andrews
/DACS, London/VAGA, NY
Many of the works were created during the emergence of “more militant calls for Black Power". This was a "rallying cry for African American pride, autonomy and solidarity, drawing inspiration from newly independent African nations”, says the Tate, one of the largest museums for international modern and contemporary art.

It adds that artists responded to these times “by provoking, confronting, and confounding expectations”, and that their momentum makes for an “electrifying” visual journey.

“It’s certainly an eye opener to see the work of many talented artists, from all walks of life,” said Harris, who visits numerous exhibitions as part of her work representing renowned artists.

“The show highlights the injustices of the time and makes you look at America from a different point of view,” she told SWAN. “You can see what the artists were experiencing: oppression, shorter lives, less wealth, and very little liberty.”

Curated by Zoe Whitley, Soul of a Nation includes paintings, photography, murals, collage, clothing designs and sculptures. 

Some of the artists “engage with legendary figures from the period, with paintings in homage to political leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, musician John Coltrane and sporting hero Jack Johnson,” the Tate says. Muhammad Ali appears in a famous painting by Andy Warhol.

This exhibition is an unusual chance to see remarkable art from an era that changed how some artists approached their work, according to the Tate. It also comes at a pertinent time, given recent divisive occurrences in the United States, and is sparking discussion about racism. American singer Solange Knowles, for instance, is collaborating with the Tate by showing videos of her work that reflect her view of Black womanhood, the museum announced in August.

Soul of a Nation runs until 22 Oct. 2017, at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London, England.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

MOVING ON, EXPO ON JAMAICAN MUSIC LEAVES ITS MARK

The Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition: in Paris but departing soon. (SWAN)
As travellers stream through the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, they can’t help but notice several huge placards featuring musicians in an array of poses and distinctive clothing.

Those who stop to examine the images more closely learn that the posters are ads for the blockbuster Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition, now in its final days at the Philharmonie de Paris, a cultural institution within Paris’ immense Cité de la Musique complex in the northeast of the French capital.

A worker stands before a placard at the train station.
The exhibition is France’s first large-scale presentation on the history and impact of Jamaican music, and it has attracted thousands of visitors since it began in April at the Philharmonie, which focuses on music in all its forms.

As the show winds down and gets ready to move on, it is still pulling in viewers, thanks to ads such as those at the station (including on the monitors showing departures and arrivals) and  to special events such as workshops and meetings.

In fact, on Aug. 8, the exhibition was the venue for a reception hosted by the Embassy of Jamaica, to mark the island’s 55th anniversary of independence from Britain.

“The exhibition not only showcases Jamaica's rich musical heritage from mento to ska to reggae and dancehall, it is also about Jamaica's political history, our journey from colonialism to independence as well as the post-independence period ,” said Ambassador Vilma McNish, who welcomed a group of France-based Jamaicans to the Philharmonie, some of whom were seeing the exhibition for the second or even the third time.

Nyabinghi percussion - some of the instruments on display.
“Each visit teaches you something new, as you take note of some exhibits you hadn’t seen before,” McNish added.

For many visitors, one of the most notable aspects of Jamaica Jamaica! is the care that the organizers have taken to go beyond reggae and to give an overall view of the history of Jamaican music, tracing it back to its African roots.

This is achieved while also highlighting the unquestionable contributions of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, the I-Threes and other renowned artists and producers.

“We wanted to show the culture as well as the music and to show that Jamaican music is an important part of the history of the Black Atlantic,” said exhibition project manager Marion Challier, in an interview prior to the opening.

“There are so many stereotypes about the music and so many stigmas attached and we wanted to go beyond that.”
Challier and curator Sébastien Carayol have also focused on the role that art and literature play in portraying the music, with works by master painters such as Kapo and Barrington Watson on display, alongside portraits of musicians by Danny Coxson (see: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/france-hosts-major-exhibition-on-jamaican-music/)
Photos of Bob Marley at Jamaica Jamaica!
In the centre’s bookstore, a wide range of books by Jamaican and other writers (in English and French) are also on sale, many of them dealing with various aspects of reggae and Jamaican culture in general.

But the show naturally contains elements that haven’t pleased everyone. Some visitors have questioned the prominence given to dancehall towards the end of the display, wondering if the less-admirable facets of the music should be the image that spectators take with them as they leave the exhibition.

