Monday, August 05, 2013

Chiwoniso Marire and the wounded heart of Zimbabwe

Oh beloved Zimbabwe… I remember you, when crossing the border from South Africa in 1994, I was entering a land of peace and quiet harmony with the Earth, and the feeling of being in the abundance of towering baobabs and ancient stone ruins and all that we imagine is the graceful, loving beauty of Mother Africa. I recently learned that Chiwoniso Maraire, a great Zimbabwean musician who brought the traditional mbira to urban audiences and contemporary music in the 1990s, passed away a few days ago at the young age of 37. The mbira instrument was also introduced and somewhat popularized in America by Maurice White and his band Earth, Wind & Fire in the 70s; Maurice called his instrument the kalimba, and he even called his music publishing company Kalimba Music. In the face of such a great loss, what else can one say except thank you so much for the wonderful music you left us, Chiwoniso... God bless your great journey in Heaven.

I can't help feeling more sadness and pain at Chiwoniso's death because the Zimbabwe of today is nothing like the Zimbabwe I first came to know in July 1994... Crossing the border 19 years ago, I was struck by feeling a sudden sense of calm, stillness and joy, leaving South Africa. At the time, South Africa had squeaked through its first all-race, one-person-one-vote elections that of course established Nelson Mandela as the first president of a truly democratic New South Africa. But the new nation was fraught with anxiety, violence and confusion, with conspiracies abounding about black-on-black violence fomented by "third force" old apartheid security forces determined to throw a monkey wrench into the democratic process. On April 27, 1994, the day of the elections, a flurry of bombs went off in black township taxi ranks, intended to strike fear into the hearts of Africans seeking to exercise their new right to vote. Right-wing white Afrikaner militias were organizing openly, and a few were dramatically and brutally killed by black security forces - broadcasted live on South African television - after making an excursion into the Bophuthatswana African homeland. Zimbabwe felt like it was a million miles and several lifetimes away from that madness and violence. Zimbabwe seemed like an almost perfect blend of traditional Africa - grand wildlife and scenery, charming villages with lovely folk art and welcoming people - with Harare's modern business district and skyline, stately suburbs, quaint restaurants and jazzy nightclubs. The tranquility of Zimbabwe was like a balm, an antidote to the uncertainty of South Africa's violent conflicts; Zimbabwe had already been through its own bloody wars of white minority rule and appeared to represent the future goodwill that South Africa could look forward to. No one had any inkling that the future would painfully change in dramatic ways for so many people, black and white. It's ironic that South Africa now has a massive Zimbabwe refugee problem, and the image and relationship of the two regimes, in that context, is in somewhat of a role reversal.

So Chiwoniso's death feels like a double-dagger into the heart and the body, a piercing, bleeding wound with salt poured into it. But Chiwoniso's spirit and presence is eternal through her great music, and somewhere in that sound is the true heart of Zimbabwe, a pure heavenly song.

Chiwoniso Maraire, Africa's Queen of the mbira photo 5b3da117-9fdc-4a2b-8e57-bd95b3974d34.jpg

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Michael Winslow: Sound, Comedy and the Origin of Beatbox


Michael Winslow, man of 10,000 sound effects and the "founder of modern beatbox"

Michael Winslow is like no other modern comedian. His vocal contortions are absolutely amazing, and he astounds his audience at what is possible with the human larynx. I think this story is captivating not only because of Winslow’s path to Hollywood success, but what his comedy style may tell us about sound itself. Winslow has pushed himself to edge of exploration in sound, whether it involves interspecies communication (Winslow has imitated and interacted directly with both tigers and dolphins under scientific observation) or developing his own internal ear by immersing himself in natural environments with no human sounds. As a motivational speaker, Winslow sometimes speaks to audiences about awareness of sound and developing a “feng shui” of sound in one’s home. He believes that kind of sound awareness can improve one's intelligence, educational achievement and overall well-being. Quite something to consider from the man who made millions of people laugh over and over again through 7 “Police Academy” productions. In some ways it's not all that surprising that Winslow was one of the originators of the creative phenomenon known as beatbox.

Michael Winslow is an utterly fascinating comic genius. The man who achieved fame in the 80s as Officer Larvell Jones in the “Police Academy” movie franchise has traveled around the world spreading his unique style of vocal comedy, which can include anything from imitating an entire film soundtrack with his voice, to performing Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin – vocals, guitars, bass, drums and reverb, auto tune, delayed echo, etc. – all with his voice. Or how about watching Winslow execute a fascinating sound performance of a Wimbledon Grand Slam tennis match? Winslow gives new meaning to the truism that the average human being uses only a small fraction of the potential of our vocal cords.

More recently you may have seen Winslow doing the Black Hawk “Cha-ching” Casino commercial, or Geico or Cadbury ads, or on the television program “Robot Chicken.” In addition to having a cult following from his hilarious appearance in “Space Balls,” Winslow’s voice or vocal effects are found in the movie “Gremlins,” Disney’s “Back to the Future" and “Terminator” rides and in the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” He is truly a prolific entertainer and one of the most unique comedians of our modern age.

After getting his first taste of a successful comedy performance at Tulagi’s nightclub in Boulder in 1979, Winslow dropped out of Metropolitan State College in Denver and decided to move to LA to pursue a career as a standup comedian. A TV appearance on Chuck Barris’ popular “Gong Show” earned young Winslow a grand total of $516.32, which he used to buy a 1969 Mercury Cougar that temporarily solved his homelessness problem. The Cougar also got him out on the California comedy circuit. Eventually Winslow was spotted by director Hugh Wilson and Producer Paul Manslanski, who were so impressed they decided to write him into the script of “Police Academy” as Cadet Larvell Jones, the crazy sounds effects man. It was a stroke of genius - Winslow fit perfectly into the enormously creative role that would endear him to millions of fans for decades. But searching for his big break and finding his place in Hollywood turned out to be an incredibly tense and stressful journey.

“For me it felt like a sword fight. Everybody felt like that,” Winslow told me during a recent telephone interview. His tone changed and there was a certain sadness and humility in his voice. “It was like sword fighting with time itself. You’ve got a hundred folks that want to come in, and you’ve got slots for 40. You have to be there early and you have to fight for those slots. And you get three minutes, so you’ve got to put in 8 hours or 11 hours or however long you’re going to be there and get that three minutes and you hope that it’s a prime period when the audience is there.”

Winslow has some memories of hanging out with the legendary wild man, the late Sam Kinison, which certainly made life in California interesting. Now he looks back and laughs, but Winslow remembers a time when Kinison nearly got the two of them killed.

“We were at this one place, one of the colleges we were playing in, and Sam was going off. He was doing his thing. And I remember the Iranians wanted to kill him,” Winslow said, with a nervous half-chuckle. “And I’m thinking, ‘Man, come on Sam, you’re my ride home. Be cool, please?’ I go to the bathroom and then I come out and then Iranians are rolling on the floor laughing. How did he do this? The Iranians were on the floor – literally, laughing! I don’t know what he did, I don’t know how he did it – all I know is he was picking on this Pakistani guy. And the Iranians thought that was funny. ”


Larvell Jones from "Police Academy"

Many people loved the “Police Academy” movies because of Larvell Jones, the eccentric character whose sounds turned drove people crazy or turned a scene upside-down, always leaving the audience roaring with laughter. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the original “Police Academy” (the franchise was so successful they eventually produced 7 sequels – an extraordinary feat even in Hollywood cookie cutter formula filmmaking) was the Larvell Jones' opening scene. When Mahoney (Steve Gutenburg) sat down next to Larvell Jones, Winslow is imitating a drum machine, pulsating 80s hip hop rhythms and beats with his voice. The vocal gymnastics were an innovation Winslow created and later came to be known in hip hop culture as “beatbox.”

