Monday, May 14, 2018

Live in London: May 12 - 13, 2018

London looks like a clean, sparkling New York City. It is amazing – London has a Soho, and so does  NYC. I arrived mid-afternoon, got settled in at the hotel, consulted with the hotel staff on things to do, put on one of my batik dresses from Ghana and set out to see the city. My first stop was the British Museum. 

From its position across from stately townhouses, to an expansive Hellenistic façade, it looks a lot the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or I think the MET probably looks like it). When I walked inside, I saw that the architecture of the building is beautiful. I headed straight for the Africa section. Here is the deal with this institution. The British Museum houses magnificent treasures from all over the world. Things that the British stole from other nations. These are things that whole social studies curricula are based on. They hold the Rosetta Stone!...the Benin cast iron plaques, ancient Egyptian tombs, everything. How did these people manage to get their fingers on the whole world’s treasures?


Igbo Carved Wooden Door
I enjoyed the Africa section. There was a beautifully carved wooden Igbo door and a Ndebele beaded apron. There were hand woven silk textiles from Madagascar,  and of course kente cloth from Ghana. For my Wakanda world folks, a Lesotho blanket was a part of the textile exhibit (remember the men soldiers who had the blanket shields made invincible with vibranium?) There was also an interesting exhibit that links Nigerian Masquerade to carnival traditions in the African diaspora.  
Blanket from Lesotho

Sculpture of Masquerade by Sakuri Douglass Camp (Nigeria)

However, the jewel in the crown, so to speak was, was the set of bronze plaques from 16th century Benin. I spent quite a few minutes studying the designs. They depict royal kings, dual soldiers, women bearing baskets of food and Portuguese soldiers. A thought came to mind. What if these were depictions of our ancestors or art works made by our ancestors? Definitively possible.

Benin Plaques

After the Africa section, I rushed up to the Egyptian exhibit. First of all. There is no question about it. Mystery solved. The Egyptians were black.

The burial tombs were made of lapis lazuli, gold and silver. The splendor of these tombs tells us that Egypt was a mighty and wealthy super power indeed. The museum was closing but I still had not seen the Rosetta stone. I walked all through the ground floor trying to find it. I walked past the door a few times without knowing it. Then I saw a man open a door that was in between two beautiful Egyptian sculptures of the heads of soldiers perhaps. (Photos above) Or perhaps a Pharaoh? Anyway, the man stepped away from the door and then I opened it. There was the Rosetta Stone. It is very large. The polished stone is quite beautiful. It is suspended in the air in a glass case. I only got a quick photo while two of the guards irately, (and very nastily) told me to leave. When I come to London again, I plan to go back.

Next stop was Piccadilly Circus. I am sure you all know, but this area is simply the center of the city, kind of like a clean version of Times Square in NYC. I found a place that served the traditional British Afternoon Tea (They served it all day. I guess tourists like me want this. I know I was grateful since I did not make until around 6:00 pm, way after tea time. ) In honor of the visit I had earl grey. I have had high tea in Philadelphia, The Hay- Adams Hotel in Washington DC, Annapolis, Maryland, The Four Seasons in New York City, Kathleen's Tea Room in Peekskill, New York, Ottawa, Canada and now London, England.  There were very generous tea sandwiches, including a very delicious salmon and soft cheese (the British word for cream cheese). As a high tea connoisseur, I have to say that I think the American teas skimp  on the sandwiches. I also think this was the first time I have had genuine Devonshire clotted cream. It is not sweet at all but very rich. Given the American taste for sugar (I have heard foreign visitors remark on how very sweet everything is in the US) the American teas tend to add a whipped cream kind of element to their versions of the clotted cream. Anyway, each country and culture shares cuisine that is enjoyed by all. Senegal gives us thiebu djen. Nigeria, egusi soup. Botswana, seswa and oxtails. Ghana, well, all kinds of things. India…kormas, mango lassi (and much more), Japan, sushi. For the English, in my opinion, it is the Afternoon Tea.

After tea I decided to explore Piccadilly Circus on foot. By the way, this was a rainy day. Once again, my shoes were soaked, but I did not care. I had borrowed an umbrella from the hotel and was determined to see London. I bought a souvenir tea from a kind of tea emporium (photo above). They sell them loose. Somehow, this visit helped me understand that tea blending is an art. I bought a rose tea, which the kindly gentlemen sales clerk kept telling me was from a French province, so it was “very good quality.” I just smiled politely. After the tea emporium, I had a 'romp' around London.   

