Monday, December 14, 2009

Africa 1989

It struck me that we haven't heard many African voices in all the recent reminiscing about the year 1989. Anniversaries abounded. From Tienanmen Square, through the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we've had retrospectives on these momentous happenings. 1989 evokes loaded images, especially poignant amongst these being the transformations in Eastern Europe and beyond that affected the whole world. The year is a convenient stand-in for epochal change, Cold Wars fizzling and so forth. 1989 was similarly epochal in Africa even if our headlines were filed in the inside pages of our collective newsprint. Africans weren't mere onlookers and enjoined in the global conversation of those heady days.

I then came across some fragmentary notes I had on the year in Africa, notes I'd written when I was in a more jaundiced mood - they verged on the bleak. Writing today, however, I am more sanguine about that year, and hopeful, even as I look back. I can point to many items that genuinely warm the heart. You have to take the long view when it comes to Africa, and perhaps this accounts for the dissonance one feels about our past. Perhaps you'll be able to detect the keys in which different parts of the following were written.

I. The Reign of Locusts

Although political transformation in the 90s proved to be of variable intensity and longevity, often turned out to be new wine in old bottles, the change on the continent has been lasting. The incidence of military coups has dropped so far as to become negligible and there is an indisputable increase in functional democracies. In 1989 only three countries in Africa could claim to have democratic governments.

— Akwe Amosu musing on Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Trends and Transitions (pdf) in 2007
I've often wondered what it was like to attend, say, an OAU meeting circa 1989. That must surely have been a rogues gallery sans pareil. Could you shake hands with everyone in that room and look at yourself in the mirror the next day? For that matter, could you sleep that night? And what did the small talk of the nifty fifty sound like? Scratch that, what exactly was their big talk? Inquiring minds want to know.

Excellent Discussions

Having looked at Africa in 1966 (when innocence was lost) and written about the promise of Ghana in 1969, the faint glimpses of hope in 1992, and the pre-millennial tension of Africa 1999, and with an evident itch to scratch, I thought I'd give the toli take on continent in 1989. The 1970s and 1980s have been termed The Lost Decades in much of Africa — almost as if a plague of locusts had the run of the continent. We should tentatively file these notes under the banner of fallen angels.


Let's start with this: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe would likely have been the golden boy at the OAU meeting in 1989.

With 20 years hindsight, it is hard to believe that Zimbabwe was the example that the rest of Africa was being lectured about to emulate by the donors. Its vibrant economy, well managed agricultural sector, deep focus on educational achievement, and its democracy seemed without equal. Where its neighbours were basket cases, Zimbabwe appeared to be moving forward, it was the "success story". Mugabe's "egalitarian socialism" was being studied by Western cognoscenti. A stereotypical halo of smugness would surround my Zimbabwean friends of the time (side note: my Sierra Leonean comperes exuded similar confidence). Suffice to say that things can go wrong or right in a hurry.

He of The Little Green Book, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, would have been a few years removed from the US bombing attacks that aimed to kill him, and a year removed from the reaction over the skies of Lockerbie. A French jet would suffer a similar fate in September 1989 when a bomb would kill all 170 people on board as it flew over the Sahara. There were even more potent, and certainly uncontested, acts, however, in his interaction with the West: the Provisional IRA was in full murderous effect in 1989, equipped with significant supplies of his explosive Semtex and sundry weapons; it would rotate members for training in the Libyan desert. As I recall, public transportation in London was an exercise in bomb threat delays followed on occasion by actual locomotion. The implications for West Africa of He of The Little Green Book's unmoored rage would be far more bloody I am sad to say. He was just about to unleash Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh from nearby camps in his grand project of revolutionary agitation, and more on Liberia and Sierra Leone anon.

I won't bore you with by enumerating the long list of dictators that ruled and the havoc they caused, it makes for dismal reading (3 democracies out of near 50 countries remember). From "Comrade" Siad Barre in Somalia to Master Sergent Doe in Liberia and Sergent Eyadema in Togo, it was repression as usual. Most significant, perhaps, in this dreary military vein was that Omar al-Bashir came to power in Sudan in a coup on 30 June 1989. His regime brooked no opposition and promptly took Sudan's civil war into high gear. The legacy of Lost Boys and such ensued. Civil wars are never pretty and Sudan's was long and ugly.

crocodiles emerge at paga pond

Structural Adjustments

For what it's worth, in my native Ghana, Flight Lieutenant Rawlings's PNDC was typically authoritarian throughout 1989 as our Truth and Reconciliation commission has outlined. Apparently it was no contradiction for a supposed Marxist to be implementing the unpopular IMF Structural Adjustment Program, he was an early adopter on this front. General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria was of the same mind, and followed suit with the IMF and the World Bank. Expediency trumps everything if the preservation of power at all costs is the overt motive. Popularity or economic sense in policy doesn't matter much when you have a military regime, your populace will have to cope with whatever you dictate. It is the very definition of dictatorship. Structural Adjustment, then, was the great agenda in Africa, and many countries were being put through the wringer its paces. I'll note in passing that the term "Washington Consensus" was coined in 1989 at the very height of authoritarian rule in Africa. The Cold War bred strange bedfellows but none so ironic as the combination of mild-mannered Western financial technocrats and African dictators.

The inevitable backlash was felt from civil society, large enough to have necessitated a bit of rebranding and message massaging. In 1989, we started to hear about "structural adjustment with a human face" and its counterpart "sustainable growth with equity". This revelatory exercise in linguistics only betrayed the apparent irony that inhumanity had been the prevailing concern, with equity as an afterthought. In fairness, the legacy of these programs is mixed: the economies of most African countries did need reform after all. What is beyond question, however, is that the success stories that were being touted in 1989 were nothing of the sort, most of the gains were chimeric. Ask any Ghanaian if the 80s were good years if you want to hear a hearty guffaw. Would that the development aid cohort had their current restraint in those years, their swagger was hard to take. Some of us have long memories...

Francophone Africa presented a perfect picture of client states. Smooth operators like Omar Bongo (President of Gabon) and Houphouët-Boigny (President of Côte d'Ivoire) mixed the requisite post colonial trappings at home with the luxurious core of sleazy quasi-corporate patronage of the French political class. Call it equal opportunity looting or mere cronyism, enabled by Mitterrand and the revolving board of Elf-Aquitaine and others. France regrets those good old days. Who wouldn't, I wonder?


Mobutu of Zaire was in full flight, an unchallenged dictator systematically breaking down the social fabric of his country while breaking world records in kleptocracy. Interestingly enough, by 1989 he was a little fed up with some of the shenanigans that some of the other African rogues leaders were getting up to. These parvenus were beginning to spoil the game for everyone. In mitigation, and in a rare act of regional statesmanship, he even helped broker a peace deal (promptly broken) in Angola. Now Mobutu was not one to do anything without a pecuniary motive hence inquiring minds are wondering what he was promised for his efforts. We'll no doubt have to wait until the State Department declassifies records in 2014 for the answer. Accordingly, I've already scheduled my FOIA request in Google Calendar.