“When Jones and Mahoney met for the first time. Jones was doing beatbox. That was 1983, so that made me the first person to ever to record beat box on film,” Winslow says. “I use the phrase, “the founder of modern beatbox.” There were a lot of folks who came out right about the same time, after Police Academy. But that was the first time anybody had ever seen beatbox – and that was a worldwide release of feature film.

“It’s been what it is ever since. Though now, I have to revisit everything, because everything’s come full circle. I will be putting one of those things out, raising the bar again. We’ll freak everybody out again and we’ll see what happens.”

Hip Hop culture generally recognizes Doug E. Fresh as the pioneer of beatbox; his first popular singles “Just Having Fun (Do the Beatbox)” and “The Original Human Beatbox” came out in 1984, and his first album, “Oh, My God” came out in 1986. The first Police Academy movie was also released in 1984, but production on the film was started in 1983.

Winslow constantly has his eye on the horizon, thinking about his next innovation, something that can make his use of sound accessible to as many people as possible. Talking to him, one gets the sense that the new technical developments in digital communication and technology are tailor-made for a world of possibilities that Winslow is currently experimenting with, although he may not be able to predict the evolution our outcome of his ideas. At his home studio near Orlando, Florida, Winslow has already produced some new I-Phone and Android apps that are available for download from his web site. Like most everyone, he hopes his apps will turn heads or catch on virally.

“If there was a way that I could put it in a bottle, I’d like to give it to everyone. Around 1900, that’s what the guy from Coca Cola decided. 'How do I get this thing from the soda fountain to everybody else?' And some guy told him, ‘bottle it.’ That’s what I’m trying to do right now, is figure out, what’s the best way to contain this and use it as and educational tool – entertainment but education too,” Winslow explained. “That’ll probably be through applications through I-phones. It means I’m probably going to have to come up with games for the phones. But we’ll probably end up putting whole shows on there – people are going to be watching TV on their phones.”

Winslow relishes traveling because “sound is universal” and he finds he can reach new audiences across cultural barriers because everyone understands sound, regardless of the language they speak. A recent performance for a national TV program in Brazil charged an audience of 30 million and put Winslow in a “top 10” Twitter feed. Winslow was surprised at the response.

“You would be surprised at what will set people off,” he said, adding that he loved Brazil and hopes to return soon. “So you try to keep the sounds ready to go.”

In order to fine tune his ear and develop his creativity, Winslow has to immerse himself periodically in natural environments that are completely isolated from man-made sounds. His favorite place is Maui, but he also enjoys traveling to Australia and New Zealand, which have natural sound environs that are “very rich in the potential for the soil of creativity.”

Winslow is bullish on his concept of using sound for education. One of his latest projects is a children’s DVD which explores the world and various locations through sound. The pilot program was funded by none other than America’s favorite family and children’s comedian, Bill Cosby.

“All the animals can talk and the puppets have noises and the animals write the checks and that kind of stuff – it’s just nuts! Winslow says, his voice rising in excitement. “I’m taking it to television. I may have to go to all these other countries to shoot the episodes. None of our kids' shows go anywhere. But we actually go there. And I have no problem with actually asking a tiger questions, and I’m sure that the dolphin can show us which way we should go.”

Winslow says he did a few experiments with a scientist to see if he could communicate with animals. According to her measurements, Winslow’s voice was 93 percent similar to a tiger and a crocodile. But it seems his raw ability to communicate with other species needs some development.

“In order for me to speak to the thing I would have to sit with it for a few weeks, and I’d have to learn routines and mannerisms and what hunger means – basically we’d have to get to know each other,” Winslow says. “I know enough to get in trouble, but not enough to get out of trouble. That’s the part I’m learning now.”

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Genius, Vision and Broken Dreams: Remembering Zim Ngqawana

Jazz maestro Zim Ngqawana playing flute on stage.

I was stunned when I learned that Zim Ngqawana, South African jazz musician extraordinaire, passed away a few days ago, on May 10, 2011. Sometimes with musicians, a death can be especially joltng, because somehow we expect the music to always be there, evolving into something that will grow even better with age, like a fine Cabernet. Judging by news reports in the South African media, many South Africans are also deeply saddened to lose their beloved 52 year-old jazz "genius." Perhaps now people will appreciate Zim Ngqawana more like a national treasure, a standard bearer of South Africa's fabulous jazz tradition. To experience Zim Ngqawana live on stage was to witness dazzling talent and exuberance, delivered in a captivating spectrum of arrangements and compositions. Zim would masterfully jump between the flute, saxophone, harmonica, piano and vocals, always with a great ensemble of musicians blending seamlessly with his unique stage presence.

I remember Zim telling me that his musical journey was touched off by a small harmonica his father gave him in a Christmas stocking when he was 4. Zim told me that he had a very strong relationship with his father, who taught him through the best of African oral tradition; on his album sleeves and bios Zim would simply say that he was taught the age-old wisdom of Ubuntu. Zim found it very perplexing and distressing that some people were earning masters' degrees and PhDs by doing dissertations on Ubuntu. He felt that making Ubuntu into an academic subject was an aberration and misrepresented the intuitive understanding that comes from centuries of African tradition.

Zim was a great composer and performer; but through all the year's I'd known him Zim's passion was to teach and expound upon South African music to as many earnest students as he could find. He envisioned a new generation of artists that would be multi-instrumentalists like himself, each with their own musical proclivities, but all being taught music theory and piano as a foundation. He wanted to create a musical pedagogy, instead of expecting young people to pick up individual instruments and learn music on their own. Building his audience and touring throughout Africa, Europe and the United States, Zim realized his dream by eventually buying a farm outside of Johannesburg and establishing his Zimology Institute where he trained talented artists. But criminals broke into his farm in December of last year, and besides stealing personal possessions, they vandalized Zim's studio equipment and broke the piano legs to his two prize grand pianos.

"This was an attempt to break us. I was demoralized see the grand pianos worth half a million lying flat on the ground," Zim said. "The souls of the people have been vandalized. What kind of criminal doesn't know the value of a piano?"

The spiteful thieves who broke Zim's pianos, broke his heart and his dream. Beyond anything material, the grand pianos and the Zimology Institute were part of Zim's passion to transmit and preserve the beauty of South African jazz for future generations. Zim may never have fully recovered from this transgression, this deep wound - it was like an attack on his soul and the goodness he was trying to create in the world.

With Zim gone, we have to find more fundis and griots to purvey the oral wisdom and human imagination that our world so desperately needs. Zim always believed that his music was medicine, his music was a kind of healing balm. Zim's 1999 album, was called Ingoma. The Zulu and Xhosa word for song is "ingoma," which also means "medicine;" a "sangoma" is a traditional healer or medicine man. African languages have many words with multiple integrated intuitive meanings like that. Zim understood that he was a shaman, and his intention was to teach and share in a broad vision for the future. His music will always be with us, but it seems his dream has been mortally denigrated by the banality of jealousy, envy and greed. Hamba kakuhle, my dear bra Zim! Sizabonana kwakhona, umhlobo wam. Kwahkhona.


Tribute to Zim Nqawana in The Sowetan

Jazz giant Ngqawana is no more

May 11, 2011 | Edward Tsumele | 47 comments

SOUTH African jazz giant Zim Ngqawana died yesterday morning and was buried last night.

The country has lost a musical genius

Ngqawana, real name Zimasile, died at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg after suffering a major stroke.

He was 51 years old and is survived by his wife and six children.

Ngqawana was billed to perform at the Wits Great Hall on Saturday but suffered a stroke and collapsed during rehearsals at his home in Troyeville, Johannesburg.