Piccadilly Circus is the area where all of the Broadway shows are playing. Identical to Times Square in NYC. I meandered around until ran into London’s China town. What did I find? An exact replica of the dome in DC’s china town. There were many dim sum restaurants and Chinese grocery stores. A group of hare krishnas were dancing and singing in the middle of the street. I guess it was fascinating (and sad) to watch them, because they were all English. They drew a crowd of amused spectators. I guess they found the sight entertaining - English men and women dressed in traditional Indian clothes, with their faces painted and wearing marigold garlands. I have to confess, family. I found this to be very amusing as well.

I  spent the time strolling and taking photos with a big, enthusiastic grin on my face. I did not care that I probably stood out as a tourist. I was a tourist and was enjoying myself. Just behind China town is the original Soho. For those who know New York, London’s Soho looks very much like Greenwich Village of New York City. More strolling and more photos. It was getting dark. Without warning,  I walked passed Ronnie Scotts. Wow! Ronnie Scotts is a famous jazz club in London. Ella Fitzgerald did a show there that is featured at the end of her documentary Something to Live For. I had already checked out the possibility of a visit online before I left the hotel, but tickets were sold out. Joe Lovano and Dave Douglass were headlining. I thought I would try anyway. I told the men at the door that I was from the US, visiting just for the day and just wanted to hear some music. After a few minutes of waiting, and the equivalent of $54 dollars later, I was ushered to a premier seat, right in the front. I guess the Lord had planned this day for me, because it could not have had a more perfect end!

There I was in Ronnie Scott’s, a place I never thought I would be able to visit. I ordered a rose champagne to toast the occasion. The music was very nice. I learned that even jazz musicians at the career level of Joe Lovano and Dave Douglass still have to hustle. They were standing at the front selling their CDs as I left. Dave seemed surprised when I congratulated him on the show in my American accent. When I went out to the street again, the mood had shifted. This was late night and people were hanging out and drinking. I decided to grab a sandwich and head back to the hotel. They had a hamhock sandwich that I decided to try. (Hamhocks!)
 I also got ‘mature cheddar crisps’ (cheesy potato chips). I think the 'mature' description is what we call 'sharp' cheddar. Anyway,  I knew it was time to go and got a strong feeling that I should get straight into the cab. But I still wanted to see a little of late night Soho. At the sandwich/coffee place, my American accent attracted a little attention. Men sitting on stools turned their faces towards me and smiled as I spoke to the cashier. This turned out to be too much attention. As I went into a small ‘corner store’ further down the street, I realized that a man from the coffee place had been following me. Yikes! When I came out he was waiting for me! It was at that moment that I became very grateful for the dress I had chosen to wear. It was one of my Ghanaian batik dresses, with a generous hemline, well below the knee. I had on a sweater also, so no bare arms. I looked nice and wholesome. When I saw this strange man waiting outside of the store, I smiled politely, gestured a 'no' with my hands, crossed the street to get away from him and got directly into a taxi. It was time to go. Back at the hotel, I enjoyed my sandwich, watched a movie and went to sleep.

The next morning a taxi took me to Victoria Station to get the express train to Gatwick Airport. I asked  him to take the scenic route so I could see London Bridge. It’s just a bridge ya’ll. It was built in 1850. How did this bridge come to loom large in the minds of Americans as the reference point for the city? London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, falling down. London bridge is falling down, my fair lady. (As I sang it during my selfie photo shoot on the bridge, I noticed that the song is the same tune as Mary Had a Little Lamb. I think I will write more about the social conditioning function of nursery rhymes later.) At any rate, I also saw Big Ben (it is surrounded with scaffolding for repairs I guess) and Westminster Abbey. And that was my stay in London. I had a fabulous time.

In the UK: Journey to the Metropole

I am in London because I was selected to give a paper at a conference at the University of Nottingham.  The conference was called Resonating Occupation. Scholars from all over the world were there to share papers on what colonial occupation sounds like. Ethnomusicologists, literary scholars, composers and sound studies folks from India, Israel, Malaysia, China and a few from the US (all from California except for me).  I was blessed with the privilege and honor to represent the African American experience at the conference. My paper was called Hush Harbor as Sanctuary: African American Survival Silence During British/American slavery. In the paper I argued that when we were first brought to America we were colonial subjects, non-citizens and dominated by an ‘occupying force’: British turned American slave owners/colonizers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many of the other so-called ‘founding fathers.’ We survived by using coded language and song, and by engaging in secret religious/prayer meetings at night called hush harbors. The hush harbor is where our spirituals, ring shouts and way of practicing Christianity as a mode of liberation was formed. My paper was very well received.

