Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Our dream is to bring beauty to the world

On the dark stage of the Theatre Royal, on a magical night of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, a light sculpts the shape of Sidiki Diabaté. He holds and tunes his kora. From silence the first notes emerge as a warm voice through a growing feeling of commotion.  His fingers dance on the strings of his instrument and a sweet composition vibrates in the air as a lullaby. 

After his first song, Toumani Diabaté appears on the stage and sits on the second chair. They look at each other, father and son, and without speaking they start to play, tuned on the same melody in a bind of notes which ties the spectators. 

It is a sequence of songs; then silence is broken by the clapping of the audience.  The spectacle goes on for around one hour. Then Toumani Diabaté takes the microphone and with his smile gives thanks to the spectators. He says: “Thank you England for adopting me. I’m a Camden boy! I arrived here from Mali in 1986; since then I have been living here and travelling around the world with my music.”

He looks at his son and states: “Our dream is to bring beauty to the world.”

The African Kora music is beauty which penetrates hearts. Kora is an instrument made by a half calabash covered with cow skin and strung with fishing lines. It is played using only four fingers on twenty-one strings whose sound is smartly combined in one time by the players. 
He continues: “The most important thing to me is to bring this music from the past. This is the free jazz of the tradition. Listening to the music you might feel like dancing or just to close your eyes and dream with the melody. What we play is all about peace and spirituality.” 

The last song the duo play is called Lampedusa. “We wrote this song thinking of the 300 plus Africans who passed away trying to reach the costs of Lampedusa in Italy, last October 2013. We were lucky to get a chance of working, of getting a VISA. But now everything is difficult. If you don’t have a VISA, if you don’t have money you are nothing. This is very sad,” Toumani Diabaté concludes.  

The last notes sound like all the words of those who were lost in a sea of hope. 

The end is a noisy clapping of enthusiastic spectators while Toumani and Sidiki leave the scene.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Black History and Modernism in Twentieth Century Art

Written by Danny Keen

Creole Dancer, Henri Matisse

I studied fine art in 1960s “Swinging London”. In that era Black Culture rushed through the establishment like a refreshing breeze. Once again the Zeitgeist dipped into Black History to find the name that defined the times. The term “Swinging” was itself a word that was borrowed from Jazz, similarly the 1920s and 30s were called the “Jazz Age”.  A black person studying fine art at that time was in a lonely position. As far as I knew I was the only one. What I had in common with my white fellow students was that we were all reaching for something new. We were trying to break free of the straight jacket of the establishment.
The first time I walked into an art school I was impressed by “Beatnicks”. These were people who had long hair, dark clothing and carried bongo drums and guitars around with them as they walked about in sandals reciting “Beat” poetry. These people were “hip”, but they were soon overtaken by “Hippies” as the coolest “cats and chicks” around. It seemed to me that generations of young people were liberally dipping into Black Culture to define themselves. The “Beat”, the “Hip”, the “Cool”, the “Swing”, the “Hip Hop”, the “Groove” are elements of youth style that have derived from Black culture.
And so it was in the visual arts. Starting with Paul Gauguin in the nineteenth century modern painting was developed by artists dipping into the great well of Black Culture for their inspiration.  When I was a student “New York Abstract Expressionism” was considered to be the cutting edge of the visual arts. The leading light of the movement was Jackson Pollock who had died in a car crash some years earlier. Pollock, in common with his contemporaries, immersed himself in Jazz music.  In the 1940s Pollock produced “action” paintings using the improvisational approach of jazz musicians. This put him at the forefront of a new generation of abstract painters. At exactly the same time Henri Matisse in post war France created his “Jazz” series using his cut out technique. These late works were done in his old age, and placed Matisse at the forefront of twentieth century modern art. In the opinion of many experts these late works allowed him to overtake Picasso to become the master of 20th century painting.  Picasso spent his late years retreating into sexual fantasies blended with Greek mythology, but Matisse reached out into the dynamic world of jazz to produce abstract pictures that were right on the cutting edge.
Both great masters dipped into Black Culture for inspiration. Picasso collected African art all his life. Matisse made several visits to North Africa and collected carpets. They both experienced a great event that sent shockwaves throughout the Parisian art world. Josephine Baker’s arrival in 1927 made an instantaneous impact that was culture changing. The “Jazz Age” had arrived. Pandora had opened her box and Paris was never the same again! The proof of the great black entertainer’s influence on the French art world is in the Matisse exhibition at the Tate Modern. I recently paid homage before it. Matisse’s major late work “Creole Dancer” is a testament to Josephine Baker’s charisma. 25 years after she first arrived from America she was still casting her spell over the great master.
What is it about Black History that allows art experts to overlook its influence? The pundits who write about art are the victims of a prejudice that puts Black History in the box marked “Primitive”. Yet every where you look Black History is the prime force for change throughout modern art, literature, music, dance, politics, sport and culture! It is the task of those us who know better to take Black History from the box marked “Primitivism” and put it in the one marked “Modernism”.