It is worth dwelling on the Angolan case. Jonas Savimbi broke the barely 2 month old ceasefire, the fruit of years of negotiations, and resumed the civil war in Angola. Master of the huhudious, Savimbi declared:

"The Angolan people, to their infinite sorrow, accept that the war has restarted."
That, without any doubt, has to be the quote of the year 1989. He was the one who decided to break the peace, he didn't ask anyone, he presented the Angolan people with war as a fait accompli. He was to deepen their infinite sorrow for another 13 years.

Human Right's Watch began their Africa Watch in 1989 in their world report with a look at the Angolan case. Again it is instructive:

This refusal to criticize rebel abuses stems from the Bush administration's unwavering support of UNITA and its leader, Jonas Savimbi. For 14 years UNITA has been seeking to topple Angola's post-independence government in a war that to date has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people, most of them civilians. The U.S. policy of funding UNITA, first initiated by President Reagan in late 1985, has if anything been solidified under President Bush. Even before President Bush took office, he wrote to Savimbi assuring him that "all appropriate and effective assistance" would continue. Then, in 1989, to compensate for the loss of South African military and economic assistance to UNITA, the Bush administration increased the level of U.S. covert aid for Savimbi to close to $50 million. Although termed "covert," U.S. assistance is widely characterized as an "open secret." Savimbi himself made a public statement in June that Congress had renewed his aid, and was also quoted in Jeune Afrique magazine as saying that he had received $35 million in funding from the Central Intelligence Agency. Characterizing the aid as "covert," however, helps minimize Congressional and public scrutiny.

The lesson of Angola is that Africa was never innocent.

The corollary perhaps is that marauding phenomena like Jonas Savimbi did not operate in a vacuum. Proxy wars were a legacy of the Cold War, and Africa was a bloody battleground. Africans paid a heavy price. Enough.

paga crocodile eats chicken

II. The Great Awakening

The global conversation in 1989 was all about democracy. Mali led the way in Africa. Their president, Moussa Traoré, was your garden variety military ruler: no ideology to speak of save for the unvarnished exercise of power. With Mali being a poor landlocked country, he must have figured that he would have free reign. There would be no strategic interest for the Americans or the Soviet Union, the colonial power, France, had bigger and more lucrative fish to fry, and neighbouring countries only cared if refugees started streaming over the border. Everything seemed perfect and the years passed. 1989 must have been a rude awakening (1990 would be a nightmare, and 1991 would be the end). The Malian body politic and social compact reacted to his rule as if to an emetic. Malians were simply fed up with military rule and the attendant violence and arbitrariness. Slowly and systematically from 1988 on, they organized themselves to take back their country. It was a truly impressive sight throughout 1989. No external motivation was needed, a society simply decided to change its direction and moved.

Historians ask the same question about Leipzig in 1989. Why did people lose their fear? From the trade unions, to the students, the teachers, the lawyers and other professionals, all the way to the farmers, the consensus was that multi-party democracy was the way forward. Newspapers appeared without approval and served as forums for discussion over the shape of democracy to come. It wasn't unanimous, and the process had its twists and turns but the atmosphere changed. Those sensible Malians lost their fear and brought about lasting change. The proviso, with this being Africa, was that there would be needless deaths along the way (a massacre of 300 protesters in 1991 being the final straw). The miracle in Mali is how we now call it. Mali was the first to turn the tide to genuine democracy in the 90s, an impressive beacon for the rest of the continent.

Malian Architecture

Ghana's version of 1989 was in a minor key and actually started over the course of a few weeks in 1987. It was a series of public lectures by a history professor, Alfred Adu-Boahen, on a sober topic: The Ghanaian Sphinx. Reflections on the Contemporary History of Ghana, 1972-1987. It is hard to believe that there was a time when such comparatively mild criticism would have condemned you to harassment, jail or worse, but that was the case at the height of the reign of Flight Lieutenant Rawlings' junta. Arbitrariness, and a malign and heavy hand were the weapons of choice. The only forms of resistance in the eighties were exile on the one hand, or the culture of silence on the other. Said culture of silence was attacked head on during these lectures and the spell was decisively broken.

The metaphor of the Ghanaian Sphinx - that puzzling acquiescence to authority and silence in the face of privation and worse, was outlined and a solution was proposed. It was a simple formula: plain speaking about the history of Ghana since independence and calling things by their name with lucidity. His argument made a difference and the atmosphere in the country changed. The fight for democracy was enjoined and much of Adu Boahen's blueprint has been followed over the years. If only there had been more such profiles in courage. Would that more had stood up and been counted.

The immediate and major difficulty in this effort was that political parties were not allowed in Ghana. 8 years of military rule had cowed the opposition. To the extent that there was any politics in the country it was to be found in social groups without any agenda. Ghanaians vied to compete to be secretary of football supporters' associations, book appreciation clubs or bible study groups. Even the Danquah lectures were framed as simply educational lectures. It would require considerable reorientation to force the issue. Still a conversation was started and Ghanaians began to organize themselves. Indeed in 1990, a Movement for Freedom and Justice was formed to pressure for change and a return to civilian rule. The first fruits of this pressure was with the news media. The Catholic Standard resumed publication (religion being the major (only) growth industry in the country). More crucially, a few independent newspapers were allowed to come into existence, the Ghanaian Chronicle the most significant among them. Over a next decade, these newspapers and then the new FM radio stations that started broadcasting would prove crucial in securing democratic gains - monitoring elections being one of their essential contributions.

Dogon Hillside

Another history professor, Laurent Gbagbo, was speaking up in Côte d'Ivoire against President Houphouët-Boigny whose recently completed basilica, Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, was the largest church in the world. By then he had been in power almost as long as Castro and Kim Il Sung of North Korea. The sly fox was nothing if not resilient and hanged on to power until his death a few years later. With hindsight, it would have been better if Gbagbo had been successful in his efforts in 1989 (or for that matter in the 70s when Houphouët first put him in jail). He was a very different (read compromised) man when he would come into power in 2000. The damage was done to the social fabric of Côte d'Ivoire during the lackluster years of the 1990s when each leader in the political class outdid themselves in demagoguery and never failed to disappoint their compatriots.

Algerians turned out in masses and overwhelmingly approved a new constitution at the start of 1989 to pave the way to multi-party politics. The generals seemed to go along with the decision but would have second thoughts about democracy at the culmination of the process in 1992 when it appeared that Islamist parties were poised for victory. A murderous civil war then ensued. In 1989 however things were looking up. In most of Africa, there seemed to be a great awakening and signs of life.

The strongmen in Africa fought these encroachments on their freedoms like all powerful men are wont to do: tooth and nail. It was the eternal dynamic of the confronted authoritarian: delay, ignore, suborn, bribe when expedient, divide and conquer and that old standby, the demonstration of violence. After 1989 there would be less room for maneuver and many had to tone down their outrages against human rights and democracy. The result was that the 1990s would see a spate of elections. True, in many countries, it was only lip service that was being paid in these elections, hence the frequent resort to of vote rigging; in other countries, however, there would be genuine transitions. 1989 gave impetus to these nascent movements.

baobab by kagyah

III. A South African Detour

A conventional reading of South Africa in 1989 would run with the Great Man theory, namely that the secret negotiations that had began with an imprisoned Nelson Mandela in 1988 continued throughout the year and would culminate in his release in 1990. All this would understate the complications on the ground and the considerable effort expended to rid the country of apartheid.