Prominent South African jazz musicians will now perform at Wits on Saturday to commemorate "The Life and Times of Zim Ngqawana".

The jazz giant, known for his uncompromising attitude, was admitted to the hospital on Monday according to a statement released yesterday by his family.

"While rehearsing for his upcoming concert at the Wits Great Hall scheduled for Saturday, he succumbed to a major stroke.

"He was buried according to Muslim tradition last night at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg."

Ngqawana, who took his career seriously, created some of the most-valued and sophisticated pieces of music which was embraced by serious jazz lovers.

Mixing African folklore and complex jazz arrangements, Ngqawana was both a pioneer and originator of a deep-rooted sound that came to be known as Zimology.

Ngqawana is especially respected for his first album called Zimology. The album created raised the bar in South African jazz.

Ngqawana graduated in jazz studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He later organised a group of local musicians who received formal training in jazz studies from universities in the country.

Ngqawana performed in Europe, the US and other countries.

Promoter Peter Tladi told Sowetan that the country has lost more than just a musician.

"Zim was a friend who subsequently became a godfather to my son.

"Just two weeks ago we were together in Cape Town where he performed at the funeral of another prominent musician. He told me that he was working on a proposal for the Joy of Jazz and we were both excited by the proposal, and now this.

"This makes one wonder why our musicians are dying like this," an emotional Tladi said.

Tladi's company, T-Musicman, promotes the popular Joy of Jazz Concert that normally takes place in August. Ngqawana would have performed at the festival.

Gauteng MEC for sport, arts, culture and recreation Lebogang Maile said, "The country has lost a musical genius and the music industry is poorer.

"Zim's passing must serve as a reminder to everyone, especially the youth about the rich heritage we have.

"His music, including masterpieces such as Qhula Kwedini will continue to inspire many in the performing arts. Condolences to his family.''

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Awakening the Third Eye: Seeing the Earth's Planetary Etheric Field

I'm thinking of a dimension of physics and our perception of nature, connected to our Earth's sky and atmosphere, where "metaphysics" is a realm between the tangible and the intangible... When I learned about Nick Risinger's work - he created a special mount of rotating cameras to capture the night sky, and traveled 45,000 miles by air and 15,000 by land to create a composite of the celestial sphere surrounding our Earth - I was astounded. Looking at his images inspired me to post a essay I wrote several years ago about a perceptual exercise or process for seeing the Earth's energy field, which is subtle in nature and not unlike Risinger's image of the Milky Way, forms a kind of oval band shape around the Earth's ecliptic. That seems to be the universal form of heavenly bodies, moons, planets, stars and galaxies, as they extend and bend gravitational fields.

Perceiving the Earth's Etheric Field

In the very first Star Wars series viewers are introduced to a continual theme of "The Force." Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as "an energy field created by all living things, that surrounds and penetrates living beings and binds the galaxy together." In Indian traditions the concept is referred to "prana" and in Taoism and Chinese traditions it is referred to as "chi." Theosophists and some Western traditions refer to it as the ether, or the etheric field. These subtle energies and frequencies of light are said to be present at the edge of the visible spectrum of light, surrounding living things, and under certain conditions one can even seen this field in the sky, around our planet. I wrote this exercise to help people see this energy phenomena, and to develop more of an appreciation of the mysterious beauty of the natural world we live in.

This perceptual process/meditative practice can help one develop etheric vision, and extend that vision beyond our immediate terrestrial surroundings into seeing the etheric field of the atmosphere of the Earth itself. It is essentially a mystical experience that also helps us develop a deeper connection and sensitivity to the Earth and our celestial environment.

The best time to do this exercise is a day before the Full Moon, because the position of the Moon on the eastern horizon opposite the Sun setting in the west increases the reflection of the light of the Sun's rays, bending the Sun's light in the Earth's atmosphere, which in turn heightens the visual conditions for seeing the etheric field. From another perspective, one can say the Full Moon expands the Sun's light and its aura, which makes the planetary etheric field more visible. You can still do this exercise at sunset during any phase of the Moon, at any time of the year, although the day before the Full Moon is the best day. (Just as a point of note, the day before the Full Moon is also one the best times to see or photograph a sunset; if the sky is clear, invariably the Moon's position will capture the Sun's rays, yielding a bright orange sky.)

To try this exercise, you need to take about an hour and a half or so at sunset, depending on the time that you start the meditation. You should try this exercise in a park or out in a rural area, away from too many distractions of city lights, noise, buildings, etc. Just as the sun is setting, face southwest, in the general direction of the sunset, and start looking at the trees, bushes and shrubs around you. After the sun sets and shadows start to blur the outlines of the trees, allow your eyes to focus on the area around one particular tree. You may see a fuzzy energy or a hazy flickering of light around the tree, extending from its outline into the body of the tree, which is the tree's etheric field. As you begin to sense and perceive this flickering energy around the tree, allow your eyes to move along the outline of the tree to another nearby tree or shrub, again perceiving the flickering outline of energy. As you move your eyes around the outline of the trees and shrubs, you will see more of the etheric field of nature around you. The etheric fields of the trees, plants, shrubs, etc., blend and merge into each other.

After you developed some perception and sensitivity to the etheric field, from time to time look up at the sky after the sun has set. Look at the etheric fields of the plant life around you as they blend into each other, and then look toward the horizon and up at the sky, as it grows darker with the sunset. Try to see the Sun's rays extending after the Sun has gone below the horizon, and remember that you are seeing the Sun's aura in the form of those rays. Some sunset rays are more brilliant and visible, refracting from cloud formations and atmospheric conditions, and other sunset rays are less visible, but consciously trying to see and visualize them helps to build your etheric vision. (On the day before the Full Moon tends to be the rays of the sunset tend to be brighter than at any other time, depending on cloud conditions.) In particular, look at the ecliptic, the general path the sun follows through the sky during the day. As the sky gets darker you will notice one or two stars coming out while the sky is still somewhat a medium hue of blue; this is the light of the planets piercing the Earth's atmosphere. Keep moving your eyes between the terrestrial etheric fields you are seeing around you and the planetary light that has pierced the sky. Depending on what planets are visible, you might typically see Venus first, and then maybe Mars, Jupiter or Saturn, depending on time of the year and what planets are visible above the horizon at that time. Sometimes the star Sirius is also visible in the general area of the ecliptic, as one of the brightest heavenly bodies appearing after sunset. If you look in the region where the planets are to be seen, you'll see that they fall into alignment in the general region of the Sun's path through the sky.

As you see the planets' light pierce the Earth's atmosphere, look for a subtle connection between the light of the planets and ecliptic, where the sun has passed through the sky. Continually move your eyes back and forth between the outline of the trees and shrubs around you, and the swath of space where the planets are appearing in the night sky, along the path of the Sun. When you look back at the planets in the sky, consciously try to look through your third eye, and see a swath of energy that is somewhat similar to the energy you saw around the trees and shrubs. Allow your eyes to shift focus from your more immediate field of vision to include peripheral vision, but focused through your mind and your third eye. As the stars come out, you may see or sense a dimension of energy extending along the pathway in the sky that you have been looking at. This dimension of energy is the planetary etheric field, or more correctly, it is actually the etheric field of the Sun, as it extends around and embodies our Earth and the other planets in the solar system. But since we are on Earth, we perceive it as our Earth's planetary etheric field. But it is actually an extension of the Sun's etheric field, and just like the etheric fields of the trees and plants in our terrestrial environment blend together, so too does the Earth's planetary etheric field blend together with the Solar etheric field.