St. Pancras Station, London UK
This is my first time to the UK. The metropole as it is called. The University of Nottingham’s campus was incredibly beautiful. So green. It is spring here. A cool spring. I arrived in London at Gatwick Airport (via Iceland). Took a train into London’s St. Pancras station and then another train to Nottingham. St. Pancras station is beautiful. It has an expansive and airy arched vaulted ceiling. Trendy shops and lots of places to eat. I spent an enjoyable hour waiting for my connection. I had something called an elderflower refresher and bread with a whipped cauliflower spread and blue cheese.
Whipped Cauliflower and Blue Cheese

The English country side is absolutely beautiful. I have always liked the combination of old and new in European cities. I could not completely abandoned myself to complete joy however, because I kept thinking of Britain as a colonial power. And I kept comparing the condition this country is in to some of its former colonies that I have visited. Specifically Ghana and Zimbabwe. This is a land that was never colonized, but benefited from the wealth of other nations around the globe. That means beautiful wrought iron gates and other  iron works with gold detailing (from Ghana or South Africa no doubt). That means sleek train systems and well paved roads and the highest state of advanced 'green' technology. That means a country with all of its trees and ecosystems still in tact that surround cottages, sky scrapers, and universities. I was and still am troubled. I will be honest. I keep thinking of Ghana’s open sewers. However, we can not use architecture and technology to judge value, because all of this here in the UK came at a horrible price. This government and these people’s ancestors  played a simple game – whoever is the most violent wins. And how do people continually exercise such violence? They justify it with white supremacy. And it is this mindset that has been passed down to their children. There are many Brits who are extremely racist. To get it out of the way, I will tell you. Since I have been here, I have experienced blatant racism. I have been told to move out of the way by a crowd of English women, heckled, not greeted by sales clerks, treated impatiently, greeted with coldness, stared at with amusement,  poked fun at and yelled at like I was a criminal by a white woman guard at the British Museum. Any black person living here pays a price to be here. The price for making a salary in the highest valued currency in the world is having to endure overbearing racism, the British colonial legacy, few numbers (only 3 percent of the population) and being continually marginalized (imagine what a black child goes through in school!). I will reflect a little more about the colonial legacy later, but for now, I will tell of my travel journey.

Big English Breakfast with Blood Pudding (Upper Left) 
Nottingham is a quaint city.  Beautiful. Brick roads, a picturesque train station and a campus that is so beautiful with lush flowers and foliage that it is therapeutic to walk through. We were housed at a four star hotel with the most interesting breakfast buffet. They had scrambled eggs, fried eggs over easy, sausage, bacon  (British style – same as Botswana) and something called blood pudding. It looks like a burned sausage patty. It is made of pigs blood and spices. At first I wasn’t going to, but I tried it. Tastes like scrapple ya’ll. After the conference, I took the train to London and had a great time.

What's the Word Johannesburg? - Jo'burg Day 2 (April 2017)

This was the last day of my journey and if nothing else happened but my experience in Suweto, as I said before, I was satisfied. But more was soon to come. I had a great breakfast at a black owned café in Moabeng, right around the corner from the apartment. Worked a little. Actually I worked a lot on a grant application – the whole day in fact. Brother Mpho came to pick me up that evening. Sintu was with him. She is a jazz musician and music teacher. We were going to two jazz jam sessions. Interesting. The first one was at a lovely outdoor restaurant. It was led by a 'colored' pianist. It was nice. Yes, just nice. They played American jazz standards proficiently and well. Good training. But I was completely bored. I had heard all of the songs before because they were made into jazz standards by the masters. I did not think this was the South African jazz I had come for. My model was Winston Ngozi’s Yakhal'Inkomo. It just did not feel the same.  It was sterile.

I had a nice dinner and we left after a short while. Then we arrived at another jam session in Sophiatown. We walked into a small wooden floored room with a blind pianist playing a very out of tune piano. I felt a little skeptical. Except that the feeling of the place was authentic. There was original art work on the walls and mismatched chairs lined in a row just in front of the band stand. Serious faced black men were sitting in them, leaning in with their heads bobbing and listening hard. This was different. This was for real. We stood towards the back (all other chairs were filled) and the musicians took a break. Then the sound of Winston Ngozi’s burnt orange timbre on the tenor sax sound filled the atmosphere. I had found the South African jazz tradition that I had come looking for. Sintu and I found seats while Brother Mpho went to get a few of his instruments. Then the music started. 