There was continued internal pressure by the banned ANC, persistent strikes by the trade unions and general defiance in the townships. There were significant external pressures, whether through economic sanctions or consumer boycotts, that forced the divesting of holdings of South African enterprises and a shunning of exports. Military, diplomatic and cultural pressures weighed on the regime.

jo bag: ghana must go in South Africa

There was a lot of geopolitics involved and some point to the crucial impact of the battle of Cuito Carnival the previous year in Angola where South Africans and their proxy army, Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement, were forced to a stalemate by the MPLA and their Cuban reinforcements. After much diplomatic untangling of the situation, the Cubans went home, South Africa agreed to Namibian independence, and Angola's MPLA agreed to a truce with UNITA. You can read Chester Crocker's self serving memoir, High Noon in Southern Africa, for the naive account of what transpired... The irony of the book's title and indeed the outlook it betrays will be tackled later. Sam Nujoma would lead Namibia to independence in 1990 after what had been long hard-fought war. South Africa would begin to stop meddling in its neighbour's affairs.

In 1989, the world learned that hit teams of South African police were assassinating people "in Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Britain, as well as inside South Africa". All opponents of the apartheid regime were fair game. The moral opprobrium against P.W. Botha's would weigh on his successor De Klerk. The optics were not in their favour. The rest of Africa made their thoughts clear. The ANC proposed, and the OAU adopted its Harare Declaration on August 21 1989

We recognise the reality that permanent peace and stability in Southern Africa can only be achieved when the system of apartheid in South Africa has been liquidated and South Africa transformed into a united, democratic and non-racial country. We therefore reiterate that all the necessary measures should be adopted now, to bring a speedy end to the apartheid system, in the interest of all the people of Southern Africa, our continent and the world at large.
Note, if you will, how the same story was reported in the New York Times: "South Africa Rebel Blueprint Backed by Regional Leaders".

The spin in the paper of record reflected the prevailing conventional wisdom in the USA. We must never forget that Ronald Reagan, George Bush the first, Margaret Thatcher and their bagmen, still saw themselves as allies of the apartheid regime. To their dying day, they should be tarred with their association, nay commission, with some of the most awful lot in history. There were many misadventures and much blood spilled in the Great Games of the Cold War; the support by these governments for apartheid is unambiguously egregious.

jo bag: ghana must go in South Africa

And it bears reminding that the struggle for liberation of South Africa was still a close run thing - note the headlines from that same day: "New Wave Of Arrests In S. Africa; Apartheid Resisters Go Into Hiding"

Leaders of a three-week-old campaign to defy apartheid restrictions began going into hiding today to elude a new wave of arrests by South African police as the government of acting President Frederik de Klerk intensified its crackdown on activities aimed at disrupting next month's segregated elections for Parliament.

The Cape Province turmoil has been viewed as a campaign against elections for the tricameral Parliament, in which Coloreds and Indians have separate-and mostly powerless-chambers. South Africa's 23 million blacks have no representation in Parliament.

The police crackdown on dissent appears to be the government's response to criticism by the far-right Conservative Party that de Klerk has gone "soft" on security, especially after the announcement that the acting president will travel to Zambia next Monday to meet with President Kenneth Kaunda, Africa's leading patron of the exiled African National Congress, which is South Africa's most powerful anti-apartheid resistance group.

Still the sensible folks prevailed:
We believe that a conjuncture of circumstances exists which, if there is a demonstrable readiness on the part of the Pretoria regime to engage in negotiations genuinely and seriously, could create the possibility to end apartheid through negotiations. Such an eventuality would be an expression of the long-standing preference of the people of South Africa to arrive at a political settlement.
That thankfully came to pass. The ANC won the 1994 elections.

At the end of the year, the General Assembly of the UN adopted its Declaration on Apartheid and Its Destructive Consequences in Southern Africa (pdf). Again this was over the strenuous objections of Bush and Thatcher. Lest we forget.

IV. Decentralization

In many arenas in 1989, Africans were beginning to route around central governments. The Big Men still mattered but civil society looked to assert itself. Change was in the air and decentralization was the result. The caveat as ever would be that the institutions took some time to follow the lead of the people; it is the African way it appears. A few years later, Yassin El-Ayouty would write "the world has completely changed since 1989; the OAU has not, since 1963" (The Organization of African Unity After Thirty Years). As someone who rails against stodgy institutions, I am heartened by the decentralization that continues to take place throughout Africa, it keeps leaders on notice.

Where the Organization of African Unity was barely more than a club for the "big men" first of African independence and then of cold war politics, with a gentleman’s agreement not to interfere in each others affairs, the African Union is a institution whose statutes affirm the importance of substance, of accountability, of human rights, and the obligation to uphold those rights not only at home but in your neighbor’s back yard too. Undoubtedly in practice, these aspirational standards are often not met and the development of these institutions is a work in progress; but the challenge is no longer the lack of standards but enforcement.

— Akwe Amosu - Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Trends and Transitions (pdf)

In the field of health care and public policy, The Bamako Initiative was beginning to bear fruits. Again, starting from Mali, we got concerted efforts in health care and population issues. The emphasis was on decentralization and getting local communities involved in decision making that affected them. The strategy would inform later efforts at poverty reduction.

The most useful document I've found to evaluate Africa in 1989 is a long-term perspective study by the World Bank: From crisis to sustainable growth - sub Saharan Africa (pdf). It is comprehensive and fodder for historians, social scientists and mere bloggers.

Decentralization has been essential in bringing about change in Africa and often times it hasn't been a matter of conscious policy. It turns out that things like cell phones and FM radios are the great equalizers for democracy and help move beyond social communication to the political and economic realm. We should all search for more in that vein.

V. Enter The Gremlin

He could have been a mere footnote, but it wasn't to be. He was a mere anecdote for me on Boxing Day of 1989. Annoyed as I was that my mother had worked on the holiday, she deflected my irritation by mentioning this man who had called up the BBC and told her that he had invaded Liberia. That was most people's introduction to Charles Taylor and his unique brand of malevolence. It was bemused entertainment for a journalist but he gave such good copy, a fluent mixture of hubris and cold calculation. He was going to "bring the bitterness of war to Liberia", launch a revolution throughout Africa, and overthrow Master Sergent Doe.

From the first 10 men who joined him from Libyan camps to all the subsequent marauding armies that came into play, Charles Taylor has destabilized no less than eight countries. The casualties and the brutality was impressive. The callousness was biblical, the innovations of small boys units in warfare absolutely diabolical, and the savagery simply unmatched. Much as I wish to dwell on democratic change that 1989 presaged, I have to admit that Charles Taylor and the civil wars that he fomented since 1989 loom large throughout Africa. He may sit these days on trial in The Hague but he casts a dismal and influential shadow. Liberia and Sierra Leone suffered the most in the bloody free-for-alls; Cote d'Ivoire vacillates and many others are picking up the pieces twenty years later. The events of the past year in Guinea can even be read as further aftershocks of the Charles Taylor earthquake.

