Cartola – “The Samba Troubadour”

Dedicated to my dear friend Catarine Falcão and all African descendants in Brazil.

Paz e amor família!

Cartola (top hat) was born in 1908 in Rio de Janeiro, in a neighborhood called Catete. He got the nick name because he used a “coco hat” while working as a construction worker, so the cement did not dirty his hair. It was 1919 when Sebastião, Aida and their seven children arrived at the Buraco Quente, (Hot hole, a Mangueira’s hill district).

At 15 years old, his mother died and he lost the link between himself and his tyrannical father. Cartola abandoned school after completing junior high school, left home, and dedicated himself to Bohemianism and various part-time jobs. In April 28, 1928, he helped found the Samba School of Mangueira (a carioca hill over which the poor people established themselves) and was charged with being the school’s master of harmony. The school’s first parade, still in 1928, opened with the first samba composed by Cartola, “Chega de Demanda” (“Enough Fighting,” an appeal to the cessation of violence amongst rival sambistas and malandros of the hills).

At this point, percussive instruments used in samba already included the surdo, the tamborim, the pandeiro, and the cuíca. The first contest of samba of the city of Rio de Janeiro took place on January 20, 1929. It included the participation of the two Samba schools already existing, Mangueira and Portela, whose samba “Não Adianta Chorar,” by Heitor dos Prazeres, won. Mangueira presented “Beijos,” Cartola’s second samba, and “Eu Quero Nota,” by Arturzinho.

In 1932, he began a partnership with Noel Rosa with the Samba “Não Faz, Amor.” Noel began to frequent the Buraco Quente (Hot Hole), giving preference to Cartola. Even with the acknowledgment of critics and audience, money was always short. Cartola had to live by his wits, working as a fish, ice-cream, and cheese peddler, cambono de macumba (assistant for black magic rituals), and a mason. At the same time, though, he continued to perform functions of Mangueira’s master of harmony and to compose Sambas of Carnival and middle-year. In 1932 Mangueira was the champion with the samba “Pudesse meu Ideal,” by Cartola and Carlos Cachaça. In 1933, the scschool presented “Fita Meus Olhos,” by Cartola and Baiaco, which was recorded 45 years later by the author.

In 1934, Mangueira didn’t participate in the public contest, as it had won a specialized jury contest only one month before, and didn’t want to risk losing that title. In 1935, the acknowledgment of samba schools by the dominant class was finally given through their inclusion in the official Carnival schedule by mayor Pedro Ernesto Batista. Portela won the contest that year, but Cartola’s samba took second place, with the Samba “Brasil Terra Adorada,” with partnerships by Carlos Cachaça and Arturzinho. The prestige of Cartola and Mangueira was broadcast as far as Germany with the Hora do Brasil show on January 29, 1936. Among the songs, “Liberdade,” by Arlindo dos Santos and Cartola; “Pérolas para o Teu Colar,” by Maciste Carioca and Cartola; “Dama Abandonada,” by Cartola; “O destino Não Quis,” by Carlos Moreira de Castro and Cartola; and a selections of sambas de partido alto by Cartola.

Even after gaining extensive support by the press, journalists, politicians, and artists, his monetary prospects were still dim. “Sei Chorar” remained unpublished until 50 years later, and “Partiu,” a composition highly regarded by maestro Heitor Villa-Lobos, was unpublished. (The gold medal was pawned days after at the Caixa Econômica, due to his permanent financial difficulties.)

In 1940, as a consequence of F.D. Roosevelt’s good neighbor policy, which was stimulated by the intention of solidification of the relations between the U.S. and Latin America in face of the second World War, conductor Leopold Stokowski arrived in Brazil, accompanied by the musicians of the All-American Youth Orchestra, which he’d organized, as well as a group of sound and recording engineers from Columbia Records. Their mission was two-fold: to spread the culture of America via orchestral concerts, and to compile and record the musical production of each visited country for posterity. Stokowski looked for Brazil’s biggest erudite composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and asked him to choose the best carioca music. Villa-Lobos then gathered the town’s best composers and interpreters: Pixinguinha, Luís Americano, Jararaca, Ratinho, Donga, Zé com Fome, Zé Espinguela, Mauro César, and the young soloist Janir Martins, complete with the gang of Mangueira, all performing under the command of Cartola. Villa-Lobos was an admirer of Cartola’s music, and became a frequenter of his hut on the hill. He turned into a kind of godfather, introducing him to several opportunities, such as the movie Descobrimento do Brasil (1938).

