Orchestra Baobab – “Specialists In All Styles”

From ominous beginnings as the weekend house band at a Dakar club for government officials, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, named for the club (which in turn took its name from the native baobab tree), went on to become one of the prominent bands of world music, with an influence that extended far beyond their national boundaries, throughout West Africa and into Europe. Put together by original leader and saxophonist Baro N’Diaye, the first version was a seven-piece group, three of them enticed away from Dakar’s biggest band, the Star Band, who had a regular gig at Ibra Kasse’s club. While they had a strong Cuban influence — Cuban music had been a prevalent sound throughout West Africa since the ’40s, imported by sailors and played on the radio — Orchestra Baobab added African music, in large part from griot singer Laye M’Boup, who had a vast repertoire of Wolof material.

In the glamorous world of Senegal’s 1970s nightclub scene, there was only one band worth dressing up for. Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 as the house band for Dakar’s Baobab club, where artists, politicians, intellectuals, movie stars and the occasional visiting dictator met to dance to the band’s mix of Cuban and Casamance (south Senegalese) rhythms. Hired to play the music that audiences wanted to hear from traditional songs to the latest chart hits, Orchestra Baobab rapidly outgrew their status as a house band and became famous all over Africa.


It wasn’t long before the new sound proved so popular that the group wasn’t just entertaining on weekends, but every night of the week, being hailed on par with Guinea’s legendary Bembeya Jazz National for their fusion of sounds. Inevitably, personnel fluctuated and the new musicians brought their own influences, expanding the feel and range of the band with Maninke and Malinke songs, which became integrated into the whole. Perhaps the most important addition was singer Thione Seck, who took over the lead vocalist spot after the death of M’Boup in a 1974 car wreck.

While Senegal’s élite danced till dawn with their soignée girlfriends, Orchestra Baobab began leavening the strictly Cuban diet with a rich array of African elements. Atisso brought his idiosyncratic version of the Congolese guitar style, Gomis the lilting ballads of the Casamance, Senegal’s forested southern region. Nigerian saxophonist Peter Udo introduced a touch of honking high life, while Ndiouga Dieng, a griot, a traditional praise singer, represented the neo-Islamic sounds of Dakar’s hinterland.

 

They continued to play the Baobab Club regularly, but also entertained at state occasions, such as official New Year’s Eve dances and even at the wedding of designer Pierre Cardin’s daughter in Paris. Finally, the Baobab Club closed in 1979 and the band went on to make their home at the Ngalam nightclub (or the Djandeer Club, according to some historians). Also during this time, they tried to make their mark in Europe by traveling to Paris in 1978. They recorded On Vera Ca: The 1978 Paris Sessions, one of their best discs and certainly the best-produced, although it leaned too heavily on their Spanish-language material. Other than that, the trip proved to be a disaster, losing money, and they returned home. At the beginning of the ’80s, they were indisputably Senegal’s biggest band.

They recorded regularly (two albums, Mouhamadou Bamba and Sibou Odia were edited into Bamba, a 1983 U.S. release), and continued to stretch their limits by bringing in more African influence, which reached its height with the classic Pirates Choice of 1982.

 

But while Baobab remained Senegal’s top group up to the late Seventies, the balance of society was changing. The band barely noticed it, but out in the quartiers populaires , the sprawling, largely impoverished suburbs, where nobody cared about suits, ties or the cha-cha-cha, a pop revolution was underway, centred round a young singer, Youssou N’Dour, and a raw new music called Mbalax. The African percussion that had been subsumed into Baobab’s gentle sound was brought right to the surface, alongside griot vocals, sax and rhythmic guitar; the linguistic medium was exclusively Wolof, the lingua franca of modern Senegal.

Suddenly finding themselves without gigs, and unwilling to adapt to the new trends, Baobab split and might have ended up a mere footnote in musical history were it not for the belief of a small number of Western enthusiasts, notably Nick Gold of World Circuit Records. While new African music was becoming increasingly formulaic – N’Dour’s huge-selling ‘7 Seconds’ with Neneh Cherry being a prime example – Baobab’s music harked back to the earthy, organic feel that had attracted Western ears in the first place.