Aburi mask - strange days

Blood and sin was Charles Taylor's unique contribution to Africa.

The pervasiveness and intensity of looting, pillage, and plunder by the leaders and the rank and file, the lack of a stable and systematically organized structure of command and control among the armed bands, the criminal misuse of children, the employment of strategies of confidence artistry, the opportunistic use of a variety of cultural symbols, the orchestration of a state of anarchy as the normal environment of operation are all constitutive of the behavior of gangsters who use terror as their ultimate instruments of control. This mode of control draws from the worse aspects of an array of cultures ranging from the culture of urban gangsters and small town confidence artists of western society, and the area boys and swindlers of West African cities to marauding murderers.

— Amos Sawyer - Violent Conflicts And Governance Challenges In West Africa: The Case Of The Mano River Basin Area (pdf)
It is a dubious legacy, and it all started in 1989.

VI. A Year in Music

There was lots of politics on the agenda in 1989, and lots of dancing too. A playlist for your listening pleasure

What were your memories of Africa in 1989?

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Friday, December 04, 2009

66 Ways to Franco

It was the kind of thing that you found yourself doing in the middle of the night, musing on an idle question born of two of your concerns: musical obsession and software anthropology. Counting the ways to Franco was an excursion into the realm of metadata, matters of syntax, and a contemplation of the hive mind of the web. The initial insomniac impulse was to create a playlist; your search, however, found a surprising 38 variants of the name in your library and you couldn't locate the song that had triggered your nocturnal foraging.

You remembered that at the beginning of the year you only had a couple of his albums in your collection but the music blogs of this world wide web had sprang to life and you'd steadily filled the gaps while reading them. In this golden age of music distribution, all one needs is a vague memory and an internet connection to fulfill one's aural titillation. Let's see, a cursory glance shows that the mp3 collection now stands at 25,494 songs, 186 GB, or 99 days of non-stop music - probably a third of which was acquired over the past year. Now you do still spend a lot on your musical vices, but you can imagine that it is highly unlikely that $8,500 (at iTunes or Amazon pricing) would have left your insubstantial wallet during this Great Recession. No, your collection grew by osmosis. Moving on...

Your count was akin to last year's discussion about the bewildering number of ways people mangle song and artist names. That led to the sight of those Top 100 ways to write Guns N' Roses – Knockin' on Heaven's Door. What a strange glimpse of the musical Tower of Babel we now have. Take a lexical curio like Guns N' Roses (call it typographical eccentricity), add a few apostrophes and you'll realize that the children of Mr Special Character and Mrs Structured Data are blessed ones. This is the minutiae that software people - and that unwashed sub-clan, the database denizens, have to deal with on a regular basis. Whole businesses have been founded on making sense of such messy data. Information retrieval is the general term of art, and metadata, well, metadata is the data about data. It's one of the hard problems in your line of work.

So what do we have then? Through a set of historical accidents over the past decade - notably the piecemeal standardization of ID tags in the mp3 file format, the mp3 file format itself, the rapid adoption of internet led by the web, improvements in storage technologies, the development of new portable music players and the decentralized mass digitization and distribution of music, we can behold the glorious results of a democratic exercise of mass data entry. During this time, millions of ordinary people took to their computers and ripped their cd collections. Millions more downloaded and shared this great social bounty. True, the more prudent laggards waited until there was commercial affirmation and legally sanctioned avenues for their digital music. Throughout, however, this mountain of music had to be labeled.

The inevitable curators came along fairly early on in this process - the online databases, GraceNote and then Freedb, to help automate things and identify the cd once you loaded it on the computer. Their altruism however didn't stem the tide of data entry (someone after all had to have entered it once and we all know how that goes). Offerings like MusicBrainz have emerged in recent years as repositories of high quality music metadata, ostensibly on a mission to bring accuracy and fingerprinting to digital music. The commercial services too now loom large as major distribution points, but they too license their listings from some of these databases, and it shows: errors everywhere. More puzzling is that the record companies haven't been of much help, they too don't pay attention to the details of the names of the artists they supposedly promote, nor indeed the titles of the songs. They, like iTunes and Amazon stores, aren't perfect at information hygiene. You see typos and plain wrong labeling of music. You don't have to take the word of an opinioniated metadata curmudgeon, the proof is in the existence of a vibrant ecosystem of tag editing software, free and even commercial. Imagine that, people pay for a product to help them label their music.

Given that even the big boys don't label their music accurately, it has been a true free-for-all and that's not even taking into account the trend of the past couple of years of digitizing (and sharing) all the lost vinyl. I'll only note that the amount of African music that is being rediscovered is frankly startling. The labour of love of those who find and clean dusty grooves, scan album covers, digitize and share their musical memories is a true surplus for society.

It turns out that all these musical curators and aggregators have only been partially successful. It really is a problem with the human factor. When you have humans doing data entry you'll have errors. When you have on order of millions doing data entry, you'll have large numbers of errors. These glitches appeal to me, truth be told. People label things to remember them and the patterns they use are worthy artifacts. The variants, I'll suggest, are emblematic of both folk memory and the mass creation of semi-structured data. If I could, I'd write an ode to the mp3 tag. In the meantime, I set about to count the ways to Franco. was my weapon of choice - a music recommendation system with attitude. For one, they have been gathering data from all and sundry for years now - they call it audio scrobbling. They gather data about what people listen to, crunch away, and make contextual recommendations. They deal with huge amounts of data and the attendant complexity. One early strategy to work around the inadequacies of ID tags in mp3s was to simply escape from their confines and allow users to tag artists, songs and albums on the website and watch the free-form folksonomie emerge. Web-savvy as they are they organized these musical objects each with its url and wiki page. People like to discuss songs, albums and artists. Few algorithms can handle the notion that Orchestra Baobab recorded two albums in 1975 under the Orchestre Bawobab moniker. You need a human intervention to account for this kind of peculiarity. And so they did. It's a simple application of collective wisdom: watch what users do and organize around it. They can even offer radio stations based on tags. At a certain point also, they tried a fingerprinting technique that would process their users' libraries to allow them to normalize the metadata associated with a piece of music. Taking this further, they can simply ask and allow people to correct spellings or suggest alternatives for artists that performed under different incarnations. Once a critical mass is reached you can automatically apply this feedback to tend to this garden of metadata. This is the business of web scale identifiers.


And so we come to Franco. Not the fascist Spanish dictator, whose despicable legacy is still paradoxically a touchstone for some American neocons. No. For most Africans, Franco is all you need to say to signify great, pulsing guitar-driven music, rumba, soukous, social commentary and old time good fun. All these are the elements of Franco. It's all the same good, liquid music and great memories of excursions on the dancefloor, a long career spanning four decades. It's been twenty years since François Luambo Makiadi passed away, time enough to count.

And so I counted:

There are at least 66 ways to get to Franco.