Between 1941 and 1947, Mangueira was a vice-champion, always with Cartola as master of harmony and official composer. But the election of Hermes Rodrigues to the presidency of the school marked the beginning of a long period of ostracism for Cartola. Rodrigues who, interested in the commercial aspect of Carnival, hired a professor to judge the sambas in the school’s internal contest. With popular acceptance of his samba style declining, Cartola drowned himself in alcohol and disappeared from the artistic environment (he also barely survived a bout with meningitis and became even poorer and more miserable). His third wife, “Zica” (Euzébia Silva do Nascimento), a pastora who had been under his command at Mangueira, strived to make him return to artistic life, asking several artists and composers (Lan, Ari Barroso, Braguinha), to try to help, but ended up by failing due to their lack of interest of the old master.

He was washing cars in the humid dawn of Copacabana when he was encountered by a journalist, Sérgio Porto. With great effort and care, Porto brought Cartola to the Rádio Mayrink Veiga, for a short period; he also took him to other radio stations, made reporters interview him; and, in short, fought for his resurrection. At the end of the ’50s, Cartola worked for the second time in a movie, the famous Orfeu de Carnaval (“Black Orpheus”).

Soon after, he received permission to occupy a large house for free, the property of the city, where he created the idea of the restaurant and showroom ZiCartola, later established at the Rua da Carioca, 53. The ZiCartola was an enormous success from the start. It promoted cultural enthusiasm for samba and was an epochal event for spreading the hill’s music among the carioca middle class. But Cartola and Zica’s administrative amateurism made the enterprise a commercial failure, and the ZiCartola was sold to Jackson do Pandeiro in 1965.

In 1968, enjoying a more stable economic situation as a humble bureaucrat, Cartola received the donation of his lot, at rua Visconde de Niterói, 896, in Mangueira. With his own hands and old knowledge of masonry, he built his house with no help.

Cartola [O Mundo e um Moinho] Overall, between 1929 and 1952, 13 songs were issued by Cartola in 78 rpm records. From 1957 to 1974, 20 more appeared, besides other special appearances he made as a composer. But it wasn’t until 1974, at 65 years of age, that Angenor de Oliveira recorded his first LP, Cartola (Discos Marcos Pereira, 403.5007). Unanimously acclaimed by the critics and the public, the record wasn’t a commercial success, as the record company, specialized in historic documentation and didn’t have a competitive scheme of distribution.

In April, 1976, a second LP, Cartola (Discos Marcos Pereira, MPL 9.325) aroused even more enthusiasm in the press and presented the most successful of the Cartola’s compositions: “As Rosas Não Falam.” This record received the Golfinho de Ouro award from the Image and Sound Museum’s Council of Popular Music. Cartola, whose self-imposed absence from participating in the Mangueira contests since 1949, finally decided to return in 1977. He received countless invitations for shows and presentations, his music was included in broadly popular soap operas, and his figure was portrayed in several TV documentaries.

With close to 600 composed songs, and a tardy acknowledgment of his genius, Angenor de Oliveira the Cartola, died of cancer, November 30, 1980. His simple, authentic, and unpretentious way of being and writing can be admired in his testimony to the Movimento newspaper (Rio de Janeiro, November 16, 1978): “I have a profound love for the flowers and for the women who had pretended me. One doesn’t hit a woman even with a flower, and the flowers, one doesn’t give them to any woman at all.”

Kwame Nkrumah – “Africa’s Black Star”

“Freedom is not something that one people can bestow on another as a gift. Thy claim it as their own and none can keep it from them.”



Kwame Nkrumah’s father was a goldsmith and his mother a retail trader. Baptized a Roman Catholic, Nkrumah spent nine years at the Roman Catholic elementary school in nearby Half Assini. After graduation from Achimota College in 1930, he started his career as a teacher at Roman Catholic junior schools in Elmina and Axim and at a seminary.