The wording on some of the panels accompanying the exhibits has also caused puzzlement. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, for instance, is described as seeing The Wailers’ “strong export potential” in the following terms: the “lead singer was, ideally, mixed-race and able to tone down his Jamaican accent when necessary”.

Despite such factors, the exhibition’s unprecedented scope and its impressive assemblage of instruments, records, artwork and film footage have done much to highlight the richness of Jamaican music and its global appeal.

The show ends Aug. 13, and the organizers say they hope parts of it will travel to other major cities ... perhaps even via the Gare du Nord. The dream, too, is that it will one day reach Jamaica.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

STUDENTS SEND SOCIAL MESSAGE THROUGH MOVEMENT

Members of Campion College Dance Society in "Roots"

Dance has long been a force among the arts in Jamaica, with pioneering companies such as Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theatre Company holding a mirror up to society and promoting Caribbean culture.

Now students are taking the genre to a whole new level with powerful, socially relevant performances.

The island’s top high school, Campion College, is one of the institutions leading the way. Now in its seventh season, the school’s Dance Society performed to packed audiences in Kingston this month with their “Roots” production, which addressed issues such as violence against women and the challenges young people face in building confidence and self-esteem.

Comprising riveting choreography, vibrant costumes, ingenious stage sets, and an eclectic selection of music, the show at the landmark Little Theatre equally referenced Jamaica’s 55th anniversary of independence from Britain. Dancers wearing the colours of the flag – black, green and gold – leapt through the air as they portrayed the country’s tradition of sporting excellence, in a piece entitled “In Our Lane”, choreographed by Renee McDonald.

Of the pieces performed, however, perhaps the most memorable was a depiction of gender-based violence, and an appeal for it to end. This segment, titled “Misogyny (2017)” featured a mesmeric solo by Shade Thaxter, depicting a strong young woman with her future stretching before her. Then came a shocking scene that brought home the extent to which young people, both girls and boys, are affected by the level of aggression in the society.

The music for this work employed lyrics from the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by American writer Maya Angelou, as well as excerpts of the song “Strength of a Woman” by Jamaican performer Shaggy.

Despite the sombre moments, “Roots” overall was an infectious celebration - of heritage, ancestry, culture, and the numerous achievements of a young nation. 

According to Principal Grace Baston, the students “as much as possible are involved in the creative process with the selection of themes and the music”, under the guidance of artistic director Dwright Wright, a teacher at the school.

“In this ... year, we are being called to reflect on origins, those of our Dance Society as well as those of our nation – hence the most apt title ‘Roots’,” Baston said.

The 64 dancers in the troupe range in age from 11 to 20 years old. For “Roots”, the artistic team and resident choreographers included Oraine Frater and Orville McFarlane, both dancers with the L'Acadco Dance Company, another strong professional company in Jamaica.

Guest choreographers were Marlon Simms from the NDTC as well as Steven Cornwall and Chester Jones, both freelance dancehall choreographers. Their segment used popular grooves to express joyfulness and liberation, rather than the so-called "slackness" for which dancehall has become known.

Superb stage lighting that enhanced the dances was created by Baston’s husband Robin – an architect and theatre director. He oversaw the technical aspects of the production, and his manipulation of the sets added to the show’s impact.

The Campion College Dance Society’s stated mission is to “bridge mind and body through dance”, but with their performances, they go beyond this, inviting the audience on a journey of reflection and discovery, as they build on Jamaica’s dance tradition.

“We can send messages through movement,” Wright said.

At the end of the final show, both he and Baston paid tribute to Rex Nettleford who founded the NDTC in 1962 (the year that Jamaica gained its independence) and to current artistic director Barry Moncrieffe. Some of Campion’s dancing grads have already found a home in that iconic company. 

The flyer for the production.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

HAITIAN ART, CULTURE CELEBRATED AT PARIS FESTIVAL

Seemingly to make participants feel at home, temperatures soared to 37 degrees as a festival of Haitian art and culture began in Paris.

Organiser Josette Bruffaerts-Thomas
“Haϊti aux Grands Voisins” was launched on June 21, during France’s annual Fête de la Musique (Music Fest) and also during the hottest week of the year so far in the French capital.

But the heat only heightened the spirit of cooperation, as volunteers worked to hang paintings, set up stands, prepare for concerts and display books (at a mini book fair that includes literature from some of Haiti’s neighbours).

The festival is the brainchild of former lecturer Josette Bruffaerts-Thomas, president of a Franco-Haitian organization called Haϊti Futur that works to promote quality education and entrepreneurship in the Caribbean country.