I must admit looking at the list gave me pause. How do people remember a musician? How do we remember a piece of music? Only about 9,000 users of last fm seem to listen to Franco and yet here we find world class variety. He appears in 66 different guises to the world if you exclude the 3 obvious mistaggings and misspellings. The labelers in a pool of 1.5 million Guns N' Roses listeners could only mangle that band's spelling 56 ways. What was so special about Franco, I wondered, as I looked at the list? The obvious answer is that much of his music is not available commercially in digital form. Instead, a lot of his listeners are typing up the records and cassettes.

Capitalization concerns surface immediately. Some people like ALL CAPS, others are lower case freaks. That is par for the course in a world where search engines basically ignore case. (Sidenote: looking at the top search trends of the year, it appears that users use lower case in search engines, few bother these days with "Britney Spears" when "britney spears" will do. In this age of mobile phones, it seems that the shift key is being used less). Sidenote: we won't digress onto Camel Case discussions at this stage.

Most people think of Franco as synonymous with the band he founded: OK Jazz. But how do people deal with the abbreviation? How does one spell OK? Is it rather "Ok" or "O.K."? Opinions are varied. The OK Jazz band was so named because they began as the house band in the OK Bar in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). It should be simple then: Franco & OK Jazz say - assuming you go with no dots.

Matter of punctuation however open up a can of worms; we stray onto typographical concerns, with pronounced eccentricity in the choice of separators. For delimiters, we see dots, semi-colons, slashes, commas and hyphens.

People have different conventions for conjunctions: it's a case of ampersands (&) for the many and fully spelled out for the few.

We have the language issue, the band was named in French so we'd expect "et", but some labelers are English-speakers hence we get a few instances of "and", "with" and "featuring" showing up. Incidentally the folks in the forums at MusicBrainz will regale you with tales about the epic wars over the conventions for dealing with the word "featuring". Briefly, some people spell it out, others contract to "feat" or "feat." - with the punctuation, or even further to "ft.". Suffice to say that it was much like the egg-cracking debate in Gulliver's Travels.

Lest you think that punctuation doesn't matter, let me interject the following anecdote. Tony! Toni! Toné! were named as such in their debut album, "Who?". In later albums, they were called Tony Toni Toné - with the exclamation points removed. Which is the more accurate name for the band I ask? Could you spin a story from the missing exclamation points? Well I'll engage in mindless speculation on this typographical mystery - stay with me. It's obvious: they changed record label and lost the rights to their name (much like The Jackson 5 had to become The Jacksons when they left Motown). They were shrewd in their negotiations and the price they paid was the removal of the exclamation points. The transformation was from 3 ejaculations (those 3 exclamation marks) to a sedate sentence, perhaps indicating a newfound maturity. Truth be told, the music was better without the exclamation histrionics yet it clearly is the same band. For what it's worth, Last fm and Amazon all normalize the name without the exclamation point. Anyway, I won't pursue this tall tale further. Back to Franco and OK Jazz...

The OK Jazz band was an orchestra with a shifting cast - in Congo and much of Africa after the second world war, there was a great flowering of such orchestras as proving grounds and incubators - so you have some renderings going with Orchestre OK Jazz. Again native language comes into play, for the English it's orchestra instead of the French orchestre.

Then there are the nicknames and honorifics. Simply put, Africans love titles. OK Jazz acquired the "Tout Puissant" prefix (almighty, literally all powerful). Franco acquired the appellation, "Grand Maître" (Grandmaster). Add in the grammatical concerns and you expand the choices; is it "le tout puissant" or "son tout puissant", ergo is it "the almighty" or "his almighty"? Le Grand Maître Franco & le T.P.O.K. Jazz perhaps? Franco Luambo Makiadi & OK Jazz? Sometimes also, Franco's full name is spelled out as if to underlie the vastness of his catalog. And when doing this, the name order varies.

At its most extravagant you'd get something like Le Grand Maitre Franco Luambo Makiadi & Le Tout Puissant Orchestre OK Jazz.

Even then, would you contract to TPOK Jazz? Or T.P. OK Jazz? Or T.P. O.K. Jazz? The plot thickens.

With such a long career, there was inevitably a shifting of focus; on some albums it was the band that was the lead, on others it was Franco who took the spotlight, and at other times other members took center stage (Sam Mangwana, Vicky, Taby Ley Rochereau and so forth). The names varied accordingly. It was all Franco, and it was all good, if you don't mind my saying. Trust me, pick almost anything he recorded and you'll be a happy camper.

But to get to my point. The music I'd been looking for at the midnight hour was the following album:

Franco et le T.P. OK Jazz sing for Mobutu

Over his career, there were a number of occasions where Franco had to pay obeisance to his patron, that murderous dictatorial rogue, Mobutu, kleptocrat without equal. The music on those few albums were not the best that he produced in his illustrious career. True, the tracks were danceable but they weren't ecstatic as usual. Some have even detected elements of irony in some of the songs - subversive dog-whistles that undercut the dictator's purpose and propaganda. I imagine some Africanist historian writing the definitive study of this phenomenon, perhaps something titled Musical Resistance in Dictatorial Times in 20th Century Congo: Rumba as Social Subversion. Interestingly enough, as you can see, the word Franco doesn't appear on the billing of the album, it is just plain old Luambo Makiadi. Twenty five years after its release, I couldn't find Candidat Na Biso Mobutu when I searched my iTunes and Winamp libraries for Franco's music, and it figures: he didn't need the dictator's bloodstains attached to his musical name. Franco was a smart man, he knew all about branding. He is sorely missed.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Meshell's Moods

Anger can be a great musical catalyst. The story is told about Miles Davis's historic 1964 concert at Lincoln Center, that the band was angry that Miles had preemptively waived their fees for charity. The performance, duly celebrated in two albums, My Funny Valentine and Four and more, can be said to have that urgent yet sinuous edge that make it one of the essential live musical performances. The young rhythm section is especially on fire; you can almost hear the added accents in Tony Williams's percussion, Ron Carter does all the right things as a low end theoretician on the bass, and Herbie Hancock solves differential equations on his piano. And then there's the horns of course, Miles is lyricism itself - the ballads are simply wonderful, and George Coleman blows throughout as if it's a cutting contest. The son of man claimed that man cannot live on bread alone, these hungry musicians tried to come up with a corollary to that notion over the course of the concert. Suffice to say that it was an important occasion for all concerned and the potency of the music endures.

It was in this vein that I listened to Meshell NdegeOcello's band last Friday at The New Parish in Oakland. It wasn't quite anger that was at work, it was more like irritation that was the catalyst but who am I to quibble about the end result. I'll get to the whys, wherefores and textures of their sound but should get the hyperbole off my chest upfront.

Simply put, Meshell NdegeOcello's band is the coldest band since The Revolution circa 1985.
If you want a slightly more precise description, I'm referring to the sound and attitude that pertained as the Purple Rain continued to fall, you know, before the addition of horns and the looser feel of the Parade and Sign of the Times bands. I'm talking about a well-oiled band that is out to make a point, a band that wants to share an important moment. Meshell and company are forced to be reckoned with in their live performances, moreover they are touring to support a strong new album, Devil's Halo and are fully committed to its rocky soul aesthetic.