Increasingly drawn to politics, Nkrumah decided to pursue further studies in the United States. He entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1935 and, after graduating in 1939, obtained master’s degrees from Lincoln and from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the literature of socialism, notably Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin, and of nationalism, especially Marcus Garvey, the black American leader of the 1920s. Eventually, Nkrumah came to describe himself as a “nondenominational Christian and a Marxist socialist.” He also immersed himself in political work, reorganizing and becoming president of the African Students’ Organization of the United States and Canada. He left the United States in May 1945 and went to England, where he organized the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester.

Meanwhile, in the Gold Coast, J.B. Danquah had formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to work for self-government by constitutional means. Invited to serve as the UGCC’s general secretary, Nkrumah returned home in late 1947. As general secretary, he addressed meetings throughout the Gold Coast and began to create a mass base for the new movement. When extensive riots occurred in February 1948, the British briefly arrested Nkrumah and other leaders of the UGCC.

When a split developed between the middle-class leaders of the UGCC and the more radical supporters of Nkrumah, he formed in June 1949 the new Convention Peoples’ Party (CPP), a mass-based party that was committed to a program of immediate self-government. In January 1950, Nkrumah initiated a campaign of “positive action,” involving nonviolent protests, strikes, and noncooperation with the British colonial authorities.

From prison to prime ministry

In 1947 the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was established, and Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast from London to become its secretary. This national movement was essentially middle-class in origin and conservative in its policies. Within two years, Nkrumah broke from this moderate organization and, together with like-minded radicals, formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP), which adopted the slogan “Self-Government Now.” It was supported by many segments of Gold Coast society that wished to see the end of British rule, including army veterans, small traders, and other nationalists.

Nkrumah’s protests were eventually successful. After the British jailed him in 1950 for political agitation, they allowed a new national constitution to be drafted, with elections to be held in February of 1951. Although still under arrest, Nkrumah became the continent’s first African-born prime minister. After winning the 1951 election, Nkrumah’s CPP went on to win subsequent elections in 1954 and 1956.

Nkrumah pressed for full independence, and on March 6, 1957, the Gold Coast became the first black African colony to be liberated from British rule. It merged with the former British Togoland to form Ghana. As the initial experiment in independent African democratic socialism, Ghana was subject to high expectations, and Nkrumah assumed a position of leadership among African as well as Western intellectuals and ideologues.


Pan Africanism and Foreign Policy  

Nkrumah implemented an active foreign policy to bring Ghana from the periphery of world affairs to a more important role in the struggle for African liberation and unity. He was instrumental in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), underwriting preliminary conferences on African unity and developing personal ties with other African leaders. He balanced his ties with the West by participating in the Afro-Asian movement and strengthening his relations with the Soviet bloc.

By expanding the range and scope of Ghana’s international ties, Nkrumah hoped to break Ghana’s inherited dependency on external forces. In the early 1960s more than 60 ambassadors were placed in foreign capitals, and a special Bureau of African Affairs was created. Nkrumah’s explicitly global perspective was designed to bring about an improvement in conditions in all of Africa as well as in Ghana.

President of Ghana and afterward

The attempted assassination of Nkrumah at Kulugungu in August 1962—the first of several—led to his increasing seclusion from public life and to the growth of a personality cult, as well as to a massive buildup of the country’s internal security forces. Early in 1964 Ghana was officially designated a one-party state, with Nkrumah as life president of both nation and party. While the administration of the country passed increasingly into the hands of self-serving and corrupt party officials, Nkrumah busied himself with the ideological education of a new generation of black African political activists. Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Ghana worsened and shortages of foodstuffs and other goods became chronic. On Feb. 24, 1966, while Nkrumah was visiting Beijing, the army and police in Ghana seized power. Returning to West Africa, Nkrumah found asylum in Guinea, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died of cancer in Bucharest in 1972.

The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

“Herein lie buried many things which, if read with patience, may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the 20th century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line”.


This prophecy may have seemed far-fetched when first published in 1903, but it was to prove more and more compelling as the century advanced. Its author was WEB du Bois, the greatest of the early civil-rights leaders, a figure of towering significance in American politics and letters, whose life and work are – alas – little known on this side of the Atlantic. Remembered for his single-minded commitment to racial justice and his capacity to shape black consciousness, Du Bois used language and ideas to hammer out a strategy for political equality and to sound the depths of the black experience in the aftermath of slavery. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to paint a vivid portrait of black people in the decades after emancipation in 1862 – how they lived and who they really were: and thus to enlighten white America – still profoundly attached to the myths of black inferiority – as to the true meaning of being black in post-civil war America.