The aim of the five-day event is to showcase the side of Haitian culture that often gets overlooked in international media reports, Bruffaerts-Thomas said. On display are works by leading Haitian painters and photographers such as Elodie Barthélémy, Eddy Saint-Martin and Henry Roy, along with emerging artists like Sandra Dessalines, who creates striking papier-mâché work, and Jephthe Carmil, who focuses on installations.

Photographer Henry Roy stands next to a painting by
Elodie Barthelemy. (Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)
This new festival also comprises concerts, film screenings, literary presentations, conferences and workshops.

Performers Joyshanti and Jackson Thélémaque will bring their special brand of energy to the live shows, while a number of chefs will offer courses in Haitian cuisine, and scholars will discuss a range of subjects - notably, the impact of Haiti’s history on its contemporary culture.

The “Grands Voisins” venue, located in the heart of Paris near the famed Catacombs, is an exceptional site that brings together groups and individuals working to improve lives.

Its open spaces, special accommodations, organic-food cafes and atmosphere of solidarity is a good match for this innovative festival celebrating Haitian culture.


Artist Eddy Saint-Martin, with one of his works, at the "Haiti aux Grands Voisins" festival.
(Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)


Artist Sandra Dessalines, in front of her artwork incorporating paper mache, rubber strips
and other materials. (Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)

Monday, 5 June 2017

FORTY YEARS OF DUB POETRY, AND THE BEAT GOES ON

By Tobias Schlosser

Celebrations for the unofficial 40th anniversary of dub poetry have already begun, with several poetry events taking place internationally. Last February, northern England hosted the 14th Annual Poetry in Motion event (founded by dub poet Yasus Afari), and in April the Roots Dub Poetry Reggae Revival took place in Kingston, Jamaica.

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Things will probably kick into higher gear in 2018 to mark 40 years since the first record with spoken words on dub music was released: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood.

So, in the run-up, let's look back at the roots of dub and its poetry, and how it all started.

Dub has its origin in reggae, but it has charted its own course. Reggae vibes are often associated with peace, love and harmony, while listeners sometimes forget that this music was born in areas of Jamaica where violence and exclusion were the ingredients of everyday life.

Whereas Bob Marley’s songs created hope, and exhorted listeners to fight for a better future, dub (the pared-down instrumental remix) is often said to have initially created a form of escapism, especially for people who had few prospects of gainful employment. Troubles could be temporarily alleviated when the tunes from the sound systems created a “Dancehall Nirvana”, as the ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal illustrates in his acclaimed publication Dub. Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae.

The emergence of dub poetry out of Jamaica’s music culture is largely a story of emigration. After World War II, many Jamaicans sought to find a better life overseas. They were encouraged to do so by the British government since the country needed “affordable” labour (it is the same story for Canada, especially Ontario, where Toronto became a centre for dub poetry). But instead of being accepted fully by the society in which they worked, Jamaicans often faced racism and discrimination. Many felt betrayed when they compared their circumstances to what had been promised and what they had left behind, and this situation went on to affect those coming of age in the Seventies. By then, dub was serving new needs; the music was no longer considered a form of "escapism" because with spoken words, it was becoming a medium to reflect the experiences and the disappointments far away from home. At the same time, the tunes were a constant reminder of one’s roots amidst the diaspora.

The sleeve of a 1996 compilation.
Thus Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work would focus on describing the struggles in Britain where some immigrants felt forced to live in the shadows.

Two years after his first release, his now-famous and controversial “Inglan is a Bitch” came out; this potent poem encapsulates the perspective of an immigrant in London who finds it impossible to escape from poverty regardless of the effort he makes.

The poem emerged amid a time of political unrest and protests on the streets, which also found their assessment in dub poetry. For instance, the death of activist Blair Peach after an attack in an anti-racism demonstration is the subject of Johnson’s poem “Reggae Fi Peach” (1980). Johnson is considered the first poet to describe the emotions among immigrants in the British inner cities forty years ago, using words, music and non-violence to help effect change and raise awareness.

Regarding his own evolution as a dub poet, Johnson told Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie in an interview that he’d first decided to put his poetry to music in 1976.

“I used to recite poetry unaccompanied before that,” he said. “Then I started using Rasta drummers. At the time I was working at Virgin Records, writing sleeve notes and so on, so I asked the people there to help me make an album.”