MeShell NdegeOcello - Devil Halo

The Wife called them sick - her slang is of a different vintage, for me they were stone cold. Their creative energy harnessed as it was, was something to behold. The sonic architecture brought in elements of Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke and Eddie Hazel. And they were versatile in their approach. Meshell can go from Nathalie Merchant primness to Betty Davis fierceness without skipping a beat and she'll throw in some Sly and Robbie dub for good measure. By the time, they got around to freaking Prince's Dirty Mind, rendering it like no one has heard it before, my jaw had already dropped, I was in awe. When someone is in this kind of mood you can only sing along - and admire.

But on to the bit about anger... As we stood in line outside the club, we overheard mutterings about problems. There were scattered phrases that might cause your average concertgoer to raise their eyebrows, things like "No soundcheck", "Equipment came late", "Damn rental company", "Will they even play?" and so forth. The crowd was suitably wary. They were playing at a new venue, a small club and a suitably intimate joint but one where the kinks were still being worked out. And it showed at the outset even as they came out with such energy. For the first three songs, the sound was slightly off. There were sufficient glitches to cause Meshell to basically throw away the small sound machine (synthesizer/sampler thingimijig) that she's started performing with. Her sound technicians were feeling the pressure as they scrambled to fix things. The underlying tension only heightened the performance. Thus she stuck mostly to singing for the rest of the show and would sing mostly from the more recent parts of her songbook. Call the concert an exercise in aural seduction. Raging songs like Lola, Mass Transit, The Sloganeer - Paradise, and Article 3 were full of urgency. Only occasionally would she pick up the bass when her mood would veer into the ecstatic. Mostly she was orchestrating the shifting soundscapes that now characterize her music; the short outbursts that are the bread and butter of her songcraft only slightly lengthened for the live performance.

There was an element of pride as they paced on stage, as if they all had a point to prove. Oakland may only be a pit stop between the bigger commercial venues - Los Angeles (with the beautiful people) and San Francisco (with the sexy people) where they would play the next night. Oakland however is important for soul singers, functioning as a sort of comfort interlude that restores one's swagger. It's a town that appreciates the ironic mood of a song like White Girl, the audience will laugh in the right places.

Songs like Dead Nigga Blvd - from 2003's Cookie, have extra resonance when sung one block away from Martin Luther King Jnr. Avenue, five minutes away from Mandela Parkway, and 10 minutes away from Malcolm X Elementary School. And she is right to be angry, as expressed in the lyrics and performance of that song, at the disrespect and dysfunctionality of part of the black community in Oakland and elsewhere. People campaigned, marched and sacrificed much labour and even blood to secure the gains of the civil rights struggle, commemorated in those boulevards and yet some would say much is being dissipated. The salty language of the song decries a drive-by mentality accented by the staccato keyboard riffs of the song. The mournful Die Young also struck a chord in that vein. It would figure that only a couple of days later I would read the headline she'd anticipated: Man shot and killed in downtown Oakland. Such is life, or rather such is death in these parts. To die over nothing, a block from the martyr's boulevard...

But back to the considerable songcraft on display. Bitter was her pre-millenium, album length meditation on a mood and we were treated to Fool of Me and Faithful in that key. Fellowship and Forgiveness and Love upped the dub quotient, the reggae tinge of a comfort woman. She took up an acoustic guitar for Crying In Your Beer - lovely balladeering with Chris Bruce her fearless guitarist. Deantoni Parks was ferocious throughout on the drums, sounding like an army platoon. Keefus Ciancia had four or more keyboards and would add ethereal sound effects. She's comfortable having Mark Kelley on bass which is a compliment to his capabilities. All in all this a group with a creative edge. We were treated to a lush musical moment capturing shifting moods.

For the encore, she comes out, picks up her bass and gets into her great remake of Ready for the World's Love you Down. It is spacey, laced with dub stylings, and soulful to the core. It is also flawlessly executed.

Meshell is not one to coddle her audience but she is definitely thankful that we stayed with her on this night. We weren't too demanding for the old favourites and went along with the musical trip of the new songs. Devil's Halo is strong set verging on the rock end of a soul spectrum. You could see the sense of confidence and perhaps a little swagger in the step of all the musicians as they left. In her current thankful mood she is perhaps reaching a sentiment expressed in the title of her second album: Peace beyond Passion.


The opening act, Beatropolis, were were a musical puzzle of sorts if only because their feel-good sensibility was hard to pin down. Perhaps we should let them descibe themselves in their own words: "live organic drum and bass... many styles". Indeed there were many styles on display, from an acid jazz start, mix in The Roots circa Organix, a touch of Joycelyn Brown, a smidgen of Roni Size or perhaps Dizzee Rascal and let everything simmer. They would throw in a jungle version of You're All I Need To Get By just because they could, and why ever not, I expect Marvin and Tammi would concur. Perhaps most impressive was Fall Apart. Yeats never would have imagined that a century after writing The Second Coming that we'd have rappers declaiming that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" to a fierce drum-n-bass beat, a jungle lament about things falling apart, a topic close to my heart. Needless to say, I approve.


The full-length video of Meshell's Seattle concert from the following week finds her and band in a more laidback and relaxed mood. Compare to her previous escapades in jazz from a few years ago.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Poetry as Cultural Memory

Kwesi Brew's poem, Ghana's Philosophy of Survival, is a curious beast, one that continues to confound even as it strikes a chord of admiration and indeed recognition. Judging by the title alone, there's no quibbling here about a pursuit of happiness, that laudable aspiration and seminal con. In this reading, the message of Brand Ghana (or maybe even the more general Brand Africa) boils down to survival, and a philosophy at that. You might be a little perplexed and expectant when you turn the page and first encounter the poem. Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, that's only the title and you can read the rest for yourself. I thought I'd discuss a few poems and consider his notions of cultural memory: the things we choose to remember and to forget. Herewith some therapeutic toli...

Ghana's Philosophy of Survival

We are the punch bag of fate
on whom the hands of destiny wearies
and the show of blows gradually lose
their viciousness on our patience
until they become caresses of admiration
and time that heals all wounds
comes with a balm and without tears,
soothes the bruises on our spirits.

This is the mettle of invisibility.
This is how we outlast and outlive
the powerful and the unwise.
Whether it is best to wait
or engage the scarlet fury of battle
to stay the hand is for the wise to say,
and not the rashness of the moment.

But we have always been here on this land of ours.
Our country is our home and will always be here at home
To watch, listen and take our suffering
'til true happiness comes naturally and without bitterness.
Love of family kith and kin and brother-keeping
has cast us in this mould:
that while we take the blow and seem unhurt,
speechless, we also watch and wait.

Kwesi Brew, from Return of No Return (1995).
He doesn't pull any punches does he? Indeed he comes right out and gets your attention with the assertion that "We are the punch bag of fate". I admire the nerve as well as the craft. You can't help but be implicated in the "we" even if you're not Ghanaian because what follows are stark words. Phrases full of ironic caresses follow from a connoisseur of the school of hard knocks. He has thought long about the topic and is deploying his talents in plain language.