The book was, as Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis describes it, “like a firework going off in a cemetery… sound and light, enlivening the inert and despairing. It was an electrifying manifesto, mobilising people for bitter, prolonged struggle to win a place in history.” It combined life portraits of characteristic individuals, based on Du Bois’s travels in the south, with descriptions of the social and economic conditions of the rural poor, a deeply historical understanding of American race relations, and reflections on leadership and the role of education.

It also included fiction, poetry and musical scores. His chapter, “The Sorrow Songs”, expands on the significance of the bars of music from famous Negro spirituals which, alongside verses of English poetry – the two representing the Negro’s divided inheritance – are threaded through as epigraphs to each chapter. Despite his own agnosticism, the vernacular “sorrow songs” became the privileged vehicle for expressing “the deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart” – the soul of black experience. The biblical echoes and cadences of the black church in the book’s language made it for later generations, as critic Arnold Rampersad has said, itself “a kind of sacred book”.

William Edward Burghardt du Bois (he insisted on the pronunciation “Du Boyce”) was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, a small, Republican New England town set among the rivers and hills of south-west Massachusetts. He was a mulatto, of Huguenot Calvinist and Bantu African slave descent. His father, Alfred, disappeared early, and Willie was brought up by his mother, Mary Silvina, and her family, the Burghardts, free blacks who prospered in small farming, and had lived in Great Barrington since the 17th century. Precociously clever as a boy, and moving easily in Great Barrington’s inter-racial society, Du Bois was nevertheless the only black child in his class; an episode when a white girl refused to accept his visiting card made him aware that he was “different from the others”. Later, he expanded this sense of isolation into a fully-fledged philosophy.

He went to Fisk University in Nashville, his first experience of the black south, and taught for two summers in rural Tennessee, where he “touched the very shadow of slavery”. “Hence forward,” he said, “I was a Negro.”

He came to understand how emancipated slaves who, as Levering Lewis observes, had come “singing, praying and aspiring out of slavery”, had so swiftly fallen into poverty, degradation and indifference as a result of their marginalisation. Du Bois aimed to show instead the spiritual depth and complexity of life behind “the veil”. This was one of two metaphors he coined to characterise the black experience; the other was the concept of “double consciousness”.

The veil has biblical associations; double consciousness, philosophical ones. Du Bois argued that racism and the practices of segregation excluded blacks from mainstream American life – “shut them out of their world by a vast veil”. Exiled within, a stranger in his own home, always looking at himself through the eyes of another race, being both African and American, the Negro was destined to have a double self, a divided soul, the bearer of a “double consciousness… One ever feels his two-ness… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.”

Du Bois offered no resolution, accepting that blacks were destined to live permanently with this tension. Paradoxically, he also believed that the veil offered the Negro a profound insight into his divided nation. As in Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave, the slave, confronting “the mortal terror of his sovereign master”, was driven by this struggle-to-the-death to a higher consciousness of freedom than that of white Americans.

Du Bois went on to Harvard, the summit of his educational ambitions (he said he was “at – but not of – Harvard”), where he fell under the influence of teachers such as Josiah Royce, William James and George Santayana. After graduation, he became the first African-American to study in Berlin. There, this prickly, somewhat arrogant young man was liberated. He found the relative lack of racism in Europe remarkable. He mimicked the German student style, grew a Kaiser-like moustache and adopted Bismark as a hero. He discovered classical music and opera, especially Wagner.

Lohengrin plays an important part in the fictional “Of The Coming of John” chapter, where John, a southern black man returning from a northern education, murders his white “double” (the other John) for taking liberties with a black woman, and faces lynching by his townsfolk. Du Bois read German literature and philosophy – Goethe, Heine, Schiller, above all Hegel. The imprint of Hegel’s view of the progress of the World Spirit as a series of stages marked by successive conceptions of freedom, remained with him throughout his life, as sociologist Paul Gilroy has suggested. More significantly, he made contact with the powerful tradition of the German social sciences – Alfred Wagner, Schmoller, Max Weber – and became fired with the desire to turn these critical tools on the racial situation in the US.