Virgin founder Richard Branson agreed to finance the record and it was recorded with British dub music pioneer Dennis Bovell and other artists and released in 1978. Johnson has described doing readings in numerous venues after the launch of the album but he told McKenzie he had “never been part of or tried to get into the literary establishment”.

Born in Jamaica in 1952, Johnson moved to London 11 years later and, as a student, was involved in organizing poetry workshops and building solidarity. Throughout the development of the dub poetry genre, he and and other poets have consistently supported one other; for example, Johnson helped Michael “Mikey” Smith to record his only album Mi Cyaan Believe it in the early 1980s. Already an acclaimed poet by age 28, Smith was killed after a political argument in Kingston in 1983 - a murder that outraged and saddened many citizens.

Dub poet Oku Onuoru (photo: Veronique Skelsey)
Johnson’s LKJ record label, set up in 1981, has also recorded fellow poets and musicians such as Jean “Binta” Breeze and Bovell, and he has worked with Oku Onuora, Mutabaruka and several others.

In the interview, Johnson credited Oku Onuoru with popularizing the term “dub poetry”. Onuoru in fact had performed his poetry with a reggae band in 1974, while he was in prison, and after his release he performed live with Mikey Smith. Onuoro released his first dub record in 1979, recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios, and he developed a friendship with Johnson during subsequent tours in Europe. His work, too, has always been political.

For Johnson, creating his own record label was a way to “provide a platform for poetry" that came out of the reggae tradition.

“I’d been slagging off the big labels for the way they treated artists,” he told McKenzie. “So I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is.”

The LKJ Records productions include Tracks by Jean “Binta” Breeze, Bushfire by saxophonist and flautist Steve Gregory, Tings and Times by Johnson and Dub of Ages by Dennis Bovell.

On the other side of the Atlantic, where Onuoru and Mutabaruka spoke out in Kingston against local and global injustice, Canada was seeing a growing dub poetry movement as well. In Toronto, a lively and predominantly female dub poetry scene was founded by Lillian Allen, and artists such as Afua Cooper and Ahdri Zihna Mandiela rose out of this. Dub poetry did not only help Jamaicans living far away from home to express themselves on issues of concern, it also became a tool for the second generation of immigrants (such as Benjamin Zephaniah) and it additionally influenced poets in Jamaica (like No-Maddz).

CD sleeve of "LKJ IN DUB" (1992)
With these developments, the messages of dub poetry have become more complex and challenging. In the 1970s, Dub poets attacked the elites and institutions that supported and carried out policies of racial discrimination.

Nowadays, where things have changed with regard to official policies, it is no longer the rules that are criticised, but the structures in which we live.

The tendency today is for dub poets to address structures of discrimination, and by doing so, find similarities with other people facing exclusion. Lillian Allen, for example, illustrates in her poems how extreme masculinity causes violence from which women and men suffer, and Ahdri Zhina Mandiela challenges heteronormative structures in her poetry.

Furthermore, Benjamin Zephaniah sees a sad truth in the fact that it is only a question of the power hierarchy whether you are heard and visible. Referring to Aboriginal people in Australia and Taiwan, Zephaniah made this universal statement in an interview: “It’s a shame that the people who are peaceful, the people who just want to live in peace and don’t seek power, are the people who get walked over.”

Considering these different trends, one might find it challenging to come up with a suitable definition of dub poetry because this art is beyond the mere arrangement of having spoken words on pared-down reggae grooves.

Maybe it can be described this way: Dub poetry is an art movement representing the people whose voices are not heard enough. That is why poet Lillian Allen
Dennis Bovell's "Dub of Ages" - for ages to come?
claims in an interview that dub poetry’s aim is “to disrupt traditional discourse. [Dub poetry’s intention] is to call attention to a whole life that has been ignored, that’s happening and that actually feeds the other life [...], but that has been cut out of the discourse or the images and so forth.”

According to Allen, the core of dub poetry is its “uncompromising and demanding stand”.

We can conclude that dub poetry is alive, and will always be, even if poets were to stop performing the genre. The reason for this is simple. As Mutabaruka's “Dis Poem” demonstrates, a dub poem has the ability “to be continued in your mind”.

And as Linton Kwesi Johnson has said: “I haven’t lost my street cred. It’s been a long apprenticeship, but it’s an on-going process.”

NOTE: Linton Kwesi Johnson received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, in April 2017.

Tobias Schlosser is a German writer, researcher and expert drink-maker.