He isn't berating a culture of excess, or greed, laziness or similar human failing. He's not complaining, nor is he making any value judgments like the prophets of yore. No. Not quite. There's no moral indictment to be found here. Further, should we go looking in the opposite direction, we also won't find any praise-singing. There is merely clear-eyed reflection on a the workings of a community. We are treated to observations born of the discriminatory sensibility of a curator, observations wrapped with the detail of a wordsmith's weaponry. So, reflection it is. The mood is akin to wist, the atmosphere filled with the cosmopolitan perceptions of the weary.

It's a heavy burden however that he has set for himself. Discoursing on the lack of wisdom of the ruler or the excesses of the powerful is the first order of business. One almost expects this kind of pose of our poets. Still, turning the mirror at a society, as the cultural interpreter is wont to do, risks the weight of unpopularity. You get branded as a shrill gadfly demeaning the national character.

As an aside and recent example, it shouldn't have required much courage to criticize the opportunistic imps that landed us with wars and a depression early on in their misdeeds, but few displayed it. Now that the incompetence of that cabal is the conventional wisdom we all prefer to forget the social hysteria that prevailed and that they were able to exploit, the self-righteousness of the wounded and so forth. Cobwebs, I know, dusty cobwebs...

Carry trade - The things we carry - for love and of necessity

Returning to the poem, what are the contours of the stated philosophy of survival, I wonder? Let's start with the question of form. This isn't an essay, manifesto or political tract, it is very specifically a poem. The meter is off kilter - read it aloud and you'll see what I mean, I would hazard that this is deliberately so. He is usually very precise in his works. The chosen form is meant to disorient with its mixture of concision and paradox. The skill of the poet lies as much in the choice of words as in what is left unsaid. The tone also is very different from the exuberance of his earlier poems, the ones that excited a generation of Ghanaian writers.

There are certain phrases that are meant to heighten the tension. Consider the journey that starts with "the mettle of invisibility" and ends "the powerful and the unwise". It is worth dwelling on what we pass through: a coping strategy that helps us "outlast and outlive". If there are gems in this philosophy of survival, perhaps it is in a certain sense of community, the social interplay that Kwesi Brew describes as "love of family kith and kin and brother-keeping". Teasing out this clue, we learn that social living is the strategy. It's a protective mesh to be sure, but one that one that liberates from the peril of alienation that invisibility otherwise implies.

I keep returning to the last lines contrasting them with the first. It's an improvement, if not a reversal, with a sense of purpose. Cultural memory is the thesis. We may decide what we chose to remember and forget as individuals, what a society remembers, however, is often in the realm of the historian, who takes her cues from the raw material of the journalist, or the humble bureaucrat whose notes serve to underlie - or give the lie to, the politician or flight lieutenant's self-serving talking point memo. The hope is that a community will harken to the larger and deeper truths of a poet's lyricism, the storytelling of the griots of yore.

If it is sometimes good for a person to forget, it can be fatal for a community to forget. By the same token, it also matters what a community chooses to remember and to forget - the trappings of nostalgia, myth-making and selective amnesia mark out many blind spots in this landscape. The task then for the poet is to speak to cultural memory, to weave the dreams at once and to reflect on the messy muddle from whence we forge our society.

Kwesi Brew was perhaps the most famous of Ghana's poets (he passed away last year) although, and perhaps this is in keeping with his notion of survival, the poet in him was only one of the many lives he lead: diplomat, businessman, politician and so forth. He didn't simply witness the story of Ghana in the twentieth century, he midwifed the country and helped write its story with all its ups and downs, an active voice even when politicians and journalists would decry a "culture of silence". His declared task, and indeed his legacy, was to make sure that we never forget "the voiceless days of the past" as he wrote in another poem - contrast here with "speechless, we also watch and wait". Consider also the threat to "engage the scarlet fury of battle", and the almost Ali-Foreman rope-a-dope strategy he alludes to. Of course there is also is an element of myth making in the stories that we tell ourselves and he made sure to tell his own stories and to influence the things we remember about our small country. The lesson that Kwesi Brew's Ghana has to teach the rest of the world goes well beyond mere survival.

Don Diego at Edina - Elmina

The book of poems in which Ghana's Philosophy of Survival appears, Return of No Return is centered on a trio of long poems imagining the encounter of Africa with the West. The titular poem is written for his good friend and fellow poet, Maya Angelou, "No Return" was his nickname for her and a reference to the Door of No Return that is the feature of Elmina castle and the various other coastal castles on that saw slaves shipped off to the Middle Passage. Sidenote: these days the castles are tourist attractions of a mournful sort, legacy tourism they call it.

There's a story lurking here in the relationship between the two fellow wordsmiths. Maya Angelou, like quite a number of African Americans in the 1960s left the USA for safer and more hospitable climes. Some were in exile escaping J. Edgar Hoover, others the more benign recriminations of the civil rights era, and still others aiming to satisfy that longing for the motherland. In any case Ghanaian literature and arts in general benefited from the encounter - Efua Sutherland, Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi Anyidoho and others would be part of Kwesi Brew's milieu.

Sidenote: by the early 1990s African Americans were beginning a second round of engagement with Ghana. The Leon Sullivans and Jesse Jacksons of the black establishment part of the seduction. No return was indeed returning.

Thus the terms of reference are ostensibly about the Return of the Native, and his note to Maya Angelou would deal with that and all the complexities of American and African interactions. He prefaces it however by considering the beginnings of that trans-Atlantic story and the centuries-long engagement with those who would become the colonizer. The two earlier poems in the series bear the title Don Diego at Edina (Elmina) and imagine a couple of meetings between local chiefs and the Portuguese. I think we'll call this poetic license but also much in keeping with Brew's own history. The Fantes were the first to encounter the Portuguese once these latter got their headstart on the high seas. Fantes are stereotypically reputed to be the most assimilated with the West. What stories indeed would they tell themselves about the relationship? His character of Don Diego Azambuja is perhaps based on his poet's notion of the first adventurers. Where does power lie? And how much foresight can we grant? This excerpt is a poet's history:
And the brown in the King's eyes thickened darkly over
The presage of gold on hands of iron, gold, gold, gold.
Will there be enough gold to dampen these fierce appetites,
Will there be enough gold, Kyeame?

- from Don Diego at Edina (Elmina)
The old chiefs were no fools but were confronted with guns, steel and the concomitant "fierce appetites". The second poem in the series, adds The Great Rebuff as its subtitle perhaps indicating the bad turn in this centuries-long conversation. In it the chief's Okyeame (his spokesman) whispers
Remember, Nana, temptation's honour is disgrace.
The stranger seeks the nether edge of your bed
To snatch your pillow for his head
when sleep overtakes your wakeful care.

Azambuja looked on.

Tell them, Kyeame tell them,
Friends who met but seldom,
Til death parts them.
Savoured the sweetness of untroubled friendship.
The nature of human heart wreaks its mischief
Upon close neighbours each smoldering with his own craving
From unfulfilled desires burst forth consuming anger

- from Don Diego at Edina (Elmina) The Great Rebuff
Again, the chief and his advisers have agency and foresight and negotiate as best they can. Perhaps this is an important point in light of the later catastrophe of the slave trade and colonization. He ends the second poem with an observation about nostalgia, moving forward a few centuries and laying the ground for his consideration of the African American yearning for return. He couldn't talk to his soul sister, Maya Angelou, without invoking the African memory of that dislocation and forging a common language. Again the entire suite is all about cultural memory, what we choose to remember and to forget.