He returned to Harvard to complete his PhD – another African-American first – before launching his unprecedented programme of sociological research. His work on the conditions of life among Negro communities in Philadelphia and around Atlanta provided the foundations of several chapters in The Souls of Black Folk as well as underpinning the avalanche of political journalism, novels and other writings he launched on the world.

Passionate about the power of ideas, Du Bois was also a determined political activist. He wrote, lectured and travelled everywhere. In 1905 he launched the Niagara Movement, the first black-led organisation committed to civil and political rights, and subsequently co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the most powerful integrated civil-rights organisation until the upheavals of the 1960s. He began to edit its enormously influential campaigning journal, The Crisis, writing polemical editorials that addressed every conceivable topic of interest to black Americans.


By the 1890s the abolitionist dream had faded, and Black Reconstruction, designed to build emancipated slaves into the political system, had been defeated. The old southern white oligarchy and the “new rich”, in collusion with northern industrialists, who wanted to invest in a south with a plentiful supply of cheap black labour, began to roll back the tide. Ex-slaves, without incomes or capital, were driven off the land into the indebtedness and poverty of share-cropping. Following the Plessy v Ferguson decision, in which the Supreme Court upheld Homer Plessy’s conviction in Louisiana for travelling in a whites-only train carriage, “Jim Crow” legislation spread through the south, segregating public facilities. White supremacist ideas began to circulate again. Then the lynchings began…

The Souls of Black Folk was Du Bois’s attempt to stem this reversal. It was distinctive for its unswerving commitment to the black ballot and the liberal education that had helped Du Bois to expand his own mind. This brought him into collision which the most powerful black leader of the time, Booker T Washington – known for his manipulative cunning as “the wizard” – with his influential base at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and his supporters among the northern philanthropists. In his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) and elsewhere, Washington advocated an accommodation with the south- the famous “Atlanta com-promise” – based on trading the black right to vote against better economic opportunities, and advocating a narrow, vocational training for blacks, designed to equip them to be industrial workers.

This quarrel split the black movement down the middle, and was compounded by Du Bois’s ideas on leadership. In Souls, Du Bois criticised Washington’s charismatic style and educational programme, and called for a “saving elite”, or “talented tenth” of educated African-Americans to give direction to the civil-rights struggle, offering “leadership by exceptional men” (though it should be pointed out that Du Bois was passionately pro-feminist and forged political as well as emotional relationships with many women activists).

Was Du Bois’s “talented tenth” idea, as Washington and others charged, elitist? Du Bois had spent long periods in, and learned much from the south: his experiences there had transformed his political outlook. However, he was formed, intellectually, among northerners. His peers and political associates were largely drawn from the talented sons and daughters of urban, middle-class, northern black professionals, with privileged backgrounds and university educations. Washington claimed to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, poor southern blacks who lacked such prospects. For Du Bois, this was no reason for denying them their political and educational rights.

Certainly, Washington’s “industrial training” was not designed to produce committed political leadership. Besides, where was the leadership of the immediate post-slavery decades likely to come from other than the ranks of the educated, politically conscious, free black professionals of the north? This elitist/populist tension recurred in the later split between Du Bois’s integrationist perspective and the Afro-centric approach of Marcus Garvey, whom Du Bois strongly opposed. It surfaced again during the “Harlem renaissance”, Du Bois, in this instance, finding the leaders of the “arts and letters movement” too removed from the concerns of ordinary black folk. In different versions, it continues to haunt African-American politics today, for example in the suspicion shown by black community activists towards mainstream politicians.

In fact, though Du Bois was constantly locked in argument of this kind about the future direction of the struggle, his outlook was constantly expanding. He spent more time in Europe, began to learn more about the plight of colonial peoples of African descent, and met the leaders of the anti-imperialist struggles of the day. He helped organised several Pan-African congresses, including the famous fifth held just after the end of the second world war in Manchester, and attended by Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. This growing Pan-Africanism helped him to place the race issue in a wider, trans-Atlantic context.

In the later part of his life, as the situation for African-Americans worsened during the depression years, Du Bois became increasingly pessimistic about the chances of equality, and disillusioned with the land of his birth. His racial thinking shifted emphasis, from the integration of a new group into an old nation, to the creation of a new, black nation. He mistrusted the motives behind the American Communist party’s growing involvement in race issues during the 1930s, arguing that the racial division between white and black workers made America an “exception” to Marx’s class-struggle theory.