The etheric dimension is the gateway to higher perception, and it is the dimension where we begin to experience that everything in the Universe is One, part of the same Life Force and energy field.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Zap Mama, Marie Daulne and 1000 Ways of African Expression


Zap Mama, Marie Daulne and 1000 Ways of African Expression

In the mid-90s, Vusi Khumalo, one of Africa’s most accomplished percussionists, turned me on to an album that was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Vusi was one of the original South African musicians that Paul Simon collaborated with on his phenomenal breakthrough album, Graceland. Having traveled and performed with some of the world’s most talented artists, Vusi couldn’t say enough good things about a group of female artists playing in a band called Zap Mama. When he played their CD, Seven, I was enamored by a sound that was deeply African yet permeated with experimental jazz, rock, reggae and even hip hop influences, all held together by an incredible female vocal ensemble that fused rhythm and voice into something that blurred the boundaries of music, language, lyrics and beats. It was like beat boxing meets Ella Fitzgerald, Fela Kuti, Ziggy Marley and Weather Report. Truly fresh.

I came to learn that many of South Africa’s top artists – musicians that are attuned to the best that jazz and African music had to offer, loved Zap Mama. It seemed that Zap Mama and the group’s founder and lead vocalist, Marie Daulne, were musicians’ musicians, not particularly widely known or popular with mass audiences, but deeply appreciated for their creative talent and innovative avant-garde African style. Zap Mama evoked many emotional responses in me; their ambient harmonies, danceable grooves, thoughtful lyrics and flashy jazz riffs were soothing and exciting, charming and subtle - yet sometimes downright funky. To hear Zap Mama is to experience Africa’s music in a whole new dimension.

Zap Mama’s founder, Marie Daulne, was born in 1964 in Congo-Kinshasha, to an African mother and a Belgian father who was killed in a Simba tribal revolt during the early turbulent years of Congo's independence. Marie’s mother escaped with her one-week old infant into the jungle, where they were protected by Pygmies before eventually being airlifted to Belgium, where Marie was raised as a Belgian citizen. With interests in painting, gymnastics and martial arts, Marie was growing into a dynamic teenager when she began to feel an inner desire to know more about the mysteries surrounding her birth. At 18 Marie returned to Africa (at that time, Zaire) and she was attracted to Pygmy traditional onomatopoeic vocals and intrigued by cultural experiences that awakened something ancestral in her spirit. She began having “all these voices in my head” and hearing “things I’m not used to.” The strange sounds and voices spawned a creative urge for musical expression that gradually led her to form Zap Mama after she returned to Brussels.


Zap Mama began performing in 1989 and in 1991 released its first album, Zap Mama, in Belgium. A year later the group was performing in New York and met David Byrne, who convinced them to re-release their album as Adventures in Afropea 1, on Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop Records. By the end of 1992 Adventures in Afropea 1 became a top selling album on Billboard’s World Music Chart and the group was basking in the excitement of developing a new worldwide audience. But Zap Mama left Luaka Bop after the success of Adventures in Afropea 1 because of artistic differences and Daulne’s desire to resist being marketed as a pop girl band. Through 6 albums over the next 15 years, Daulne and Zap Mama would evolve their music into a more sophisticated, multifaceted sound with a wider range of instruments and less emphasis on a cappella vocals.


With 2007’s Supermoon Zap Mama is once again in top form, enchanting audiences and new fans with their enticing vision of musical possibilities. Daulne remains determined to follow her own creative path, and is finding her influence and music continues to grow with a new generation of followers. During our telephone interview, Daulne was relaxed and very comfortable talking about her music, even though English is not her first language; her voice glides beautifully, with great warmth and sensitivity, much like her fascinating singing. She was very open about her life experiences, and perhaps is somewhat astonished or amazed that her unique creativity is loved and respected by many well-known musicians around the world.

"Sweet Melody"
Ancestry in Progress
Luaka Bop, 2004

JA: Can you tell me about what “Supermoon” means for you, and what you would like it to mean for others?

MD: I want people to discover a new way of appreciation. I guess I have always understood jazz as an example of someone, an example of the person who made it. A lot of people focus on what something looks like from what is outside, but what about just feeling what you, personally, are born for? Every human being has their own way to enjoy life and really define by themselves what is true for them. I would call them a “Supermoon.” The word “super” means something that is very good, and is full of life. There is only one Moon, in the middle of all these stars in the sky – being a Moon is being true to oneself.

And also I suppose I want to think of myself as very feminine, very beautiful and elegant and it’s super – I mean my heart. My music never follows one kind of music, one genre. I always feel what I want to feel. Sometimes I play reggae, sometimes I do jazz, sometimes I play funk, and I think people can appreciate each one. My sound is unique, and my sound can speak to a lot of people in different genres, because if you hear with an open mind you can understand completely different genres. My own music is really different and a lot of people like it, because my music doesn’t fit only one description.

JA: What were some of the highlights for you in putting the Supermoon album together?

MD: To be true again, I think I’ve arrive into a maturity, and there is no “way” for me to try to do things. I mean, I’m not saying that I want to hand this to people and I’m going to make this album for them to appreciate. I will do what I appreciate. I really feel that if it is good for me I know it will be liked by others, and others will appreciate it.

We are all the same – we are all human beings, we are reaching for the same things and we want the same things …. And I’m not shy to express my emotions. Sometimes we have feelings in life that hurt you and make you react; sometimes they make you feel personally very nervous about creating a song. I will give you an example. I lost my best friend two years ago, and I was very, very harmed and hurt. As a woman in this society at my age something like this can be very painful. I felt so lonely, too lonely – it paralyzed my life – I couldn’t do anything. And when I decided to get the courage to go into the studio – at the end of the session I just found that it was amazing.

JA: Does pain or deep emotion drive a lot of your musical creativity?

MD: Yes; in the beginning I didn’t like that. People want to buy my music, and that’s nice, but why would I put my personal life in public – everybody has their own personal life. But then I started to realize that maybe I am more like a songwriter; songwriters write songs and people can identify themselves in the sound of their music. My personal life can be an example through music. If people like my music and can identify their emotions through my emotions, then why not? “Moonray” was that way. That was very hard, going back to this sadness – it was so hard. I would have to stop and I would start crying, and I was very embarrassed because the engineer was there.

A lot of songs come to me that way, like “Hey Brother.” It was 4 in the morning when Michael Franti and me went into the studio and we planned to do a song called “Bodia,” about people taking time to improve their lives. And we said forget about the audience – what about us, who are you and me, what happens between us? And the song became “Hey Brother” – it was just happiness, like when you receive an ice cream and it’s very hot outside. You have an ice cream and it’s something simple and fresh; there was real emotion there, accompanying the song. That song is deep, it is a real thing we have between us. Mike and me, yes, we are friends – and beautiful friends – and we did this song “Hey Brother, Hey Sister” and we really enjoyed it.

JA: Yes that’s a very nice song and I can feel the friendship and the feeling of a man and a woman supporting each other. How would you describe your creative process in terms of how your compositions come to you and how you write and create your music?

MD: I have no idea! Songs come in my head, music, melodies, harmonies – I feel it. And it’s like my melodies are turning in my head, turning around and around and around and they want to go out. They say, ‘Can I get out of here?’ And I say, ‘Okay, okay, okay’ and I run into the studio and whew – I get the melodies out like they are. It’s like I have a conversation with my own music. I started music at a very early age and I had so many ideas. I have this music in my head and I keep struggling and then Monday morning a song is there with a melody and the words. I have no idea how the music comes to me, because I’m just born like that.

JA: When was the last time you were in the Congo and how often do you travel there? Do you have a strong feeling for the music scene in Kinshasha and other parts of the Congo?