I was glad that I had decided to record. Yonela Mnana was the pianist that led the audience in singing a simple line - "Zai-re" (the previous name of the DRC.)  From that phrase, in 5/4 time, he built the most alive and swingin’ song that interwove the base vocals with hand claps, the bass line and the jazz rhythms of the drums. It was awesome.  Yonela's song literally made me feel cleansed and invigorated. I felt washed (I am not trying to be sacrilege). I was completely swept away. It was the kind of music that makes you feel like you can do anything.  I invite you to listen to the video I have included  (above) because I cannot really describe the music in words. What also struck me was the difference between the vibe of these musicians compared to the African – American jazz musicians back home – specifically in NYC. These musicians invited everyone to participate in the music making with them. (No, 'I'm - too - cool - for - you' stand offishness). And these guys played with a different kind of creativity. Southern African culture dictated the attitude and the conduct of the players. In Botswana, South Africa and other African cultures all members of the community are family. All are welcome and all have a place. Black jazz musicians do still form the nucleus of The Music in the US. They are still the creative force behind the music. But the South African brothers that I saw were just as good if not better. Many African – American male jazz musicians tend to be…hmm… cool with their music. The jazz community is filled with machismo and their relationship with each other is like a brotherhood. An exclusive brotherhood. Women are welcome…. to sing. And maybe play the piano. And you better do that well. And of course you must be an attractive women. If not then you better be a genius. I observed that the South African musicians treated Sinti like a sister when she played. They were encouraging towards her. By and large, African American male jazz musicians play for each other. They make albums for each other. The more harmonically complicated the better. (I am generalizing however). These musicians were different. They were open and welcoming.   They were also forgiving and encouraging of anyone who didn’t have the technical proficiency that they themselves displayed. And they were musical. They had heart. Heart + Jazz Chops. And that makes for the magical music that I heard that night in Johannesburg.

The next day I made my way to the airport to catch a bus back to Gaborone. People often bus to Jo’burg to get flights to reduce the ticket costs. This is what I did as well. This is how I got to ‘enjoy’ one last experience. Crossing a land border between countries. I have only ever done so at an airport. All of the passengers had to get off of the bus and walk across the border. This was a long and arduous process, but after a few hours and extensive bag checks by security personnel, I was back in Gaborone. I spent my last few days visiting my church friends and doing last minute shopping. My last day was a Sunday. After a family lunch at Sister Noma's home with her husband Brighton and her three wonderful children, my dear friend  took me to the airport and she saw me off, back to Washington DC. 

What’s the Word Johannesburg? – Jo’burg Day 1 (April 2017)

Traditional South African Cuisine at Pata Pata (Oxtails)

I left Cape Town on a sunny Monday afternoon. I arrived in Johannesburg to problems. The Airbnb was complicated to get into. I had to pick up the key in one building and then find the next, leaving my luggage in an Uber. Only problem was that I could not find the entrance to the apartment building. I ended up walking around the block desperately asking security guards to help me. Finally, I found it (after an hour) and I was completely frazzled. The guard and driver helped me get my things up three long flights of stairs (they too were not in the airbnb description) and I arrived. The apartment was nicely designed, as was reflected in the photos, but it was hot. The lack of a/c was a detail that I had forgotten. No screens on the windows or sliding patio door. But I was there.

Moabang Tailor Shop
So I will not complain. I changed my clothes and set off for dinner. I was staying in Moabang, an area that is considered to be the arts district of Johanessburg. It was kind of like areas of Brooklyn, NYC but without the basic living necessities like grocery stores. I had dinner at a restaurant called Pata Pata, named for Miriam Makeba’s popular song. Art spaces dotted the streets, along with dress shops offering tailored clothing in bold African prints. I started calling people. I felt really uncomfortable, insecure and unsafe. I knew not a soul in Johannesburg but unlike Cape Town, I did not have the security of a prime location and hotel concierge. I called my husband. I called another friend. Finally I remembered to call a person from Johannesburg that I had met in Ghana last summer. Her name is Ilke and she also teaches music. She happened to be in the far western cape (the lower southwest of the country) the exact days that I was going to be in the city. She offered to connect me with another musician friend of hers. This connection turned out to be gold. Mpho is a traditional musician who volunteered to take me into Suweto. I was mildly interested in the things that tourists normally do in a city. The mainstream things. But I was really in Johanessburg to connect with the freedom struggle. A movement that was rooted in the Suweto township. During apartheid South African Blacks were relocated to townships from various areas of the cities. They were packed in tightly to these places. Very much like Jewish people were forced into the Ghettos of Warsaw, Poland. Whites took the best land, near the coast or in spacious areas. Blacks were forced to live outside of the city and commute to their jobs. I did not realize that Suweto was so far outside of Johannesburg. It is about a half hour drive.