However, as his disillusionment grew, he showed increasing communist leanings. After his 1947 appeal to the UN on behalf of the black struggle was supported by the Soviet Union and opposed by the US, he gravitated towards the far left, defending the Rosenbergs and eulogising Stalin. He joined the Peace Information Centre, defined by the US government as an “agent of foreign interests”, was refused a passport and, when finally allowed abroad in the late 1950s, met Khrushchev, Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai before attending independence celebrations in Ghana and Nigeria. He had supported Martin Luther King in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955-6, but had become deeply alienated from America, partly as a result of continuing passport problems, and in 1961 he accepted Nkrumah’s invitation and went into self-imposed exile in Ghana, becoming a Ghanaian citizen in 1963.

On August 27, aged 95, on the eve of the great civil rights march on Washington, he died and was given a state funeral in Accra. His place in history was publicly acknowledged from the Washington march platform by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP – “at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause”.

Rue Cases Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley) – “Ye krik! Ye krak!”

Sugar Cane alley poster”Sugar Cane Alley” (Rue Cases-Nègres) unwraps with what looks like a series of sepia-tinted, picture-postcard views of Martinique as it was in the 1930’s and, to a certain extent, as it still is today. These postcard shots are ”official” souvenirs of a world inhabited by anonymous, mute people, or what Frantz Fanon would called the “wretched of the earth”; their existence seem to serve solely for the purpose of providing subjects for the cameras of the tourists and a backs of support of an exploitive system.

This film seems to grow so directly out of old memories that it’s a surprise to discover that the director, Euzhan Palcy, based it on a novel, an autobiographical testimony of Joseph Zobel; however it feels so real we assume he based it on her own life. The film tells the story of a young orphan who was born on the French-speaking island of Martinique in 1930s, and, when the story begins, is a carefree 11-year-old playing with the other kids in Sugar Cane Alley — a row of shacks by the cane fields.

The first scenes get right inside a child’s point of view, they are left alone all day while their parents work in the fields, and they make up games, get into fights, and poke about where they’re not supposed to be. When one of them breaks a precious sugar bowl, the depth of the tragedy underlines the poverty of these people.

M’Man Tine, a wonderfully tough, pipe-smoking old woman who is raising the orphaned Jose on the sugar plantation where she has been a cane-cutter all her life. This role is played by an actress named Darling Legitimus with a no-nonsense sweetness that, like the movie itself, makes itself known only gradually. The measure of the actress, as well as of the role, is only fully evident by the end.

Jose is a smart kid — gifted, likable. He makes friend with a very old man, a man so old that he remembers the days of slavery, and tells Jose that the work in the fields is just a new form of slavery. He dreams of going back to Africa someday, and Jose says he’ll join him.

Euzhan Palcy
Euzhan Palcy

But, meanwhile, Jose is doing well in school. His grandmother works long hours to support them, so that he can break out of the fields and get an education. And the movie follows Jose as has sits for an exam, and is accepted by an intermediate school in the island’s capital. He gets a scholarship, but it’s not enough money, and in one of the great scenes of the movie his grandmother moves them to a packing case on the outskirts of the city and does laundry to support them both.


The film’s director, Euzhan Palcy, knows she’s dealing with many of the conventions of a rags-to-riches story here, but she avoids a lot of possible stereotypes by making everything very particular, by making Jose into an individual instead of just a good example. When a woman hires Jose and then makes him late for school, for example, Jose conceives a brilliant plan to sneak back and get even with her — while maintaining a perfect alibi. “Sugar Cane Alley” sees its world so clearly because it’s an inside job; Palcy grew up on Martinique. At the same time, she doesn’t lean on their heart-warming story. She’s are making a movie here, and it’s smart, sometimes hard-edged story that earns its moments of sentiment.



This film is a splendidly life-enhancing and even a life-changing classic, but sadly underappreciated gem. While not openly political, it is an extremely moral picture, yet not so intentionally educational as to opaque the flawless artistry with which it is directed.