They tried to compete by updating their sound, but it didn’t work and by 1987, Orchestra Baobab had disbanded. However, everything comes full circle and in 2001, with the European reissue of an expanded Pirates Choice (2002 U.S.), Orchestra Baobab, older and wiser, re-formed and played dates around the globe, going into the studio to make a new album — produced by the man responsible for their fall from grace, Youssou N’Dour.

 

Thomas Sankara – “The Upright Man”

 ” You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness.”

 

 

 

Thomas Sankara, was a charismatic leader and president of Upper Volta, which he renamed Burkina Faso (“the land of upright people”) during his period of office between 1983 and 1987. As a professing Pan Africanist he fought for a United Africa.

Many revolutionary leaders talk the talk, but don’t always walk the walk. But with Sankara, his revolutionary principles guided his own life. At the time of his death he had a salary of $450 a month; and his most valuable possessions were a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He was the world’s poorest president, but indeed its richest revolutionary.

His Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he opted instead for a military career – a path that many Africans of his generation pursued as a route to a better life. In 1970, at the age of 20, Sankara was sent for officer training in Madagascar where he witnessed a popular uprising of students and workers that succeeded in toppling Madagascar’s government. Before returning to Burkina Faso in 1972, Sankara attended a parachute academy in France where he was exposed to left-wing political ideologies – particularly as they related to France’s neo-colonial relations with her former colonies.

In 1980s the country was being rocked by a series of labour union strikes and military coups. Sankara’s military achievements and charismatic leadership style made him a popular choice for political appointments, but his personal and political integrity put him at odds with the leadership of the successive military governments that came to power. In early 1983 Sankara was selected as the prime minister by the Council for the Salvation of the People (CSP) headed by Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, which provided him with an entryway into international politics and a chance to meet with leaders of the Nonaligned Movement, including Fidel Castro, Samora Machel and Maurice Bishop.

This same year Sankara’s anti-imperialist stance and grassroots popularity once again put him at odds with the more conservative elements within the CSP, including President Ouedraogo. In an internal coup, Sankara was removed as prime minister and jailed. In response to mass demonstrations demanding Sankara’s release the CSP compromised by putting him under house arrest in the capital Ouagadougou.

On 4 August, 1983 Compaore along with some 250 other soldiers freed Sankara, overthrew the CSP and formed the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) with Sankara as its president. Sankara once described his country as an embodiment of “the microcosm of the entire natural evils from which mankind still suffers at the end of the twentieth century”. Upper Volta, which Sankara renamed Burkina Faso (land of upright men), was (and still is) amongst the world’s poorest countries.

 

A campaign for the restoration of women’s dignity and recognition of their role in society was launched in order to free women from the yoke of patriarchal domination. During Sankara’s presidency Burkina Faso was a leader in employing women in government posts. In a symbolic attempt to demonstrate to men what the daily realities of women’s lives were like, he declared a day of solidarity with housewives and forced men to go to market and take responsibility for household duties.

Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.

He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.

Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, by a conspiracy of European and African interests afraid of what transformative potential Burkina Faso under Sankara suggested and the danger of those ideas spreading.

Cesária Évora- “The Barefoot Diva”

The singer Cesária Évora,  who has died aged 70 after a long period of ill-health, rose from poverty on the Cape Verde archipelago to achieve worldwide fame in her later years. She put the islands – off the coast of west Africa – on the world music map by performing their distinctivemorna” ballads with a mix of sweetness and melancholy.

When she first came to European attention in 1988, Évora appeared an unlikely candidate for international stardom, yet within five years she was selling hundreds of thousands of CDs, with concert audiences to match. Grammy nominations, critical adulation and the praise of famous singers quickly surrounded the chain-smoking, barefoot grandmother, yet Évora remained remarkably blasé about her newfound celebrity.

She was, she always emphasised, a good singer, and thus it was natural that people would enjoy hearing her. That she had had to endure decades of obscurity was, she would add, frustrating. Eschewing false humility and proud of her heritage, Évora knew her own standing among the world’s greatest vocalists.

She was born in Mindelo, a port city on the island of São Vicente. Her family was musical: her uncle B Leza was a noted morna composer. After becoming an orphan, Évora made a living from the age of 15 by singing in bars. By 1960, she was singing on local radio stations and for the Portuguese cruise ships that docked at Mindelo. On those ships she gained a certain celebrity for refusing to wear shoes and performing barefoot. This was natural enough, since she had grown up without shoes, but it became her trademark. Évora sang in Kriolu, a Creole language mixing Portuguese with the west African dialects of her enslaved ancestors. The minor-key morna ballads she sang with such stoic feeling reflected themes of loss, poverty and immigration – all constants to Cape Verdeans.