The collection, Return of No Return, was a departure for Kwesi Brew, less exuberant than The Shadows of Laughter and less expansive than the vision outlined in African Panorama (previously discussed here). A mature meditation and a means to recapture his muse. Always clear-eyed, at times it is a simple critique. Consider:

The Force Of Evil

When bad men
Pass through a place
The way is closed
Behind them by the injured,
Even to innocent men.
When in this mood, titles such as Democracy with a Dark Face, Power Perverted should give insight into the focus of his observations. Miracles and the Message is his reflection on the 1983 drought in Ghana another sore episode and one that is rarely addressed, even as its effects linger.

In writing about these topics, he was perhaps responding to a frequent complaint about the short memories of Ghanaians. So when thugs confront us, we should meet them with our active gaze. And just to prove this point here is Kwesi Brew as Jeremiah, inveighing against the military thugs who were then in the midst of their misrule. No one can say that they weren't confronted. Consider this excerpt from A Goodbye to Arms
Where the green khaki struts and grinds
its marijuana terror into unarmed hearts,
They come as men-at-arms
badged as justice, grim of face.
And then at last, dissembling cloak removed.
A pack of common traders stained in violence
Wresting bread out the mouths of babies
only to give it back to them at a price
so kind are they who betray us.
Mothers, fathers, children, brothers and sisters
Their own shame stained blood


Where is our liberty, you thieves of time?
Where is your vision of prosperity, disciples of greed?
Where is your safety of life, agents of death?
Trusting in these tempers of discontent,
We shall be free again
Free from fear, the fear of fear, the worst
And forever!
A nation's life is a span of just one single bold day!

- from A Goodbye to Arms
The play on the phrase "free from fear", favoured of election observers everywhere ("free and fair, free from fear") is perhaps the sole levity in that poem, a J'accuse directed at Rawlings and his chameleon crew who were ostensibly shedding their military proclivities (hope springs eternal). The rest of the collection, however, serves to round out the picture with laughter and acute observation. We can all use some laughter to leaven life, some riddles to puzzle over and some landscapes for quiet contemplation and revival. The oral tradition that was our past might have encouraged laughter and forgetting but it was also the font of proverbial wisdom and coping strategies for dealing with tricksters. The poets and writers of our present have their work cut out for them.

There is only one aspect of Ghanaian society that Kwesi Brew's words don't fully address in his works, and that is the growing influence of the new religions. Perhaps the urbane cosmopolitan in him didn't feel the need to consider these articles of faith as he spoke to memory. His message of social living was a worldly one even as it invoked the spirit of brother-keeping. It was simply his duty as observer to hew to that message, to bear witness to an unvarnished Ghana.

He lived then "in a land flooded with ubiquitous miracles" and fought the good fight, fashioning his way in the path of a long line of cultural interpreters. I love the texture of Kwesi Brew's poems, the exuberant efficiency of his wordplay and the complications he teases out as he captures both personal and social moods. His words are a soothing balm when the temptation of wrath beckons, they have the consistency of shea butter, guaranteed to heal open wounds and I feel very close to their vitality.

I often feel impatient about Brand Ghana, the twists in the writing and the frequent setbacks. My elders counsel me that it is best to dwell on the small things, to look at the big picture. Talking the long view is a hard thing for the impatient; watching opportunities pass by as small mindedness prevails seemingly at every turn. After reading Kwesi Brew however, I come back refreshed. I no longer begrudge the sanitized fairy tales that many like to tell about Ghana - they have their uses, and, if anything, sharpen my resolve: resist nostalgia and the larger temptation of myth making. Lyricism and clear-eyed reflection were Kwesi Brew's weapons of choice. We are writing the story, we have been writing it forever.

Poetry A Playlist

This is the second of some reflections on Ghana, prompted by the recent election. Let's place this note in The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of social living.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Wound Part I (Ghana Elections 2008)

Let's start with this: they almost killed my uncle.

I really can't write much more than that. When I look at what was done to him, when I look at the pictures, there really isn't much more that can be said: they tried to kill my uncle, they almost killed my uncle.

For an election.

My mother was the one who received the phone call from her brother telling her to come quickly, that they were killing him, that she should bring help.

I was back in Accra at a remove of 200 kilometers. I only saw the text message that read

"Dr Ohene beaten to pulp at Dededo polling station, Ho West. He has been sent to Trafalgar hospital. It's time to stop these gung ho moves"
True I heard the almost primal sound that my cousin had raised when she received that message, a terrifying sound that had made me stop whatever I was doing on this, my dad's birthday, and rush her way. I felt the same wound. I still feel it.

My mother had been talking to my grandmother and grand-aunts when she received that frantic phone call. I can't imagine what those women must have felt in that instant and in the subsequent fraught hours. Is it possible to wound anyone more?

I don't know what my 10 year old cousin, my uncle's son, who was in that house with those women, must have felt. He had been arguing throughout the previous day that he should accompany his father to watch him be a polling agent. Would they have killed his father in front of him? Is it possible to wound anyone more?

The threat had been raised in 2000 and 2004 that "There will be blood on the ground". There was certainly violence and intimidation back then but we have seen things this time in 2008 and now 2009 that are chillingly close to what transpired in places that no one should ever emulate, in countries that people use as cautionary tales.

The cynical people who incited, who fomented, who organized the political violence are as much to blame as those who attacked, who beat, who kicked, who threw stones, who threw planks, who sprayed acid and sundry powders, who held people hostage until they signed, who chased people off, who surrounded cars that arrived in their villages and towns, who shook cars, who spat, who came with cudgels and cutlasses, who threatened to burn down our family home and many others, who stole watches from bleeding men, who searched for cement blocks to take lives, who heeded the call to slaughter the strangers in their midst.

I had promised myself that I wouldn't write during my holiday in Ghana. I knew that I would have prime material with these runoff elections and indeed my home has been plum center of the election strategizing and campaign. Sociologists, historians and political scientists would die for what I've witnessed.

Since 10am on election day when I heard that awful news, things have been clarified for me. The deeply political animal that many of you who read me know is simply in pain.

I have written about my uncle before in these pages, noting that he was one of three psychiatrists tending to the mental health of 20 million Ghanaians. These days he might well be the only psychiatrist in Ghana since almost everyone who trains in his discipline seems to leave the country. My favourite uncle, I don't know a gentler man.

I will write more later on this and other topics and more in my customary style. I will share two things now, I hesitate with the first but I recall having written on the necessity of permanent outrage and certainly there has been outrageous behaviour here.
  • Photos of my uncle after the attack on him that my mother somehow thought to take (warning these are graphic).
  • My mother is more sober perhaps, and certainly calmer when emergencies arise. I don't know where she has found the time given the tremendous pressures of the past few days but she has written an account of things.

    Look On At Your Handiwork
I hope these wounds will heal and that I'll forget these things. But for now I'll end with this: they tried to kill my uncle; they almost killed my uncle.

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