Brother Mpho came to collect me the next day in the late morning. Suweto was our destination. When we arrived I realized that Suweto was a bastion of Blackness. Black folk were everywhere. The place where I was staying felt like gentrified Brooklyn. This place felt like the Washington DC of my childhood. I realized I had found my home in South Africa. Our first stop was the Hector Pieterson Museum. The Museum is named after the 12 year old boy who was shot by police during a protest march. Sound familiar? Suweto students were marching to protest the Afrikans language as the medium of instruction in their schools. The police opened fire on the students and killed many of them. The museum exhibitions present a chronology of the events that led to his murder. Its location is not too far from the protest site. 

The exhibition includes video footage of the South African president of that time and supporters of apartheid. He was a Nazi supporter who wore a Nazi uniform and spouted racial hatred and separatist, read black oppression, ideas. White South Africans are actually on camera talking about how they shouldn’t mix with ‘the lower races.’ It was not only Black folks harmed by slavery and colonialism. Whites harmed themselves. In the history section of the new Smithsonian African American Museum, it is stated that the 500 year period of slavery created ‘Whiteness.’  Ingrained in the construction of whiteness are supremacist ideas, hatred and murder. The white South African supporters of apartheid needed a new identity. Mandela and Dr. King gave it to them.  The Civil Rights and Anti-Apartheid movements also helped them to redefine themselves. But more work needs to be done.

I cried at the museum. Especially when I saw the freedom songs. Freedom songs. We African -
Americans have those too. There was also a blossoming of protest poetry during their movement. Poetry in Zulu and Xhosa. Poetry in their languages that defined their identity. I came away with a new understanding of the time during apartheid. After the museum we went to Nelson Mandela’s house. Yes – I said the Mandela house! His home in is Suweto, where he lived with Winnie and his two daughter, Zenani and Zindziwa (Zindzi for short). Desmond Tutu lived down the street. The home has been transformed into a beautiful museum. I walked slowly through taking in all of the photos, personal affects and furniture. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wanted to soak it all in. They looked at me and charged me the entry fee for members of the African Union. My brothers and sisters – we the African – American nation should formally join the African Union. That’s where we belong! Each room is set up in the way it was when they lived there. The girl’s beds are still in the same place. There are all kinds of awards, videos and audio narration all over the house. I was very, very moved.

Maya with Mama Dee at Kliptown Youth Center (Suweto)
After this, my Brother Mpho took me to a youth center in Kliptown, a well - known and very impoverished area of Suweto. One lady wearing a beautiful head wrap surprised me. She stood up and out of her lips flowed the mellifluous talk of an African – American woman from the South. I hugged her in amazement and asked where she was from. She told me she was from South Africa. Mama Dee left the country at the height of apartheid and moved to Texas. During her twenty years in the US with us, she adopted African America as her second home and culture. Hence, her southern Black folks way of talking. She took me on a tour of the center, which houses youth, provides career development and hosts retreats. At the end of my visit I heard a powerful choir rehearsing. I went to see them. They were standing in a dark room, lit only with one dim candle. Their voices soared through the blackness up to the dusky star lit sky. Their singing was powerful and encompassed the heart of all listeners. We should not be ashamed. Music, singing…music making, musicality, however you want to say it, is a part of Black identity. It is blackness. Not that it is all that we excel in. We have brilliance in all areas. But let’s not allow other’s foolish stereotypes rob us of our identity. The way we make music is black. After a while, Brother Mpho gently told me that it was time to go.

It was night. By the way, Suweto is huge. There are people of all socioeconomic levels that live there. We pulled up to a cozy looking house with a gravel walkway leading to the back. This was a Tuesday night jam session. We walked towards the back of the house to a covered outdoor area. A wildly colorful mural was the backdrop for the stage filled with musicians who could play their behinds off! Learned another thing. Everything that we African – Americans have in music is because we are form Africa! Those folks could play. Different artists and bands began to sit in. We were kind of there early for the pre-show (We arrived at around 7) I understood the wisdom in this, because by nine o’clock the place was absolutely packed. This was where it was happening in Jo’burg. There was a singer there named Zuka of the Zuka Collective. She had such freedom in her singing. She would break out into a dance during instrumental breaks and sang with such expression. She was great. I cannot really describe it all. How does one describe a vibe? How can I describe intangibles such as music and groove? What I will say it that what they were doing is fresh. Everyone knows (or should know) when something new is happening. I am sure the Cats felt that way at the dawning of the be-bop movement in Harlem in the 1940s. Something new. And so it was in Suweto at that  jam session. Suweto is like Harlem. A majority Black place where culture happens and where political movements happen. A place of Black consciousness. So that was my first day in Jo’burg. The answer to my jazz in South Africa question awaited me my next evening out. 

Mpho at Tuesday night jam in Suweto

Sister Zuka sings in full force