Portugal’s neglect of its colony and the resulting struggle for independence, which came in 1975, provided an unpromising backdrop for Évora’s early career. She raised three children largely by herself. In 1985, the Lisbon-based Cape Verdean singer Bana invited Évora to Portugal to perform.

This was the first time Évora had had the opportunity to leave the islands. Her Lisbon performances were well received by its immigrant population, and José da Silva, a young Parisian musician of Cape Verdean origin, was extremely impressed. He invited Évora to record for his tiny Lusafrica label.

Her 1988 debut album, La Diva aux Pieds Nus (The Barefoot Diva), and a 1990 follow-up featured an electronic pop sound unsuited to Évora. For her 1991 album Mar Azul (Blue Sea), Da Silva recorded Évora singing morna numbers backed by a small acoustic group. This allowed her limpid vocal style to shine, and French media began championing her. The international record company BMG signed a deal with Da Silva to distribute Évora’s albums. Miss Perfumado (1992) was backed by a BMG campaign that helped it sell more than 300,000 copies in France.

Évora, for so long resident only on São Vicente, took to the road for the next three years, touring all over the world and establishing herself as one of Africa’s most internationally successful artists. A love of rum and cigarettes – part of her performance involved taking a break on stage for a smoke and drink while the band played an instrumental – alongside a no-nonsense approach to both audiences and media helped ensure her formidable reputation. Her anti-diva behaviour was no affectation: when asked if she was impressed by performing at concert halls in the world’s greatest cities, Évora shrugged and replied that if Cape Verde had access to the same resources, it too would have such venues. From 1995 to 2009, Évora recorded an album every two to three years and undertook long tours. Da Silva remained her producer and manager, and the standard of the material she recorded, almost always Cape Verdean in origin, remained very high. She was one of the few singers in a foreign language to win a large US audience.

Though success brought Évora considerable wealth, she remained a chain-smoking stoic who shrugged off fame’s affectations and retained São Vicente as her home. Even after her health began to decline in 2005, she continued to work hard. Three years later, a minor stroke before a Melbourne concert caused the tour to be curtailed. In 2010, a heart attack after a Paris concert necessitated open-heart surgery, and last September she retired from performing.

Évora’s voice – silky, weary, supple yet never showy, rich with her extraordinary presence – remains compelling.

 

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own”

Things Fall Apart is about the tragic fall of the protagonist, Okonkwo, and the Igbo culture. Okonkwo is a respected and influential leader within the Igbo community of Umuofia in eastern Nigeria. He first earns personal fame and distinction, and brings honor to his village, when he defeats Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling contest. Okonkwo determines to gain titles for himself and become a powerful and wealthy man in spite of his father’s weaknesses.

Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was a lazy and wasteful man. He often borrowed money and then squandered it on palm-wine and merrymaking with friends. Consequently, his wife and children often went hungry. Within the community, Unoka was considered a failure and a laughingstock. He was referred to as agbala, one who resembles the weakness of a woman and has no property. Unoka died a shameful death and left numerous debts.

Okonkwo despises and resents his father’s gentle and idle ways. He resolves to overcome the shame that he feels as a result of his father’s weaknesses by being what he considers to be “manly”; therefore, he dominates his wives and children by being insensitive and controlling.

Because Okonkwo is a leader of his community, he is asked to care for a young boy named Ikemefuna, who is given to the village as a peace offering by neighboring Mbaino to avoid war with Umuofia. Ikemefuna befriends Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, and Okonkwo becomes inwardly fond of the boy.

Over the years, Okonkwo becomes an extremely volatile man; he is apt to explode at the slightest provocation. He violates the Week of Peace when he beats his youngest wife, Ojiugo, because she went to braid her hair at a friend’s house and forgot to prepare the afternoon meal and feed her children. Later, he severely beats and shoots a gun at his second wife, Ekwefi, because she took leaves from his banana plant to wrap food for the Feast of the New Yam.