In the end of the film, José says: “I will take my black shack alley with me,” reminding us to remember where we come from, no matter where we end up in life. He urges us to spare a thought for “all the black shack alleys all over the world,” to think of the sidelined, the ostracized and the oppressed wherever they may be, those whom society has cast out and deceitfully discarded, very often the African Diaspora. This movie entreats us, by appealing to our humanity and compassion, to be our brother’s keeper.



Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Album Review)

Is 1971, EUA still engulfed in the Vietnam War, Nixon is the first President to visit Communist China. It was a year marked by social, political, international and economical mayhem. Musically, one of the perkiest moments during that time of uncertainty came on May 21st when Motown Records, located in Detroit, released the Marvin Gaye masterpiece What’s Going On.

The reason that What’s Going On stands out as a masterpiece is because it went beyond the music conceptually, and became a ‘concept’ in its approach as a social commentary. Marvin was Motown’s leading soul singer and until What’s Going On was made, he and others were never given the freedom to write or sing their own music.

Inspired in part by his brother Frankie’s harrowing letters home from Vietnam, the album was both an affirmation of Gaye’s Christian beliefs and a moving cri de coeur about contemporary social problems and issues – ghetto life, the poverty gap, heroin abuse, traumatised war veterans, ecology, child poverty, political paralysis – which still resonate today. Unsurprisingly, when Motown boss Berry Gordy first heard the title-track, he vetoed its release, believing the label’s famed “Sound of Young America” should not be this bleak. But Gaye stuck to his guns, threatening to never record for the label again unless his project saw fruition, then hurriedly finished the other tracks whilst Gordy’s attention was focused on Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles. What’s Going On would be the last album the company recorded in its original Hitsville USA base.

The album What’s Going On can be viewed as forms of music, poetry, or art. It can also be looked at as a protest, a statement or narrative. The album used all these different perspectives and combined them, creating a mosaic made of themes that questioned the social, political and economical condition of America. As a result, the listener is given a frame of reference in which to question his or her own living history.

The opening track, “What’s Going On” represents a statement that sets the stage for the rest of the album. There is a conversation already taking place, opening a proverbial ‘door’ to the listener, as if to invite them to ‘sit-in’ and take part. The sounds of people chatting, throwing out catch phrases that were hip to the 1960’s in particular, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Can you dig it?’ ‘Everything is everything.’ ‘Solid!’ act as reflections to a recent past since these terms were out dated by the time they were used and function to establish the time frame of the commentary. Marvin starts by referring to the conflict in Vietnam, “…You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate…” Then he shifts the listeners perspective to focus on the conditions at home,” everybody thinks we’re wrong/Oh, but who are they to judge us/Simply because our hair is long…Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality…” This refers to the Civil Rights movement that happened from 1954-1965. It could also refer to the white students gunned down at Kent State and the lesser-known black students, also gunned down, in their dormitory at Jackson State College. He goes on with, “What’s going on/ Yeah, what’s going on/Tell me, what’s going on/I’ll tell you what’s going on.” He starts to interpret the events in forms of questions that act to foreshadow the thematic nature of the album.

The second song, “What’s Happening Brother” Marvin uses the dialogue of the returning veteran to ask the question: what’s going on? “War is hell, when will it end, /When will people start gettin’ together again.” And he continues with “Are thing really gettin’ better like the newspaper said/What else is new my friend, besides what I read/Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been/Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land…” This song and “What’s Going On” foreshadow the disparity that starts to take place in the upcoming themes.

On the third track, “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”, the album lulls musically and creates a ‘drug-induced’ like state. According to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, between the years of 1960-1970, Detroit saw the active drug addict population increased by 89%. (649) That stunning change had to have some influence for Marvin to addresses the topic of drug addiction. The song’s implication is clear from the beginning, “Flyin’ high in the friendly sky/Flying high without ever leavin’ the ground…” Marvin sings a duet with himself, one voice as a ‘hooked’ addict, and the other as the soul of the addict struggling with that addiction. The addict sings “So stupid minded, /I can’t help it…I go to the place where good feelin’ awaits me and it’s bound to forsake me…” while in the background the ‘soul’ can be heard echoing “Can’t help it”, “Gotta have it” and “Self-destruction in my hand.” The addict ‘wins out’ over the soul in the end and faces his reality, “Well I know I’m hooked my friend/To the boys who make slaves out of men.”