MD: No, not especially. For me it was important because I wanted to know who my father was, because he was killed when I was born, and I wanted to go back there to see where I was born. I was 18, and I said, “Bye bye now, it’s my time.” And after this I went back to Belgium and I decided to discover the world. And I asked, “What do I have? I have Belgian culture, I have European culture and I have received African culture through my mom, and I said, ‘I have this, what can I do with this?’ Play with what you know, what you received.” And that’s it. From there I opened myself to the rest of the world. For me Congo is not especially my nation – I don’t feel nationalist at all. I’m really an internationalist. I don’t really know my family in Congo. My family is in Belgium and my home is Belgium. But if all my family moved to the United States, I would feel home is the United States. But I don’t feel like I fit in one place.

Sometimes people want to see where they are born and they are very attached to their land. And I can understand that people are attached to land and that kind of beauty, but I don’t feel that. I think we human beings can attach ourselves anywhere. I’ve always tried to find the perfect place to live. Like when I’m in New York, I saw, “Oh wow, I love to live in New York.” And when I’m in Brazil, I say, “This is a place I would like to live.” I love the Earth. I need nature; I need very beautiful scenery around me.

JA: How often do you travel between Belgium and the US?

MD: I’m here every month.

JA: Really? I didn’t realize it was that often.

MD: Yes, I moved here to the US two times and I lived here for three years, and then I went back for my kids to be able to stay with their grandma, and their auntie and uncle. That was an easy decision for me, to tell you the truth, because I travel a lot and my kids need to know their cousins, and they are attached to their family. And then I decided to come and produce my music in the US, and my record label, Telarc is here. I’m like a businessman or a businesswoman traveling between Europe and New York.

JA: When I first heard of Zap Mama, I heard about your music through musicians from South Africa. Your music is one of the most respected music among Black artists or African-influenced artists. But maybe I’m behind on these things, but I don’t get the sense that many Americans know about Zap Mama. Maybe in New York City they know Zap Mama more. Maybe you can describe the difference between your audience in the United States and your audience in Europe?

MD: I think I have audiences everywhere – underground audiences everywhere. I don’t have a place where I’m especially bigger, maybe in some cities, places in California and New York. According to what the label said, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the main places; and Brussels, Belgium and Paris for sure – I have a little bit of an audience everywhere. But it’s always underground in certain cities – not countries – like Paris, Amsterdam and London. I can always keep traveling and there is an audience that is always following me, always discovering me.

JA: Do you find that your audience is growing rapidly by this underground contact and word of mouth?

MD: Yes. But the only problem with underground audience is they give (away) copies of my music – they don’t always buy music if they like it. But if they like to have art they should support artists and buy their music.

JA: I think some people from Congo might see your music as being more mainstream, while other people would see your music as more complex, blending different genres. I find that difference of perception interesting.

MD: I think my music is more avant-garde than mainstream. Some of the ideas we’ll think of 10 years after now, when we see what Timbaland introduced into hip hop music – he used sounds from world music – will be finding its way into the mainstream. I remember being in the beat box world, and what I brought 10 years ago - finally now I see its meaning. My music is advanced reality because I’m like Timbaland, or David Byrne – we can hear new music and we produce that work, and the way we present it to the audience is special. I’m really serving art and culture and people are inspired by what I do. Even Erykah Badu told me, “You’re an inspiring woman.”

JA: And do you do see your influence reflected in Erykah Badu’s music? Or did she just tell you that and you didn’t see your influence in her music before?

MD: Erykah said, “It’s because of you and your concept that helped me find something in me.” And yes, after she explained to me why she got certain parts of her songs, then I said, “Okay, now I get it.”

JA: I think my musician friends in South Africa felt that you have a kind of deep influence on very talented musicians. Would you agree?

MD: Yes. I didn’t know I was influencing them, but now I see it and it’s true, I agree. People listen to other famous people for examples, and music is supposed to be like that. You give a young person this dream to follow what they want to do. I focus on my way, and it works; after all these years I’ve been successful all over the world and then I realize that, Bobby McFerrin, Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau and all these big names from the jazz world, they appreciate my music. I realized that I had something special because I didn’t just go to them; they come to me and appreciate what I do.

JA: What artists or musicians do you like to listen to, and who gives you inspiration?

MD: There are so many… The first music I was listening to was jazz, the second music was funk; and when I say jazz, I would say Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, people who are very classical, basic jazz music, and Louis Armstrong and doo-wop. I identified myself with American jazz themes because as a Black European I didn’t really compare myself to the African community; I think I was attracted more by the Americans, maybe because of the Western mentality. I like old movies and musicals. I also listened to Neil Young and Graham Nash, Supertramp, Genesis and other things; with the guitar we were influenced by Bob Marley and Cream. And then later I was attracted by again by jazz, but more modern jazz like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. I also listened to Kraftwerk, Art of Noise, and then later James Brown and hip hop.

JA: When would you say you discover James Brown?

MD: When I was an acrobat and I when I was in my 20s we would go out to parties and dance. James Brown was my man! And when I started to do a capella things I realized that I could do funk with my voice. And I started thinking, what can I find in funk – it’s fun, it makes you dance and it grooves – and I thought, how can I do that with a band, with all these voices? My second album (Sabsylma), for me that was funk. And people would say, “There was no funk in there.” But it’s my description of funk –t’s fun, fresh and it grooves. I can’t move like James Brown, but I can do that with my voice.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat?

President Obama and members of his administration observe the U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's compound (AP)

The May 1, 2011 assassination of Osama Bin Laden has conferred new prestige to Barack Obama's presidency and of course, his poll numbers are bound to go up. His ‘gutsy” decision and the success of the Navy SEALs operation has become a history-making moment defining his presidential legacy, much to the chagrin of his Republican detractors and right-wing pundits. It’s quite interesting that the covert action has taken place within a week of the President releasing his "long form" birth certificate, as the wild cacophony of the “birthers” and Donald Trump the “carnival barker” became an increasingly absurd distraction. Many of Obama’s supporters felt the birth certificate decision was needless capitulation to crazy conspiracy theorists who will never accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama simply because he is African-American. The cloud of fabricated propaganda and distortion was so extreme that even CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schiefer stated that there was an“an ugly strain of racism” underlying Trump's courting of the birther movement.

Many Americans seem unable to move beyond seeing Barack Obama through a compulsive reactive filter of race. Rush Limbaugh may not be a birther, but he can’t bring himself to give Barack Obama any credit for his leadership or any role he played in bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. The bold decision to target Bin Laden inside Pakistan is certainly confounding birthers, as they will be forced to spin more elaborate conspiratorial delusions to ease their own cognitive dissonance. Their (temporary) silence is deafening right now. On the other hand, many of Obama’s supporters on the left are confounded by their own perception of Barack Obama as a symbol of change. They feel deeply betrayed on progressive causes like a public option or single-payer national health plan, extensions of the Bush tax cuts, gun control, environmental regulation, expansion of the war in Afghanistan and many other issues. (To be fair, Obama expounded his views on Afghanistan during the 2008 campaign, but current critics probably didn't listen carefully enough to his speeches.) It seems on both sides of the divide, Obama has become an enigma, as identity politics obfuscates the realities of a human personality attempting to navigate powerful special interests that inevitably weigh on the office of the President and his administration.

Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat?

Judas Goat: noun 1) A goat that is trained to lead other animals to being slaughtered, to the point where the Judas goat is allowed to pass safely

Since his historic inauguration on January 20, 2009, I’ve observed Barack Obama’s presidency with a perceptive analysis that has almost felt like unveiling a mysterious prophecy. Two years into his term, Barack Obama’s public persona, gravitas and his poll ratings look vastly different than what most of us might have expected from the exultant optimism surrounding his election. With tremendous criticism and disillusionment from liberal and progressive supporters and a mid-term election “shellacking” by Republicans and the Tea Party movement, Obama seems to be operating from an obscure no-man’s land where no one seems to know or recognize the charismatic leader who made so many grand promises in the name of hope.

In 2008 my friend Andrew P. Jones published his brilliant book, Barack Obama: America’s Savior or Judas Goat: The Diary of a Mad Black Voter. He wrote the book while living as an expatriate in South Africa, keenly observing the elections and being fascinated by the prospect of America electing its first Black President. While the concept may have seemed unlikely in 2005, Obama’s 2008 campaign awakened many people to the idea that the United States is changing and perhaps entering into a new “post-racial” era. Indeed, the inauguration itself was a mass event that the vast majority of Americans openly celebrated as a historic transformation. But Andrew’s book was written as something of a warning to Americans to not confuse Barack Obama as a symbol of racial achievement with the actual constraints of Barack Obama as a human being contending with overwhelming forces beyond his control. Barack Obama the man could end up inadvertently compromising and selling out key aspects of his own progressive agenda, because in the euphoria of electing a Black President his followers could be caught unaware of the dangerous pitfalls of politics and pragmatic policy decisions.

In 2011, the question of whether Barack Obama is really “America’s Savior or Judas Goat” is more prescient than ever. So many people, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, feel deeply betrayed by Obama on many issues. From health care and a public option to gun control, the environment and energy, Obama has disappointed vast numbers of his supporters and abdicated many of his campaign promises. It seems that Americans – and perhaps African Americans in particular – are gradually awakening to dealing with Obama apart from being a symbol of change, but as a real politician, with personal weaknesses and actions that belie his lofty rhetoric. During the 2008 campaign, Andrew Jones was trying to get Americans to ask these very questions, even before that extraordinary historical inauguration day. He was encouraging everyone to be a mad Black voter - to pressure their elected representatives and to demand the changes they seek.

A remarkably far-sighted thinker, Andrew sought to stimulate a broad-based discussion with his ideas, so he sent copies of his book to a wide range of people on all sides of the political spectrum, including John McCain, Rush Limbaugh, Jesse Jackson, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and of course, Barack Obama. He didn’t really have an agenda; he simply wanted to cut through illusory public perceptions and elevate the dialogue around the potential and meaning of an Obama Presidency.

Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat
Diary of a Mad Black Voter

Andrew P. Jones © 2008. Black Earth Press, Johannesburg.

Andrew was a brilliant journalist and television producer, a truly insightful, talented and intelligent man. But the world has lost a great light, as sadly, Andrew committed suicide on October 20, 2010. I believe something has died in all of us who knew Andrew, and something deep and profound in our humanity. Andrew is not with us to help raise the right questions as we confront the paradoxes of Obama’s presidency and the challenges of a world reeling from oil spills, nuclear contamination, economic uncertainties and revolutionary conflicts.

I cannot explain in words what my extraordinary friend Andrew meant to me. Shortly after I first met him, Andrew scooped the South African media and international press agencies with an interview with Dr. Wouter Basson, detailing the CIA’s involvement with South Africa's apartheid chemical and biological warfare atrocities. Beyond his serious political views, Andrew was bright, funny and warm, a great pleasure to be with. He was a virtuoso violinist who played heavenly music daily for the pure joy of his art, and it was oddly beautiful to see a Black man so thoroughly entranced in the classical genre. On certain beautiful, clear sunny days Andrew would take me on short flights around Johannesburg, as he was thrilled to share his skill as an aviator after earning his pilot’s license. His son Cochise and my son Morris were the same age and played together and became childhood buddies. Andrew's wife Kubeshni was a very kind friend who worked together with me in designing media promotional material for the South African Gender Commission. Andrew and I worked on scripts and treatments for SABC (South Africa's main public broadcaster) and we spent hours in his home editing suite or at the Congress of South African Trade Union's (COSATU) media department. I knew Andrew for more than 10 years and I often sought his advice about virtually all of the personal challenges, achievements and setbacks I experienced.

In honor of Andrew, I would simply ask that people continue to confront the questions and paradoxes of Obama’s presidency, as these questions really represent are our own American paradoxes, our own dilemma in this rapidly transforming world. Our leaders are an extension our active involvement with government, and the voices of democracy are precious, whether in America or the Middle East or Tibet or Cote d’Ivoire or Zimbabwe. If a movement toward more critical, grass roots participation in politics were to manifest in 2012 and coming elections, I know my friend would be smiling, as if his cautionary message was received and understood. I would also ask that we open our hearts and extend loving compassion to everyone who may cross our life path, because we never know what someone may be struggling with, or what difference we personally can make.


Shocking and tragic end to activists' incredible life

by Brian Wright O’Connor

Andrew Philemon Jones didn’t just play the violin, he made it sing. Horsehair bow flying over the strings, resin rising like smoke, he’d walk around the room, coaxing notes and chords from the fragile shell that came at you in a wall of sound.

Throughout the performance, his eyes would peer out over the lacquered wood, gauging the effect of his solo symphony as his digits ran up and down the fingerboard. A wry smile completed the picture of Andrew in his glory, provoking with music before setting down his beloved violin to provoke you with ideas.

In all the years I knew Andrew, he was a gentle soul – angry at injustice towards humanity but possessing a great love towards humans. News of the manner of his death in South Africa came as a shock. In late October, after an argument with his estranged wife – the mother of their three young sons – Andrew left their office, returned with a handgun, and fired one bullet. The shot went through her shoulder. He pulled the trigger a second time. The gun jammed. Andrew killed himself after she fled from the room. He was 58 years old.

Andrew had battled demons but demons could hardly explain or condone such a violent end.

Friends and family who attended his funeral in Johannesburg, the city where Andrew had started a new life after leaving Boston in 1995, were similarly shocked. His wife, Kubeshni Govender Jones, was sufficiently recovered to attend the services, as were their boys – Cochise, Sicelo, and Ayanda.

Many Bostonians may remember Andrew as the driving force behind the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project (GRIP) – the movement for the secession of Boston’s African American neighborhoods into a new municipality. The 1986 referendum campaign attracted national attention and embarrassed the Flynn administration, which mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat a ballot question seen as a vote on the quality of City Hall’s governance of Boston’s black community.

The idea for black self-governance was not a rebuke, however, to the South Boston-born mayor who made racial reconciliation a theme of his administration. It came to Andrew during a stint as an ABC News field producer covering a town hall meeting in Vermont, where the notion of self-determination, deeply stamped into the character and landscape of rural New England, struck in Andrew a resonant chord.
It just seemed to Andrew like the right thing to do. “The right of a people to self-determination cannot be denied,” he often said. “It’s as American as apple pie.”

Working with urban planner Curtis Jones, Andrew launched the campaign in 1985. By the following year, the pair had come up with the name “Mandela” for the municipality in honor of the imprisoned South African leader.

Faced with the hope of self-rule on one hand and predicted financial disaster on the other, voters rejected the question by a 3-1 margin in the midst of national news coverage of the bid for black self-determination.

Andrew was “crushed” by the loss but acknowledged that GRIP should have been hatched at kitchen tables in Roxbury rather than over linen table cloths at the Harvard Faculty Club. Joyce Ferriabough, who ran the opposition campaign, respected Andrew’s passion but questioned his judgment. After hearing Andrew grumbling about Flynn’s “plantation politics,” Joyce confronted him.

“How do you want your ass-kicking?” she asked. “Over easy or well done?”

Andrew just laughed. “You had to hand it to him,” said Joyce. “He had a sense of humor.”

Andrew had first come to New England as a child of the segregated Creighton Court projects in Richmond, Va. – a violin prodigy plucked from the banks of the James River and sent by the program A Better Chance to the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was a varsity football player and wrestler and played in the school orchestra.

Andrew loved competition. He thrived on full contact – physical and political. In music, it probably explained his love of Beethoven, the sweeping contrasts and plunging moods of a score in constant struggle.

After graduating from Exeter in 1970, he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, but concert halls and recording studios couldn’t contain his searching mind and restless spirit. He got a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1982 and set out to use the media to change the world. Or, as a more seasoned Andrew put it later, “I switched from one form of entertainment to another.”

The inevitable clash occurred when ABC sent an executive to the network’s Prudential Tower suite to advise bureau employees, who had long complained about strange fibers in the office air, not to talk to the press about asbestos dust falling from the ceiling. Andrew laughed at the man in the suit and denounced the network in public.

The end of Andrew’s network producing career gave rise to a successful run as an agent provocateur seeding intellectual sedition through documentary films. In segments for public television stations around the country, including many first aired on Boston’s WGBH-TV, Andrew told the story of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, captured the growing pains of Russia in the first gasps of post-Soviet life, and conducted pioneering interviews with the reclusive leaders of North Korea.

He broadcast reports from Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Jordan, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Mexico and Zimbabwe. He picked up a New England Regional Emmy and scores of film awards along the way. His segments aired on NBC, Black Entertainment Television, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the PBS Network and Russia’s TASS News Agency.

When leaving Russia after his last trip to Moscow, security stopped him at the airport gate, suspecting that the black American with the Homey the Clown haircut had illicitly obtained the expensive, 19th century violin in his possession. A burly guard came to escort him to a private room for questioning.

Andrew held up his hand. “Now wait a minute, fellas,” he said. “Just give me a chance.” Andrew removed the instrument from its battered case and tightened up the bow. Cascading notes from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major spilled from the strings. Andrew smiled his smile. A crowd of spectators, drawn by the bravura performance, applauded. The apparatchiks shook his hand and let him board.

In all his travels, Andrew did not just report history, he participated in it as an unabashed advocate, unafraid to show his political stripes. Hours before filming the first salvo of bombs falling on Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991, he was playing violin as a guest musician with Iraq’s national orchestra.

In 1989, Andrew interviewed members of Manual Noriega’s government hours before Special Forces troops assaulted the Panama leader’s barracks headquarters. Leaving Panama City with his precious video, he came upon American soldiers engaged in a firefight and barely escaped strafing machine-gun bullets when they turned their weapons on his approaching vehicle.

In 1995, Andrew left behind his U.S. producing career and a teaching post at Northeastern to move to South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s homeland and a society busy re-inventing itself.

He was one of the first black men to earn a pilot’s license in the republic. On the media front, he turned his critical eye to the faltering promises of the ANC government, which brought political but not economic empowerment to the masses of poor blacks still living in townships. He produced programs for South African television and in the course of his work met Kubeshni Govender, a talented media professional who helped launch their own company, Black Earth Communications.

After marrying and starting a family, Andrew and Kubeshni ran a successful media and production business, interrupted at times by Andrew’s focus on a crusade to protect “reproductive choices for men.” His “Fathers Bill of Rights” campaign grew out of his own bitter experience as a father forced to pay child support for a daughter born in the 1980s whom the mother and the courts would not allow him to see.

Andrew’s decision to force the issue in a 2003 Massachusetts Probate Court appearance led to a 40-day sentence at the Suffolk County House of Corrections for refusing to pay arrearages. Typical of Andrew, jail-time proved to be more educational than punitive, opening up his eyes to the reality of the prison-industrial complex and the sometimes whimsical power of the law.

In the dedication to his provocative 2009 book, “Diary of a Mad Black Voter,” Andrew offered special thanks to the judge and prosecutor who put him behind bars “and ignored everything I had to say about freedom of choice, justice, liberty, father’s rights, the illness of my sons, the safety of my family, and dignity. For had you not done so I would have been cheated out of the most special 40 days and nights of my life.”

The book, a searing examination of the Barack Obama candidacy as either a redemptive opportunity for black America or a cruel illusion, was based in part on his perceptions of the ANC’s failure to bring real change to the struggling poor of South Africa. In writing the book, Andrew thought back to his cameo role playing boxing promoter Don King’s aide in the movie “Ali.”

Zelig-like, Andrew was in Maputo, Mozambique, at the time of the 2001 filming and found himself in front of the cameras.

“One night, Michael Mann the director decided to replace 30,000 black Mozambicans, who were supposed to be spectators watching the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ with cardboard cutouts flown in from Hollywood,” wrote Andrew.

“My thought was ‘This is deep.’ All these people replaced just like that by cardboard figurines that actually looked better than the people did in the final movie. So that’s when it hit me that all of us regular people – black, white, yellow, whatever – walk a tightrope between what is real and what isn’t in our media-drive society. And at any time ‘mediarchical’ forces can replace any of us with cardboard cutouts.”

Andrew struggled against forces most people took for granted. He questioned everything.

Reflecting on Andrew’s life, Kubeshni recalled her husband’s belief in “Gaia,” the concept of Earth as a living organism on which mankind has become a threatening rather than benign and integrated presence. “Despite his reverence of Gaia – the living spirit of the planet – he came to believe that his way in life was to fight for everything all the time,” she wrote.

“In adopting this stance, he missed out on the blessings that were his from the start. I pray that our boys are always able to pause and still their emotional beings long enough to hear the tone of the universe, to realize the sound of peace and love that we are born with despite the trials that life will bring us.”

The last major work of Andrew’s long career as a political and media gadfly was a feature film completed just weeks before his death. The final scene was shot in the same cemetery where his body was cremated.

The film left Andrew frustrated because he had no luck finding a distributor willing to release it.

That failure came after he had come close to fulfilling a long-held dream of media self-determination. Black Earth Communications had won a valuable satellite TV license from the Botswana Telecommunications Authority to launch Black Entertainment Satellite Television.

But financing troubles scuttled the effort. “Andrew,” said a friend, “was a visionary but not a businessman.”

Meanwhile, Andrew’s marriage had faltered.

Darkness closed in. The end came after Andrew penned a final message.

“The illusion of death is that it’s final,” he wrote. “It isn’t. There is life after death. Life’s greatest illusion is that the conscious mind resides inside the body. It doesn’t. The truth is that we are avatars.”

If so, then Andrew is still playing that violin, sawing out notes for heavenly hosts, mortals, and avatars alike, his eyes peering across the strings, provoking, searching, and ever restless.

Brian Wright O'Connor's article was reprinted in its entirety from the Bay State Banner .

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Polygamy, a President and a Crisis of Sexual Relations

South African President Jacob Zuma

I like South African President Jacob Zuma far better than his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. At least Zuma doesn’t question the basic link between HIV and AIDS and he seems to show some rhetorical interest in addressing the massive poverty and inequality that plagues South Africa. I’m definitely not trying to deal with South African politics here; in my mind the public life of Zuma and his four wives brings to light a more fundamental issue about the nature of polygamy and its impact on Africa and the Diaspora. Polygamy is intriguingly real and very complicated in Africa, and perhaps Zuma's dilemma raises important questions about the nature of certain polygamous behaviors and their implications, even for African Americans.

Polygamy, a President and a Crisis of Sexual Relations

One of the most bizarre stories to unfold in 2010 was virtually unknown in America and has barely been noticed by the Western media in general. South African president Jacob Zuma – who is married to four women – created plenty of controversy in his country when it was discovered that he fathered a “love child” outside the circle of his official wives. In the Motherland – where polygamy is openly practiced as a part of traditional African culture – the love child infidelity might not be considered unusual. However, the woman's father, wealthy businessman and soccer entrepreneur Irvin Khoza was a family friend and was said to be livid when he heard the news. The friendship has apparently never quite recovered from this betrayal, and the act seemed especially egregious considering that the 67 year old Zuma had just barely escaped conviction after being put on trial for allegedly raping another young female “family friend.” The rape trial – which occurred in the period leading up to Zuma’s presidential inauguration – cast more aspersions on Zuma’s character when Zuma acknowledged that he knew the girl was HIV-positive and had unprotected sex with her anyway. Zuma told the court that he took a shower after the act, believing that it would keep him from contracting the HIV virus, forever sealing his image as a complete fool in the eyes of many South Africans.

Of course, to an American or a European accustomed to Western style democratic elections and intense public scrutiny, the Zuma saga would seem unfathomable. Even with the common acceptance of the diverse cultural and sociological influences that meld into modern South African society, many South Africans themselves – regardless of racial or ethnic background – find Zuma’s presidency somewhat surreal. Beyond his sexual dalliances – in a country that has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, where nearly 1 in every 5 people are HIV positive – Zuma brought even more personal baggage to the presidency. Zuma’s financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of having a “generally corrupt” relationship with Zuma, paying for Zuma’s residences and extravagant lifestyle in exchange for being awarded large government contracts and preferential treatment for his business interests. While Shaik was sentenced to 15 years, Zuma was charged separately and claimed that he looked forward to having his day in court to vindicate his name. But Zuma evaded a trial when a lower court ruled that his predecessor and political foe, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, tried to influence the prosecution of Zuma for his own purposes.

In a country where the vast majority of the population is African and poor, Zuma has a populist appeal as a leader who has risen to presidential power from humble beginnings in rural Zululand. Zuma has definitely demonstrated skill as a coalition builder and diplomat working on some of the most challenging issues in Africa, including the regional conflict in the Congo, which engulfed 7 nations and led to 6 million deaths and unspeakable atrocities. But Zuma’s rise as a politician is complicated by the fact that his personal actions inevitably lead to serious questions about his judgment and intelligence, regardless of the fact that he managed to secure the highest office in South Africa.

Outside of South Africa, the extraordinary dynamics and questions surrounding Zuma’s presidency are rarely discussed, After all, they are not mentioned AC 360 or Larry King Live, and hence for insular Americans, the news barely raises an eyebrow, especially considering the obscurities of South Africa itself. But inside South Africa polygamy is known and practiced – in overt and covert ways – and is discussed and debated in various public forums, in talk radio and other media, especially among Black and African populations. I can remember a particularly fascinating radio show, where one of the female callers spoke emphatically about wanting to be the second wife, because the second wife has the benefits of the first wife without many of the same constraints. She argued that the second wife has more freedom, has to do less work and has to put up with less irritation from the husband’s idiosyncrasies. The telephone dialogue was sincere, animated and fascinating, and I could not believe my ears that a woman was actually saying that she preferred to be a “second” wife! But then again, this is perhaps why some women in the United States or in other Western societies might enjoy having an affair with a married man; they might like the companionship and sex, yet still maintaining a certain distance, freedom and independence.

At a party in Johannesburg, I was once approached by a very beautiful and intelligent South African woman who had earned her Master’s Degree in the States. This sophisticated, professional sister told me that even with her experience in the America, she believed very strongly that there were many things about African traditional culture that were superior to Western society. And this included the idea that a man should have his freedom to be with several women. “There should be one rooster and many hens,” she said.

Another woman I knew told me flat out that she did not believe in traditional monogamy. She thought that polygamy, the way it was practiced by her ethnic group, Zulus, was more functional, if the women knew each other and had an understanding about their relationship with the same man. When I talked about this with an African American friend of mine who had lived in Southern Africa for many years, he just grinned and said, “Yea, those Zulu women – they sure know how to share a man!” And when I broached the subject with a Sotho friend of mine he told me of a traditional Sotho saying that “A man is an axe and he must be shared.”

There are many aspects of African traditional culture that are profound and offer a much-needed balance and wisdom to dominant Western culture. A sense of community, unity and interrelatedness, respect for elders, sharing, gentleness, harmony and peace are African values that at times seem wholly absent from European cultures. African cultures have never demonstrated the aggressiveness and acquisitiveness of Europeans and some people might make the argument that these very qualities allowed Europeans to colonize the parts of Africa where they had significant contact. The differences are palpable, and perhaps hard to fathom without some direct experience in such divergent cultures. Many people who have traveled to or lived in Africa – regardless of their racial background – speak of the love, kindness and humanity of Africa, the consideration children show for elders, and how people treat each other as if they were all part of one family. It is hard to doubt that we would have a more balanced global society if America, Europe and the Western world could manifest some of these positive expressions of African culture.

The Jacob Zuma saga may be an extreme reflection of the need to have a broader dialogue about polygamy and Black relationship patterns within Africa and among African people in the Diaspora. HIV/AIDS is decimating Black populations globally, and one has to wonder about what part monogamy, fidelity or the acceptance of multiple partners plays in the overall picture of what is happening to African people and their future. Please don’t misunderstand me – I like Jacob Zuma, his leadership style and many of the initiatives and policies he is trying to implement. Zuma has the unenviable task of trying to do something about the gross inequities in his nation, appeasing White elites and the business class to attract global trade and investment. In the meantime South Africa faces widespread poverty, not to mention a massive influx of immigrants and refugees from many countries and regions throughout Africa. But regardless of what I think about Zuma’s domestic and foreign policies, my mind keeps wandering back to his personal escapades and the effect they have had on his public image.

On surface appearances, I must admit – polygamy has a certain appeal to me, as a Black male. Why wouldn’t I want to have several wives/girlfriends/lovers, if each of the women was willing to accept my relationship with the others? Maybe the reason why so many marriages fail is because it isn’t natural for a man to just have one partner, and if more people practiced polygamy or an “open marriage” then perhaps that would stem the divorce rate. As someone who has tremendous respect for African traditional culture, it seems reasonable to question some of my own assumptions and societal conditioning about different kinds of relationships, and try to see things from a non-ethnocentric perspective.


Oddly enough, I a neighbor of mine in Denver was from Cameroun, and he married a woman from Wyoming and immigrated to the United States. He explained to me that his father was a chief, and had four wives and 36 children. Before I knew him well I would hear him talking on his cell phone, waving his arms emphatically while talking to his family in Cameroun; it seemed his conversations had a tone of anger and frustration. He later told me that his father had been ill and passed away; he was very sad, and he felt bad that he was not able to do more for his father in his final days. But he also was disenchanted with the internecine conflict between his father’s wives, as they vehemently fought over land and property as he was dying. I never had the chance to ask him in more detail about his personal feelings about polygamy and what it was like growing up in his father’s home; but he was clearly upset by the conflicts between his father's wives.

With regard to African Americans, I can’t help wondering to what degree polygamy or infidelity may be part of deep cultural conditioning that stems from African culture or our more recent cultural history relating to the strain of slavery on the Black family. I like asking this as a rhetorical question, because there are quite a few brothers and sisters who are sharing partners. But in the broader picture of Africa – and perhaps among African Americans – the problems of HIV/AIDS, sexual promiscuity and multiple partners should be considered in the context of polygamy. While some aspects of polygamy are very much a part of African tradition, it could be something that needs more evaluation and dialogue regarding its social impact and the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS.

I certainly don’t have an issue with Jacob Zuma having four wives (although I’m sure some Black women and feminists would). It seems to me that a man who has four wives in a socially-sanctioned polygamous arrangement would have every satisfaction of his whims and fantasies taken care of. Why would Jacob Zuma need to have sex with women outside of his four wives? Perhaps polygamy simply does not offer a solution to a dilemma between the sexes, but simply provides a superficial veneer that encourages more imbalanced and dysfunctional sexual relations. It may also be that polygamy, in whatever form we label or describe it, is one of the patterns that is ultimately harming Africans and African Americans in the new millennium.