After the coming of the locusts, Ogbuefi Ezeuder, the oldest man in the village, relays to Okonkwo a message from the Oracle. The Oracle says that Ikemefuna must be killed as part of the retribution for the Umuofian woman killed three years earlier in Mbaino. He tells Okonkwo not to partake in the murder, but Okonkwo doesn’t listen. He feels that not participating would be a sign of weakness. Consequently, Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna with his machete. Nwoye realizes that his father has murdered Ikemefuna and begins to distance himself from his father and the clansmen.

Okonkwo becomes depressed after killing Ikemefuna, so he visits his best friend, Obierika, who disapproves of his role in Ikemefuna’s killing. Obierika says that Okonkwo’s act will upset the Earth and the earth goddess will seek revenge. After discussing Ikemefuna’s death with Obierika, Okonkwo is finally able to sleep restfully, but he is awakened by his wife Ekwefi. Their daughter Ezinma, whom Okonkwo is fond of, is dying. Okonkwo gathers grasses, barks, and leaves to prepare medicine for Ezinma.

A public trial is held on the village commons. Nine clan leaders, including Okonkwo, represent the spirits of their ancestors. The nine clan leaders, or egwugwu, also represent the nine villages of Umuofia. Okonkwo does not sit among the other eight leaders, or elders, while they listen to a dispute between an estranged husband and wife. The wife, Mgbafo, had been severely beaten by her husband. Her brother took her back to their family’s village, but her husband wanted her back home. The egwugwu tell the husband to take wine to his in-laws and beg his wife to come home. One elder wonders why such a trivial dispute would come before the egwugwu.

In her role as priestess, Chielo tells Ekwefi (Okonkwo’s second wife) that Agbala (the Oracle of the Hills and Caves) needs to see Ezinma. Although Okonkwo and Ekwefi protest, Chielo takes a terrified Ezinma on her back and forbids anyone to follow. Chielo carries Ezinma to all nine villages and then enters the Oracle’s cave. Ekwefi follows secretly, in spite of Chielo’s admonitions, and waits at the entrance of the Oracle. Okonkwo surprises Ekwefi by arriving at the cave, and he also waits with her. The next morning, Chielo takes Ezinma to Ekwefi’s hut and puts her to bed.

When Ogbuefi Ezeudu dies, Okonkwo worries because the last time that Ezeudu visited him was when he warned Okonkwo against participating in the killing of Ikemefuna. Ezeudu was an important leader in the village and achieved three titles of the clan’s four, a rare accomplishment. During the large funeral, Okonkwo’s gun goes off, and Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son is killed accidentally.

Because the accidental killing of a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess, Okonkwo and his family must be exiled from Umuofia for seven years. The family moves to Okonkwo’s mother’s native village, Mbanta. After they depart Umuofia, a group of village men destroy Okonkwo’s compound and kill his animals to cleanse the village of Okonkwo’s sin. Obierika stores Okonkwo’s yams in his barn and wonders about the old traditions of the Igbo culture.

Okonkwo is welcomed to Mbanta by his maternal uncle, Uchendu, a village elder. He gives Okonkwo a plot of land on which to farm and build a compound for his family. But Okonkwo is depressed, and he blames his chi (or personal spirit) for his failure to achieve lasting greatness.

During Okonkwo’s second year in exile, he receives a visit from his best friend, Obierika, who recounts sad news about the village of Abame: After a white man rode into the village on a bicycle, the elders of Abame consulted their Oracle, which told them that the white man would destroy their clan and other clans. Consequently, the villagers killed the white man. But weeks later, a large group of men slaughtered the villagers in retribution. The village of Abame is now deserted.

Okonkwo and Uchendu agree that the villagers were foolish to kill a man whom they knew nothing about. Later, Obierika gives Okonkwo money that he received from selling Okonkwo’s yams and seed-yams, and he promises to do so until Okonkwo returns to Umuofia.

Six missionaries, including one white man, arrive in Mbanta. The white man speaks to the people about Christianity. Okonkwo believes that the man speaks nonsense, but his son, Nwoye, is captivated and becomes a convert of Christianity.

The Christian missionaries build a church on land given to them by the village leaders. However, the land is a part of the Evil Forest, and according to tradition, the villagers believe that the missionaries will die because they built their church on cursed land. But when nothing happens to the missionaries, the people of Mbanta conclude that the missionaries possess extraordinary power and magic. The first recruits of the missionaries are efulefu, the weak and worthless men of the village. Other villagers, including a woman, soon convert to Christianity. The missionaries then go to Umuofia and start a school. Nwoye leaves his father’s hut and moves to Umuofia so he can attend the school.

Okonkwo’s exile is over, so his family arranges to return to Umuofia. Before leaving Mbanta, they prepare a huge feast for Okonkwo’s mother’s kinsmen in appreciation of their gratitude during Okonkwo’s seven years of exile.

When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, he discovers that the village has changed during his absence. Many men have renounced their titles and have converted to Christianity. The white men have built a prison; they have established a government court of law, where people are tried for breaking the white man’s laws; and they also employ natives of Umuofia. Okonkwo wonders why the Umuofians have not incited violence to rid the village of the white man’s church and oppressive government.

Some members of the Igbo clan like the changes in Umuofia. Mr. Brown, the white missionary, respects the Igbo traditions. He makes an effort to learn about the Igbo culture and becomes friendly with some of the clan leaders. He also encourages Igbo people of all ages to get an education. Mr. Brown tells Okonkwo that Nwoye, who has taken the name Isaac, is attending a teaching college. Nevertheless, Okonkwo is unhappy about the changes in Umuofia.

After Mr. Brown becomes ill and is forced to return to his homeland, Reverend James Smith becomes the new head of the Christian church. But Reverend Smith is nothing like Mr. Brown; he is intolerant of clan customs and is very strict.

Violence arises after Enoch, an overzealous convert to Christianity, unmasks an egwugwu. In retaliation, the egwugwu burn Enoch’s compound and then destroy the Christian church because the missionaries have caused the Igbo people many problems.

When the District Commissioner returns to Umuofia, he learns about the destruction of the church and asks six leaders of the village, including Okonkwo, to meet with him. The men are jailed until they pay a fine of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries. The people of Umuofia collect the money and pay the fine, and the men are set free.

The next day at a meeting for clansmen, five court messengers who intend to stop the gathering approach the group. Suddenly, Okonkwo jumps forward and beheads the man in charge of the messengers with his machete. When none of the other clansmen attempt to stop the messengers who escape, Okonkwo realizes that they will never go to war and that Umuofia will surrender. Everything has fallen apart for Okonkwo; he commits suicide by hanging himself.

Alpha Blondy – “The African Rasta”

Hailing from the Cote d’Ivoire, Alpha Blondy is among the world’s most popular reggae artists. With his 12-piece band Solar System, Blondy offers a reggae beat with a distinctive African cast. Calling himself an African Rasta, Blondy creates Jah-centered anthems promoting morality, love, peace and social consciousness. With a range that moves from sensitivity to rage over injustice, much of Blondy’s music empathizes with the impoverished and those on society’s fringe. Blondy is also a staunch supporter of African unity and to this end, he sings to Muslim audiences in Hebrew and sings in Arabic to Israelis. Some of his best known songs include “Cocody Rock,” “Jerusalem” and “Apartheid Is Nazism.” He was born a member of the Jula tribe in Dimbokoro and named Seydou Kone after his grandfather. His grandmother Cherie Coco raised him. He was always a rebellious child and for this, Coco named him “Blondy,” her unique pronunciation of the word “bandit.” When he started performing professionally, he took on the name Alpha (the first letter in the Greek alphabet) so his name literally translates to “first bandit.” Though he grew up listening to African folkloric music such as yagba and gumbe, his primary musical influences were such Western bands as Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, the Beatles,

Creedence Clearwater Revival, and soul artists like Otis Redding. Later Bob Marley’s music tremendously affected Blondy. Though he wanted to become a musician, his family expected him to become a respectable English teacher. He studied English at Hunter College in New York, and later in the Columbia University American Language Program. Outside of class, he would play music in Central Park and in Harlem clubs where occasionally house bands would let him sing his Bob Marley covers in French, English, and various West African languages. Blondy got his big break from friend, Fulgence Kass, an employee of Ivory Coast Television who helped him land a spot on the Premiere Chance talent show. The young artist was a hit with the audience. Blondy then hooked up with producer G. Benson who recorded his eight-song debut album Jah Love in a single day. His popularity has continued to grow and is a well respected artist both in Africa and in the West.