Without missing a beat “Save the Children” continues the intentional slowdown of the tempo, which serves as the conscience of the album. Once again Marvin uses two different vocal styles, the spoken word and the singing voice, one talking and the other singing as if to symbolize oneness in duality. This is the first song to essentially pose a blatant question. Marvin in a low tone and sleepy style starts the song with, “I just want to ask a question/Who really cares? /To save a world in despair/Who really cares?” And then begins to answer himself by singing, “When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow/Little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow…You see, let’s save the children/Let’s save all the children/Save the babies, save the babies…” The duality of images are apparent and similar to “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky). The social commentary of “Save the Children” directly reflects the events that happened in Birmingham years earlier as described by Juan Williams in Eyes on the Prize. Children were marching and protesting when Police Chief Bull Connor ordered police dogs to attack and firemen to use hoses that sprayed “100 pounds of pressure per square inch”(190) into the demonstration. In an abstract reflection concerning children, the song also refers to the tens of thousands of young men fighting and dying in Vietnam at the time.

Marvin, as a child, spent time in the church where his father preached. The churches impact and influence on Marvin allowed him to explore salvation, through a redemptive belief in God, and is paid special attention to in the song “God Is Love”. In this song Marvin reflects the non-violence preached by Martin Luther King Jr. in a way that looks at love as an answer to the times of despair. Marvin emphasis on family, sings “Love your mother, she bore you/love your father he works for you/Love your sister she good to you /Love your brother, your brother.” Marvin implies that salvation can only take place by spreading love from family to community and a belief in a higher power, “God is my friend/Jesus is my friend/For when we call on him for mercy Father/He’ll be merciful my friend/Oh, yes he will/All He asks of us, I know, is we give each other love.”

Marvin’s music had influenced other artists, and he had been influenced by his immediate surroundings and national events. The Food and Drug administration, in 1971, advised “… [The] American public to stop eating swordfish because more than 90 percent of samples tested contained excessive amounts of mercury.” The day that What’s Going On was released The New York Times released a new analysis by Boyce Rensberger that read “Mercury and Man: A Puzzle for Ecologists.” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” combines the environmental issues of the times while offering a gloomy outlook of a possible future. He sings, “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury/Ah oh, mercy, mercy me…” He then refers to the ‘Mother Earth’ and asks “What about this overcrowded land/How much more abuse from man can she stand?”

In the song “Right On”, he merges the despair with the promise of salvation through God and love, “…Some of us are aware/That it’s good for us to care/Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowing in the air…Love can conquer hate every time/Give out some love and you will find peace sublime…” In the article “Trouble Man: The Art and Politics of Marvin Gaye,” Mark Anthony states that “Gaye’s solution to the deterioration of America’s social fabric, a solution indicative of King’s influence on Gaye’s work, was to re-evaluate the role of human respect…”

While the tempo of the music has slowly increased by this point in the album, “Wholy Holy” brings it back to a slower, somber pace that serves as the conscience similar to the earlier songs “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)” and “Save The Children.” Love, as a movement, resembles the non-violent activities of the Civil Rights movement and a hope can be seen in the lyrical content of the song. For example, “We can conquer hate forever, yes we can/Ah, wholy holy/Oh, Lord/We can rock the world’s foundation/Yes we can…Holler love across the nation.” In that regard, the Civil Rights movement could be an example to the world as a whole; instead of the segregated Southern states themselves.

The lyrics to “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” almost read like a daily newspaper or eleven o’clock news broadcast from 1971. The New York Times issue that published the article about mercury was also filled with headlines and stories that mirrored the contemporary events against those events that Marvin was singing about. They read: Allied and Enemy War Deaths Decline, Census Finds Inflation Erased Gain in Family Income in 1970, Nixon’s Racial Stance and Experts See Soviet and U.S. Nuclear Arsenals in Rough Balance. He refers to Government spending and taxes, “Rockets, moon shots/Spend it on the have nots/Money, we make it/’Fore we see it, you take it…” Inspired again by social events, Marvin explains the condition of urban developments, “…Inflation, no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die/Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life…”

What’s Going On is not only Marvin Gaye’s masterwork, it’s the most vital and ardent record to come out of soul music, brought by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist.