zondag 4 januari 2015

Deeper consciousness

In another blog post I talked about “Word Power”, a term also used in reggae and Rastafari lyrics. There is an interesting concept behind it. It is even a Biblical idea: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God..” (Genesis). Rastafari people tend to use it broader than this: the “consciousness” is important in Rastafari, and formulating your grievances, “speaking out”, pointing out in words, through speech what is unjust, how you are oppressed, is a crucial aspect in the “message music” that much of reggae music is. Through the power of the word, consciousness is achieved and expressed. This I find an interesting psychological phenomenon: the creative potential of language, expressing things.

TALKING AND TEXT

“Potential”, indeed, because in my opinion talking or saying things are just as much used to obfuscate, to trick and hide things. Talking around things like a smoke-screen. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri likened in this sense politicians to magicians. Not just politicians, but also other powerful people like presidents of companies, head teachers, or also people trying to gain power over people or profit from them - or people who try to keep people away from them - use language as smoke screen, hiding their true feelings and opinions. This is defendable when it is a matter of politeness or being well-mannered. If you do not like – such as out of prejudice – certain people, in formal situations it might be better to keep that to yourself. When you want to buy something in a store, you would not really appreciate to note the negative views the shopkeeper holds about the ethnic group you seem to represent.

The same Ben Okri - a writer I recently got more interest in - points in his writings on the power of “stories” in shaping societies and the world. For good and for bad, he explains, but at the same time intricately human and unavoidable. To quote from him: “It is only our storytelling sense that can work with this immeasurable data of life”.. You can deduce from his arguments, however, also that stories are not necessarily the same as “the verbal” or (written or spoken) texts as such. Stories are also lived, experienced.

Either way, either to express truth or hide the truth, words are indeed powerful and influential. It is part of the very basis of humanity; people who are not listened to do not matter, are not as “human” as you. Self-expression is essential for all humans. The easy response of turning loud and aggressive is perhaps not the most intelligent one, but it is understandable from a human point of view: if you listened with an open mind in the first place, the other party would not have to “scream” (literally or metaphorically). Power relations and prejudice are thus intricately related to the spoken word.

Many oppressed and discriminated people feel they are “not listened to”. Listening is here likened to caring. Justly, I think. That is why reggae is I think so valuable as “message music”. It is, as many said, truly the voice of the people. It has a degree of consciousness.

Especially in Rastafari-inspired reggae music, the rebellion against "Babylon", representing the Western oppressive system - and/or "evil" in general -, or decrying Babylon's wickedness, is a crucial part of the lyrical expression.

SUPERFICIAL

That is, of course, not to say that all music and lyrics made by poor people in the world are socially conscious and express this; many “escape” in party and love (or sex) lyrics, eschewing wider social critique. This has I think a variety of reasons: the political situation including censorship, social movements (or lack thereof) in certain countries, and level of education/knowledge. It is self-expression, only more superficial.

I myself speak and understand Spanish, and I noticed a difference between the lyrics in Spanish Caribbean music and British Caribbean music. It is not an absolute difference, but somewhat generalizing you can say that in both (much) reggae and much calypso, social critique in lyrics is common, while in Cuban, Dominican, or Puerto Rican music much less. Love, party, and relationship lyrics dominate there. This need not be - not consciously at least - using language to “hide” or even worse “trick”, as I said before, but can be matter of simple enthusiasm, focussing on daily life, and avoiding complexities. Or just a lack of consciousness and knowledge. Or political censorship, especially the case in Cuba.

Also in Jamaican music such “lighter” lyrics exist, but balanced more with social critique.

INDIVIDUALISM

Another aspect that might explain such differences is the degree of individualism in societies. Individualism is a much misunderstood term in this world, I think. It has been (mis)used by Western people to express e sense of superiority of their culture (“negative word power”, so to speak). Interpreted broader, however, African, and also Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American cultures can be seen as individualistic in some ways too. Even in more profound ways than it is commonly interpreted in the West. In the Western (European) culture individualism is supposedly valued, especially in modern times, and is said to have inspired liberalism or even capitalism. The Wikipedia article (in English) on individualism only refers to Western philosophy and schools of thought, which is a missed opportunity, I think.

It has a social-class connection and is commonly (justly or not) associated with the West, but individualism is certainly noticeable among poorer-class Afro-Caribbean people, for example. Case in point: varied and creative language use: in Jamaica, for instance, most common people speak Jamaican Creole among themselves, sometimes mixed to differing degrees with (standard) English, or use English only in formal situations, as English is still the only official language in Jamaica. This by itself requires an individual manoeuvring, as do all class – as well as cultural - differences. Jamaican Rastafari-adherents also creatively invented many knew words, expressing their ideas (such as “I and I”, or Downpression instead of Oppression). The very fact of the presence of a broad and varied creative culture (musical and otherwise) in Jamaica, originating new music genres (like reggae) from different influences, and that in Jamaica also a new religious/spiritual movement – Rastafari – originated that would become both (reggae and Rastafari) global, all point at a strong sense of individuality.

DANCING

There are regional differences though. In many countries of Latin America, dancing alone - by yourself - is rare. Especially on some genres, like salsa music. You usually dance in couples. Dancing by yourself is not absent, but neither is it common. In Jamaica, on the other hand, dancing alone, by yourself is much more common, even the norm, unless you are in a romantic relationship with someone who is also at the dance. Or in cases where people “bubble” or “dagger” (dances that simulate sex, but are not sex). I myself travelled to Cuba and Jamaica some years ago, and went to many dances in both countries, so I experienced this also first-hand.

This difference in dance orientation has always intrigued me. I relate this to the presence of more socially conscious lyrics in reggae. Social consciousness is in the end an individual process of awareness. You cannot as a person be curtailed too much by people around you, if you want to achieve this mental awareness, which by definition is individual. This is compensated by connections (community, spiritual, social) to other people of course, so it is not totally isolated. That is maybe one of the misapprehensions about individualism: that it’s the same as isolation (from man kind). It need not be. In fact, I think you respect other people’s individuality even more when you truly respect and know your own individuality on a deeper level.

As much reggae is “message music”, how you dance to it therefore also expresses your own interconnection with and awareness of the music and lyrics. You need to be personally involved to truly get into it. Your own mind can then not be distracted too much. If the lyrics are on the other hand superficial and do not go deep, attention can more easily be given to social obligations around you and formulaic dance moves. That is basic psychology.

It relates also to the idea of “individuality” within the Rastafari movement. A movement that after all developed in Jamaica since the 1930s, among Afro-Jamaicans. It also largely influenced the “message” and rebellion in reggae music, of course. The term “individualism” is problematic here, because Rastafari adherents do not believe in “isms”. For the very same reason that the term Rastafarianism is not liked by everyone. Anyway, there is a strong presence of a sense of individuality within Rastafari, called “epistemological individualism” (or individuality).

In the book (collective volume) ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (ed. by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane’, from 1998) it is related to ideas of radical freedom, liberation from oppressive structures, as well as to the “I and I consciousness” of the divine (and thus the source of truth and life) present within each individual. This expressed subjective agency has a self-actualizing, emancipatory effect. The pronoun “I” – representing respect and dignity for the human person (in connection to Jah/the divine) - is used much in Rasta speech. At the same time there is – through this shared divinity – a connectedness with other humans (and nature)..but on an equal basis.

It seems reasonable that this also contributed to certain ways of dancing to music: individually rather than collectively experienced.

DEEPER CONSCIOUSNESS

There is also another dimension to all this.

Some things you know, but not yet really know. You know them, so to speak, on a subconscious level, you live something, but had no theoretical, textual explanation heard or read as yet. There is a power that precedes words. A deeper power: spiritual and natural. It includes basic, seemingly simple biology and natural forces. Also on the tactical, sensory level.

The music genres I mentioned from the Caribbean: reggae, calypso, salsa – and other genres of course – have partly African origins and influences. Music is by itself a phenomenon that goes beyond words. It touches you also without words/lyrics. The heart beat a unborn child hears though its mother is the first “rhythm” a human being hears and feels, and an essential, life-confirming one at that. This pulse (and breathing) are rhythmic, and at the same time the proof that you are alive.

That brings me to something I recently read. In reality one of the more interesting things I read in the whole year of 2014. It brought so much things home to me, so to speak. It added words and consciousness to what I more or less already lived and “knew” from experience. Still, I valued it and experienced it in that sense as “life-explaining” knowledge (more than as “life-changing”). It brings me back to the theme of “dancing”.

In the book (actually a collection of texts, interviews and photos) ‘The aesthetic of the cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music’ (2011), by Robert Farris Thompson, Thompson explains how music making and dancing differs culturally in Africa from Europe. He points out how musicians play apart in African traditional music, while musicians in European music “play together” (symphony and unison). On the other hand in Africa “music and dance” are not separate, while in Europe music and dance are.

This very fact – that European music is played more “together” - essentially contradicts the common notion that the West is individualistic whereas other cultures are collectivistic: African music, such as on percussion and drums, leave much room for individual improvisation and free deterrence from any meter or norm. Some relate this to the fact that African cultures were long more “oral”, and Western cultures more “scribal” (with fixed texts) leading the latter to more conservatism. Seems reasonable to me, at least as part of the explanation.

Black US (and other) comedians sometimes joked that white people dance irrespective of “the beat” (read: the music), unlike black people. Eddy Murphy had a joke about that, back in the days. More recent comedian Dwayne Perkins said ironically in a comedy bit that white people dance therefore better, freer: not as limitedly confined to the beat. This perhaps relate to this original difference, surviving the times (and the slave trade).

Also regarding that inherent “playing music NOT together/in unison” in African culture, the room for improvisation at least partly survived slavery and colonialism. One only should think of jazz, but also of the percussive polyrhythm and syncope setting Black music in the West apart from music with no African influence. There is an individual freedom there that is lived, sensed, rather than formulated in text, or in some “ism”. Fixed texts tend to systematize, thus constrict.

What’s interesting about this philosophically is that the individual musicians’ freedom shaping African music is celebrated by dancing to it. Dancing to the complex rhythms.

Dancing without set norms (freely yet on the beat/rhythm) is celebrating this individuality even more. Individuality that is – like the Rastafari I-and-I concept - inherently combined with connectedness with other humans, such as the musicians combining patterns variedly in one polyrhythmic whole. In that sense many European dances (not all) are often more collectivistic and in unison, just like the music. Leaving less space for improvisation. In the same book ‘The aesthetic of the cool’, Thompson stresses that even dancers in what are known as African “couple dances” do not embrace each other so much (as in European couple dances). Just to maintain personal flexibility of movement.

At the very least this sheds another light on the commonly formulated difference between individualist and collectivist cultures in this world.

In the same vein, of course, dance is important as part of the spirituality in many African and Afro-American religions, to the point where for instance Vodou (and Santería a.o.) are termed “danced religions”.

This is a deeper, more essential (or “spiritual”) consciousness that is lived, danced, not given power by words or literacy, but naturally by life and the “heart beat” itself. Mere words cannot capture it fully, but only can partly explain it, raise consciousness about it.

SPEECHES

An interesting series of documentaries on Dutch television write now, as I write this, has to do with “word power” in more than one sense: influential speeches by political and other leaders: the series Speeches (VPRO). I recently saw one that centered around the speech H.I.M. Haile Selassie I gave in 1963, at the United Nations in New York. Selassie is of course the most important man/figure for the Rastafari movement.

The speech is the one which Bob Marley made lyrics from, for the song ‘War”: “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior.. “.

Selassie’s speech in 1963 was indeed a beautiful, impressive one, due to its content, but also because of its historical time and context. Africa was then in a process of decolonization, and Selassie pointed out that Africans must be respected by the world as equals. He became a spokesperson for Africa, and visited many international leaders. The speech’s content has up to now lost none of its necessity. Africa is still not valued as an “equal continent”: an analysis of the world situation makes this clear. The economic and political power of African countries is limited strongly by neo-colonialism and interest of Western/richer countries over African resources. Selassie was early in pointing this out, and to raise consciousness about it. This continued through the Rastafari movement, with Bob Marley’s lyrics made of Selassie’s 1963 speech being one known example of it.

The documentary on Dutch television seemed partly quite neutral and objective, though it repeated some dubious claims made once in a book about Selassie by Ryszard Kapuscinski (a Polish journalist who became known as a fantast). This book by Kapuscinsky unfortunately also has (negative) “word power” it seems. For the documentary further Ethiopians who knew and worked with Selassie, and a Jamaican Rastafari adherent who went to live in Ethiopia, who also helped to spend texts and speeches by Selassie to Jamaica. Some aspects remained too superficial in this documentary, I think. Others were simply mistaken, such as things taken from Kapuscinski’s biography.

The irony was formulated in this documentary (which I heard and read before) that Emperor Selassie I stimulated the education of Ethiopians and that this eventually turned against him. Some of the students and educated people turned against him and sought to overthrow him. While sounding as a somewhat literary “irony of history” – like there are so many historical ironies in world history – it also shows how knowledge and written words can be interpreted differently.

Not just written texts, being the main focus of schools and universities. During the documentary an Ethiopian explained how the situation of a famine in a part of Ethiopia (Wollo) – which he said was in process of ending/being resolved – was nonetheless used by Mengistu, the (Communist) revolution’s leader who overthrew Selassie. The Communist revolutionaries showed an earlier documentary (by an Englishman) on this famine on Ethiopian television, and publicized this much, even organizing public displays in rural areas. Images of the famine in Wollo were in the documentary interchanged with images of wealthy, food-rich banquets Selassie were said to have with foreign heads of state, and how he fed his animals. Of course this manipulated contrast was for propaganda reasons.

This brings me to yet another dimension that since then has only become more influential. The power of images (television, film) as mass medium, surpassing so often those of words. Dictatorships would make use of this “visual” aspect as well. Psychological studies revealed that visual imagery can be much more impactful than words, influencing one even more strongly. “Image power” can indeed be stronger as “word power”. However, like words images and film can be manipulated, used to trick and deceive, hide the truth, as a smoke-screen. The global influence of subtle manipulation via Hollywood, television, or other powerful media parties, on cultural tastes, and shaping prejudices! etcetera should not be underestimated.

WORD POWER AND SOUND

I think that a deeper consciousness, the one that precedes words: pure intuition, the natural heart beat, life itself, may seem (as so-called “subconscious level”) to be influenced by such image or word power play, but is not. Digging deeper within one self I think one is able to learn how to sense the real from the unreal, the lie from the truth, the good from the bad.. you somehow sense that there are wrong intentions, at least eventually. That comes down to really thinking free, thinking for yourself as an individual; genuine intuition (not confused with prejudice). This thinking for oneself in the true sense has become somewhat undervalued in the Western world with the “fixed” written text or “fixed” imagery/film, shaping – eventually oppressive! - political, educational, economic, and media systems. Just like in traditional European music musicians have to play together.

Also, the entire social and economic systems in the Western world are aimed at degrading, limiting as much as possible individual human consciousness. You need for them to contribute to economy, which in most cases comes down to contributing to other people's wealth and power, by accepting a few crumbs from their people, figuring as "extra" in their dream. This also belies the self-claimed "individualism" of Euro-Western cultures. At the end individualism is amore an "ism" than truly individual.

Rastafari reggae artists speak in their lyrics, by the way, not just of “word power”, but of “word power.. AND SOUND”. That “sound” can be defined as the realm of music and dance, but I argue that it likewise can mean a deeper consciousness, beyond words, that is both natural and individually human..

Of course, you can rightfully argue that humans also have the natural capacity of speech, to talk, use words. It is – like I said in the beginning of this essay - a basic human need too. To speak out against injustice, defend one's rights, confirm one's existence, for self-expression etcetera.. A combination (and interaction) of this with such a nonverbal consciousness, however, can open up boundless creativity, with beautiful effects. Liberating effects. Maybe this can be called a "higher" or "heightened" consciousness as well..

dinsdag 2 december 2014

IDFA, Podemos, en (nogmaals) Zwarte Piet

Het voordeel van een internationale oriëntatie is dat het je meer vergelijkingsmateriaal biedt, en je horizon verbreedt. Toegegeven: talenkennis is hierbij vaak ook belangrijk. Met beheersing van het Engels kom je al een heel eind in deze geglobaliseerde wereld, maar ik spreek en versta ook goed Spaans, bijvoorbeeld.

Ik was laatst (november 2014) naar een aantal films gegaan in het kader van het IDFA: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. In Amsterdam dus. Het was zo internationaal dat Engelstalige films, die ik zag, niet eens ondertiteld werden naar het Nederlands, en dat de Q & A na afloop ook als vanzelfsprekend in het Engels was. Ik beheers Engels goed, dus dat was op zich geen punt.

Spaans beheers ik ook goed genoeg om complexer nieuws te kunnen volgen. Ik vind dat goed om bij te houden (voor de taal), en daarnaast volg ik de ontwikkelingen in het land Spanje ook wel, vooral ook omdat ik half-Spaans ben (van mijn moeders kant).

PODEMOS

Gedurende de maand november van 2014 dat het IDFA in Amsterdam was, begon ik mij toevallig ook te verdiepen in een nieuwe Spaanse politieke partij die opkwam, genaamd ‘Podemos’, wat Spaans is voor “we kunnen (het)”. De woordvoerder ervan is de jonge Pablo Iglesias Turrión, een Madrileen die voorheen hoogleraar was aan de Complutense universiteit in Madrid, en aardig wat academische titels heeft. Interessant genoeg zijn deze titels in redelijk verschillende discipline’s, zowel politiek als de kunsten, bijvoorbeeld. Los daarvan, positioneert hij zich politiek aan de linkerkant.

De partij Podemos, waarvan Iglesias ook mede-oprichter was, heeft zeker wat aanhang gekregen in Spanje, en ook Pablo Iglesias, die als welbespraakt en charismatisch bekend staat, is bij veel mensen populair. Het is natuurlijk geen toeval dat de nieuwe partij op komt terwijl Spanje meer dan de meeste andere EU-landen last heeft van een economische crisis, en van armoede en werkeloosheid.

Recente cijfers wijzen erop dat thans ruim 20% van de Spaanse bevolking onder de armoedegrens leeft. Dit is veel voor Europese begrippen, en bijna twee keer zoveel als in Nederland (rond de 11%). Over de hoge jeugdwerkeloosheid in Spanje (meer dan 50%) is ook al vaker bericht. Recente algemene (jeugd en niet-jeugd dus) werkeloosheidscijfers van Spanje liggen al sinds 2013 boven de 25%, terwijl die in Nederland thans rond de 8% ligt. Dat (als deze cijfers kloppen) de armoede verhoudingsgewijs in Nederland ongeveer de helft van die in Spanje is, maar de werkeloosheid minder dan een derde, roept ook wat vragen op (meer “working poor”? of meer alleenstaanden?), maar het voert te ver om daarop nu in te gaan.

Hoe dan ook, op deze problemen in Spanje zal de nieuwe politieke partij Podemos een antwoord willen bieden. Ook bij sommige familieleden van mij was Pablo Iglesias populair. Me verdiept hebbend in de persoon, en hem opgezocht hebbende op YouTube – zijn speeches, zijn tv-optredens en deelnames aan debatten - , denk ik dat ik dat wel kan begrijpen. Hij heeft lange haren in een staart, draagt vaak “hippe” armbanden en vlotte kleren, en komt al met al wat jeugdiger en hipper over dan de oudere, vaak “grijze” politici in pakken die ook in Spanje de politiek domineren. Los van dit uiterlijk en imago kan hij – vind ik – ook goed praten. Hij brengt de boodschap goed over en lijkt analytisch en inhoudelijk goed onderlegd. Ook lijkt hij de werkelijke noden van Spanje goed te kennen. Iglesias is verder trouwens ook lid van het Europees parlement.

In de video hieronder een recente speech van hem (Engelse ondertitels op te roepen, via 2e button rechts-onderin):

Hij is jonger dan ik. Dit deed mij me een beetje oud voelen, eerlijk gezegd. Dat is vaker wanneer invloedrijke politici jonger dan of van dezelfde leeftijd als jezelf blijken. Sommigen hadden dat bij het concluderen dat Barack Obama dezelfde middelbare leeftijd als hen had, zoals Stephan Sanders eens schreef in zijn column in de Vrij Nederland. Pablo Iglesias is zelfs vier jaar jonger dan ik, nu dus ongeveer 36 jaar oud. Hij had een jonger broertje van me kunnen zijn.

Hij lijkt me een intelligente, welbespraakte jongeman, met standpunten waar ik het grotendeels wel mee eens ben, denk ik. Denk ik, want ik woon in Nederland, maar het grootste deel van mijn familie in Spanje is van de arbeidersklasse en zijn vaak teleurgesteld in de grote partijen. Ze herkennen de problemen van machtselites in Spanje (vaak met nog connecties teruggaand tot de Franco-dictatuur),en de sociale en economische problemen en ongelijkheid in Spanje, die Iglesias ook benoemt en wil aanpakken.

De tijd zal uiteraard leren of hij een positieve verandering teweeg zal brengen, maar voor de rest van dit bericht – dat ook internationaler dan alleen Spanje zal worden - wil ik vooral focussen op een interessante uitspraak van hem tijdens een speech die hij hield in Mérida, een stad in de regio Extremadura in West-Spanje. Mijn moeder is overigens ook geboren in de regio Extremadura (provincie Badajoz). Linkse organisaties hadden hem daar, samen met anderen, uitgenodigd voor een bijeenkomst. Ze hebben het leuk gemaakt, want ook een flamenco-muziekgroep uit het naburige Andalusië trad op.

Zijn speech aldaar is op YouTube te vinden en was uiteraard in het Spaans, wat ik dus gewoon kon volgen. Hij zei, vrij vertaald: “Patriottisme is niet alleen iets van “rood en geel” dragen (van de Spaanse vlag, bedoelt hij), of het nationale team met voetbal steunen, maar zorgen dat alle burgers in je land goed en menswaardig kunnen leven”. Daarmee vermoedelijk ook doelend op politici die enigszins populistisch steun aan dat voetbalteam gaven of de kleuren van de vlag droegen.

De huidige regerende partij in Spanje is de centrum-rechtse Partido Popular, en om een complex van historische maar ook deels onnavolgbare redenen heeft in de Spaanse politieke cultuur Spaans (nationaal) nationalisme een “rechts” imago. Regionalisme (Catalaans, Baskisch of anders) of regionaal separatisme heeft daarentegen een “links” imago. Hoewel “zelfbestuur” iets links lijkt te hebben, is dat eigenlijk weinig zinnig. Vooral als men bedenkt dat Vlaams nationalisme of Noord-Italiaans separatisme/regionalisme (Lega Nord) toch vooral rechts is. Dat Catalonië economisch een van de welvarendste delen van Spanje is (evenals Spaans Baskenland) doet doorredenerend twijfelen aan het werkelijk linkse karakter van gewenste afscheiding van Spanje, zoals een deel van de Catalanen lijkt te willen. Is het in de kern niet meer dan welvaart voor je zelf houden, om armere landsdelen niet te hoeven financieren? Maar dat terzijde..

Interessant uitgangspunt in ieder geval: echt patriottisme uit zich in goed zorgen voor de (alle!) burgers van je land. Welvaarts- en welzijnsverschillen verkleinen, met andere woorden. Het zal vermoedelijk wel eerder door ook anderen dan Pablo Iglesias zijn gezegd, vooral door linkse politici, uit en met betrekking tot andere landen. Hoe dan ook is het vanuit dat perspectief ook interessant naar andere landen te kijken, zoals Nederland, dat ik uit ervaring het beste ken. Ik ken de debatten die hier spelen, zoals de Zwarte Piet discussie, over asielzoekers, minderheden, moslims, homo’s en andere thema’s als de zorg, de welvaartsstaat etcetera.

IDFA

Ik ga eerst nog naar een ander land. Eén van de documentaires die ik zag op het IDFA heette: ‘Beats of the Antonov’ (2014) en ging over het land Soedan, in Afrika. De filmmaker - Hajooj Kuka - heeft ook een Soedanese achtergrond. Voor deze documentaire naar Amsterdam kwam had deze documentaire al een prijs gewonnen op een vergelijkbaar documentaire film festival in Canada (Toronto). Het thema van deze documentaire was dat het land Soedan vanuit de politiek een Arabische nationale identiteit propageert – lees: opdringt – en daardoor de meer Afrikaanse culturen en identiteit in delen van het land onderdrukt, zelfs met oorlogsgeweld. Dit gebeurt nog steeds.

Een brute onderdrukking en oorlogssituatie die sommigen deed vluchten naar het aangrenzende “nieuwe” land Zuid-Soedan. Zuid-Soedan is vooral Christelijk en animistisch, maar onder de vluchtelingen waren ook Soedanezen die nominaal Islamitisch waren, maar dit blijkbaar naar de smaak van Soedaneze machthebbers teveel combineerden met eigen, Afrikaanse culturele praktijken. In ieder geval (op zijn zachtst gezegd) een land dus dat “niet goed voor alle eigen burgers zorgt”. Dit vanuit een identiteit die, zoals wel vaker, een deels illusoire keuze is. Ook de zichzelf “Arabieren” noemende en Arabisch sprekende Noord-Soedanezen, inclusief de aan diverse oorlogsmisdaden en massamoorden (Darfur!) schuldige president Omar al-Bashir (zie hier op Wikipedia), zijn puur raciaal voor een groot deel een mengvolk van Arabieren met zwarte Afrikanen. Die zwarte Afrikaanse kant wordt zoveel mogelijk ontkend. Dit wellicht vanwege geloofsfanatisme, en een eenzijdige identificatie van de Islam met Arabieren. Islam = goed, Arabieren brachten de Islam = ook goed. Het andere is slechter. Dat is min of meer de redenering. Dat er Soedanezen zijn die hun eigen interpretatie van de Islam weten te combineren met een eigen Afrikaanse cultuur en erfenis, vaak via een mystieke “Soefi” achtige benadering (er zijn parallellen met het Maraboutisme in Senegambia, Guinee en andere delen van Afrika) is blijkbaar niet goed genoeg voor deze “Arabische” Soedanezen. Dat is dus het conflict.

Dat de dominantie van een Arabische Islam in Afrikaanse landen parallellen vertoont met het Europese kolonialisme, was mij al langer bekend. Het is niet bij iedereen bekend dat het bijvoorbeeld in Egypte bij veel mensen gangbaar was om de Arabische afkomst te benadrukken, en te ontkennen van (deels) zwart Afrikaanse afkomst te zijn, ook als je dat laatste bij iemand een beetje aan zijn trekken (wat donkerder huid, kroeshaar e.a.) kon zien, of bij iemand met “Nubische” trekken. De Arabieren brachten immers de heilige Islam. Zoals in door Europese landen gekoloniseerde landen ook wel gebeurde: de elite in de Dominicaanse Republiek minachtte lang de Afrikaanse kant van de nationale identiteit (de meeste Dominicanen mengen Europees/Spaans en Afrikaans bloed), of zoals in Britse kolonies je zo min mogelijk Afrikaans moest zijn en zo Brits mogelijk (raciaal en/of cultureel) om iets te kunnen bereiken. In de Britse Caraïben, maar ook in landen als Ghana of Nigeria was dat deels zo. Hetzelfde gold in Franse kolonies.

TAAL, NATIE, EN RAS

Dit loochenstraft tegelijkertijd een stelling van de (Baskisch) Spaanse filosoof Miguel de Unamuno. Een stelling die ik al lang ken, maar waar ik altijd een beetje twijfels bij had: “de taal is het ras”. Ik had twijfels, maar nu weet ik zeker dat ik het er niet mee eens ben, mede door de voorbeelden die ik hierboven aandroeg. Deze andere Miguel (ik: zo noemen ze me wel eens in Spanje..vertaling van Michel) zegt: “het ras is NIET de taal”. Wel kan taal een machtsmiddel zijn, ook ter vorming van een identiteit. Die is echter vaak illusoir. Dat Unamuno, van wie ik andere uitspraken wel zinnig vond, dit zei verbaast me ook. Het zou bijvoorbeeld betekenen dat alle Italianen, maar ook Spanjaarden, Fransen, Portugezen, Roemenen etcetera, van de Romeinen afstammen. Zowel historisch als genetisch is het allang aangetoond dat dit nauwelijks waar is: in Italië zelf mengden de Romeinen zich al met daar aanwezige volkeren, maar in een land als Spanje waren de Romeinen nog veel meer slechts een van de vele volkeren die aan het genetisch materiaal hebben bijgedragen. In Frankrijk worden de (Keltische) Galliërs als voorouders gezien, maar ook dat is slechts gedeeltelijk waar.

Het ras is ook niet de taal, als men denkt aan het kolonialisme. Neem de “Francophonie”: de meeste formeel Franstalige mensen, deel van deze francophonie, in deze wereld, leven in Afrika, waar Frankrijk veel kolonies had. Daarna volgt getalsmatig pas Frankrijk zelf en oostelijk Canada. Tegelijkertijd zijn veel zwarte mensen (van Afrikaanse afkomst dus) in deze wereld Engelstalig, en veel Spaanstalige mensen in Latijns Amerika van gemengde en soms zelfs geheel niet-blanke afkomst. Etcetera etcetera.

De film over Soedan op het IDFA ging over een raciale/culturele identiteit die een staat wilde opleggen aan de burgers. Nationale politici houden zich ook bezig met de staat, maar in een heleboel opzichten denken mensen toch graag in termen van de begrensde staat. Het land, de staat waar men vandaan komt wordt dan de kern van de identiteit. Daar zijn wel meer parallellen met de “taal”, hoewel dat ook niet altijd samen valt. Taal is wel een belangrijk symbool voor de eigen nationale identiteit – en voor delen die zich willen afscheiden (denk aan sommige Catalanen, Vlaanderen, of separatisme dat ook in Franstalig Canada bestaat), maar kan wel degelijk andere verschillen verhullen binnen de bevolking. Veel van die onderdrukte Soedanezen spraken net als die onderdrukkende machthebbers Arabisch. Zwarten in de VS spraken en spreken gewoon Engels, en zo zijn er wel meer voorbeelden te geven.

ZWART ALS ROET

Een andere film/documentaire die op het IDFA draaide (en 1 december 2014, jongstleden dus, ook op de Nederlandse televisie kwam) is van Sunny Bergman, en heette ‘Zwart als roet’ (2014). Het is in zijn geheel op Internet te bekijken, zoals hier, dan wel hier, of via 'uitzending gemist'. Het ging over de Zwarte Piet-discussie die nu enkele jaren wat prominenter in Nederland gevoerd wordt. Ik heb daar in een eerder blogbericht al mijn mening over gegeven. Inhoudelijk heb ik daar niet zoveel aan toe te voegen. Ik heb nog steeds dezelfde kritiek op het fenomeen Zwarte Piet, en ben in die zin (net als anderen) in grote lijnen een medestander van Bergman, die dit ook bekritiseert met deze documentaire.

Interessant is soms ook om tussen de regels te lezen. Uitgedost als zwarte pieten gingen de filmmakers naar Londen om te kijken hoe dat in Groot-Brittannië zou vallen. Aanwezige Britten in een park wezen erop dat dat in Engeland niet geaccepteerd werd. Goed, maar toch even die nationale trots binnengesmokkeld, dacht ik ergens ook. Ook niet-Engelsen hebben bezwaren tegen racisme, dacht ik toen. Sterker nog: onder Engelsen zijn er ook racisten: niet minder dan andere landen, dacht ik zo, mogelijk wat verhulder. Maar misschien zeiden ze dat alleen omdat Bergman er bij uitlegde dat deze “Black Face” deel was van een kinderfeest in Nederland.

Bergman’s documentaire wees er in ieder geval goed op hoe het “witte privilege” werkt in Nederland. Niet alles was nieuw voor me. Dat de omroepen, ook de “vrijzinnige” VPRO, voornamelijk blanke bestuurders en medewerkers heeft, bracht Bergman goed aan het licht, maar wist ik ergens ook wel (ik noem dat ook in dat eerdere essay van mijzelf). Andere gesprekken in de documentaire vond ik zeker inzichtelijk en interessant.

Het lijkt me ook boeiend om vanuit een ander perspectief naar deze documentaire te kijken, namelijk vanuit de stelling die ik eerder aanhaalde, in directe zin aan de nieuwe Spaanse politicus Pablo Iglesias ontleend: “echt patriottisme houdt in: goed zorgen voor mensen in je land”. Ook het genoemde “opgelegde nationale identiteit” perspectief (uit de documentaire over Soedan) is in dezen interessant.

SINTERKLAAS

Het kinderfeest Sinterklaas symboliseert voor veel Nederlandse mensen de eigen Nederlandse identiteit. Die indruk wordt in ieder geval gewekt. Dat snap ik een beetje, maar niet helemaal. Ik snap dat de kinderjaren vormend zijn voor een eigen identiteit, wellicht ook een connectie met je land via je ouders en je familie. Dat kan ook als je ouder bent en op eigen benen staat extra gewicht krijgen, als je terugkijkt en je positie bepaalt. Ik vind het alleen een wat beperkte visie op nationale identiteit. Er zal vast meer zijn waar Nederland trots op kan zijn: een land goed organiseren en welvarend houden, om maar iets te noemen. In zekere zin is het ook een ongelukkige keuze, want de figuur Zwarte Piet is niet alleen een karikatuur van zwarte mensen en in die zin racistisch in historische zin, maar ook in de hedendaagse praktijk: het stimuleert racisme nu, en het uitschelden of pesten van zwarte mensen (jong en oud) via het flauwe scheldwoord “zwarte piet”.

Nu is de Nederlandse cultuur naar verhouding hoe dan ook wat “sarcastisch”, naar mijn ervaring – vergeleken met andere culturen die ik ken (Nederlanders zelf prefereren zichzelf als “direct” te zien, maar ik zie dat anders) – maar mogelijk is dat het probleem juist. Nederland herken je als sarcastische cultuur vooral als niet-Nederlander, als “buitenstaander”. Dan gaan ze je makkelijker beledigen, simpel gezegd; je hoort er immers niet echt bij. Dat treft zwarte mensen die toch door veel (niet alle) Nederlanders als “mindere Nederlanders”worden gezien, ook als zijn ze in Nederland geboren uit ouders uit een voormalig Nederlandse kolonie. Ook in de behandeling van andere etnische minderheden (Marokkanen,Turken, Chinezen e.a.), of zelfs ten opzichte van een licht-verdwaalde toerist in Amsterdam tonen veel Nederlanders dikwijls hun meest sarcastische kant. Vaak alleen op uiterlijk gebaseerd. Dat wil zeggen: zogenaamde “grappen” die eigenlijk vooral beledigingen of zelfs vernederingen zijn, en je verbaal uitsluiten. Alledaagse pesterijtjes hebben eenzelfde functie. Andere (nonverbale) manieren om vooroordelen of etnische voorkeuren te uiten zijn specifiek/gericht negeren of oogcontactvermijding (puur op uiterlijk of vooroordelen gericht: ik heb het niet over het begrijpelijke negeren van een junkie die je coke probeert te verkopen, of iemand die van je wil profiteren), en ook die "uitsluitende communicatie" passen veel Nederlanders in het openbaar verkeer wel toe. Okee.. allemaal minder erg dan bommen gooien op woongebieden zoals al-Bashir in Soedan doet bij Afro-culturele Soedanezen, maar ergens toch in de kern voort komend uit een vergelijkbaar sentiment.

Patriottisme is goed voor de mensen in je land zorgen, maar wat als niet geldt “de taal = het ras” (zoals Unamuno stelde), maar “het land = het ras”. De verharde Zwarte Piet-discussie in Nederland, en vooral wat het reflecteert over het bredere en diepere racisme in Nederland, wijst erop dat een deel van de Nederlanders dat vindt: “het ras is het land”. Wie daarbuiten valt kan dan hoogstens een “tweederangsburger” in dit land zijn. Of “anders oprotten”, zoals ook weleens direct wordt gescholden tegen anti-Zwarte Piet-betogers.

OVEREENKOMSTEN IN RACISME

Mijn indruk is dat het racisme in Nederland veel raakvlakken heeft met dat in Groot-Brittannië. Beide landen hebben een “linksig” en democratisch, multicultureel nationaal imago gecreëerd, dat voor een groot deel meer imago is dan werkelijkheid. Er is een flinke dosis hypocrisie hieromtrent, alsmede “verhulling” bij een deel van de bevolking in beide landen. In beide landen zijn – misschien ironisch – “zwarte” cultuuruitingen relatief populair, ook bij een deel van de blanke autochtonen, die er zelfs dingen van overnemen. Er zijn in beide landen relatief veel raciaal gemengde relaties. Door dit alles wordt verhuld dat zwarte mensen ook in die landen relatief vaker geconfronteerd worden met discriminatie, sociaal-economische achterstelling , en met vooroordelen en stereotypen. Ook heeft Groot-Brittannië zelf ook flink wat, wat Russell Brand in de documentaire van Sunny Bergman noemde, “colonial hangovers”. De Britse premier Cameron heeft onder zijn voorouders eigenaren van Afrikaanse slaven in het Caraïbisch gebied, net als veel andere elitaire Britse (en Nederlandse) families. De Black Face of Minstrel traditie is dan wat eerder dan in Nederland verlaten en in de ban gedaan, andere problemen zijn er nog steeds. Hetzelfde geldt voor andere Europese landen, maar Bergman vergeleek in haar documentaire Nederland voor een deel met Engeland.

Een deel van de Nederlanders (en van de Britten) is ook echt multicultureel en open-minded, maar dat deel van de bevolking is kleiner of minder invloedrijk dan velen denken (of willen doen geloven). De Zwarte Piet discussie maakte dat ook deels duidelijker.

VERANDERING?

Echt “patriottisch” trots zijn op je eigen, zogenaamd multiculturele, tolerante land, kan wellicht beginnen met echt multicultureel en tolerant te zijn. Rekening houden met minderheden omtrent raciale stereotypen, al dan niet gepropageerd via een nationaal feest voor kinderen (kinderen die de vorm van het feest zelf niet zoveel interesseren), zou daarbij een goede eerste stap zijn .

Culturele en internationale verschillen die niet kwetsend zijn verrijken je wereld en referentiekader, zoals ik in het begin ook zei. Nederland heeft iets eigens en interessants, zoals elk land. Mijn ouders kwamen uit Italië (vader) en Spanje (moeder) en kwamen hier in de jaren 60; zij begrepen ook niet alles van de Nederlandse cultuur, of maakten er grappen over (andere feesten, afspraken voor bezoek, zuinigheid, het eten… de bekende beelden, die soms te generaliserend waren). Aan de andere kant waardeerden ze ook aspecten in de Nederlandse cultuur die ze in hun landen misten. Mijn moeder verliet het door de rechtse dictator Franco geregeerde Spanje, en ervoer in Nederland de aanwezigheid van iets als “arbeidersrechten” als een verademing. Ook de landelijk goede organisatie, het regelmatige onderhoud, en de financiële degelijkheid vonden ze in Nederland relatief beter. Toegegeven, niet echt “spannende” dingen om als Nederlander trots op te zijn (“ik ben cool want ik ben financieel degelijk”, hoor je weinig), maar ook waardeerden ze in Nederland – net als veel andere mensen van buitenlandse afkomst - de naar verhouding democratische samenleving, de relatief kleine sociaal-economische verschillen, formele participatiemogelijkheden, de uitgebreide ruimte voor educatie, de internationale gerichtheid en talenkennis, én.. de ruimte voor culturele variatie. Dat alles is wel degelijk iets om trots op te zijn als Nederland.

Een oude traditie met racistische stereotypen als Sinterklaas kan ofwel aangepast worden, of eventueel vervangen worden. Daarnaast: misschien is de echt Nederlandse folklore van de “klompendans” – of zijn andere Nederlandse tradities - wel cooler dan veel mensen denken, en kunnen dergelijke organisch ontstane, oude Nederlandse tradities afgestoft en wellicht bijgeschaafd worden en van ouders op kind worden overgebracht. Zoals je in een land als Cuba vaak ook van jongs af aan de salsa leert dansen, Ierse volksdansers hun vaardigheden ook vaak aan hun kinderen leren, en mensen in Spanje die met flamenco dansen bezig zijn dat vaak ook aan hun kinderen door geven.

In deze en veel andere landen in de wereld bestaan immers ook eigen, lokale dansen, culturele tradities, of desnoods carnaval-achtige festiviteiten, die soms iets van een eigen nationale culturele identiteit uitdrukken, en tegelijkertijd de band met je familie of (nationale/regionale) historische voorouders bevestigen. Zonder dat andere bevolkingsgroepen in het land daarvoor per se gekwetst, vernederd, of buitengesloten hoeven te worden. Een kwestie van keuze en instelling..

Ik eindig dan ook met de zin waarmee ik dit essay ook begon:

Het voordeel van een internationale oriëntatie is dat het je meer vergelijkingsmateriaal biedt, en je horizon verbreedt.

dinsdag 4 november 2014

Magical Africa?

I would not totally, on forehand, exclude the remote possibility that I might be a “museum buff”. There is something about the serene place focussed on “learning” and information that I find appealing and satisfying. Much of my trips and travels I made during my life have therefore consisted relatively much of museum visits, with few restrictions on “what kind” of museums. I am also very much interested in Africa, since I was young.

Combining these interests, I recently visited the exhibition ‘Magisch Afrika’ (Magical Africa, in English), held in de Nieuwe Kerk: a large – and very high! - church building on the Dam square in my hometown Amsterdam, Netherlands. Apparently there were enough budgetary funds to undertake an extensive promotional effort, because all over Amsterdam I repeatedly encountered posters promoting this particular exhibition, including a global description on its content in the subtitle. That aroused my interest even more (translated): ‘Magical Africa : masks and sculptures from Ivory Coast : the artists revealed’.

In short, I visited this exhibition, and I will give my impression and opinion in this post. This “museum review”, however, will be contextualized by me in a broader cultural and personal frame (people who have read other “essayistic” blog articles of mine, would not be too surprised).

AMERICAS

I have much interest in music, in dance, as well as in social and cultural structures within Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Within all this, however, “masks” or “masquerades” have up to now gotten less of my attention than other aspects. I got some interest in it, though, and even have some African masks (and a few small sculptures) hanging in my house. These masks have more of a representative function for me, though they also look intriguing. Also, regarding the (Afro-) Caribbean, carnivals, and masquerades somehow escaped my lasting attention, while I focussed more on other cultural aspects.

The said exhibition in fact offered me an opportunity to sharpen my focus on it, as I am a man who loves to learn throughout life. It continues also on other lasting interest of mine, such as African retentions in the Americas. It seems probable that there are equally African origins within the masquerade and dance traditions found in the carnivals in Trinidad, or elsewhere in the Caribbean, as well as in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - to name some famous carnivals. Jamaica has less of a carnival tradition of itself (recent efforts to introduce Trinidad-style carnivals notwithstanding), but does have an own masquerade tradition, known as Junkanoo. Cuba, another Caribbean island, has carnivals, but also a mask tradition in the secret society tradition called Abakua, which derives from African retentions from the Calabar/Cross River region in and around what is now South-Eastern Nigeria, Africa (mostly of Efik/Ibibio-speaking groups ending up in Cuba with the slave trade).

Interestingly, the ancestral African mask tradition adds another layer to the carnivals in the Americas. These carnivals are commonly described as ways by slaves or lower classes in colonial societies to parody upper classes and whites through costumes, on special days. Beyond mimicking white or French/Portuguese colonial cultural life, however, an own African masquerade heritage therefore also seems to have shaped carnival expressions. This “African roots” aspect of carnival/masquerade traditions in the Caribbean is somewhat underrepresented in scholarly studies, I found.

THE EXHIBITION

The exhibition on Ivory Coast masks and sculptures in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam thus helped me to gain more insight in how masks/masquerade functioned and function culturally and traditionally in at least this part of Africa.

Like many African countries, the Ivory Coast’s borders are the result of colonial constructions, separating ethnic groups in different countries. The exhibition was indeed divided in different ethnic/cultural groups within Ivory Coast. There were separate sections on the Baule, the Guro, Laguna peoples (around the capital Abidjan), the Dan, the Senufo, and the Lobi peoples. Each of the sections showed masks in these distinct cultures, with some textual explanation on their traditional functions, history, and on the artists whose names are now known.

The latter is significant because the masks functioned in the cultural and spiritual traditions of the community. The artist as gifted individual, separate from society, is said to be a Western concept. Mask makers and cutters were people with special and revered skills, passed often within families, but remaining further anonymous due to the community function. This function often involves a connection with what is known as “the spiritual world” of the foreparents, still parallel to the own world, and influencing events in it. Appeasing “angry” or disheartened spirits of foreparents is one of those functions of the sculptures, masks and masquerades, including accompanying dances.

ETHNIC GROUPS

The Baule are an Akan-speaking group living in eastern/central Ivory Coast. The Akan speakers (e.g. Ashanti, or Coromantee) in what is now Ghana do not have anything like a “mask” or masquerade tradition. The Baule took on the mask tradition from neighbouring peoples in Ivory Coast. An interesting example of cultural interchange in two bordering African regions. The Baule believe that everyone (men and women) had a spouse in the “other” world (before one’s birth). This spouse was left behind, and therefore haunts as spirit the now living “former spouse” with e.g. disease or bad dreams. In part, Baule masks and offers to it serve to appease this “former spouse”. Objects exhibited in this Baule section include both masks and sculptures.

Largely related to Akan-speaking groups in Ghana as well, are the Laguna peoples in southeastern Ivory Coast. Like the Akan relatives in Ghana, a “mask” tradition is not really part of these peoples’ culture, but sculptures are. The Laguna peoples section as part of the exhibition showed some of these sculptures, that function traditionally to enable contact with the “spiritual world”.

In the savannah area of northern Ivory Coast, continuing in Mali, live the Senufo, who do have a mask tradition, as well as a sculpture tradition. The Senufo – who speak a Mande language – even have, unlike other African peoples, professional sculptors solely devoted to it. They also have male secret societies, for which sculptures, masks, and masquerades also function (as part of initiation rites as well as community festivities, or funerals, and/or to connect with the ancestral spirits). Of course, some of these masks and sculptures were on display in the exhibition. Senufo are known for animal motifs in masks.

The Dan people live in western Ivory Coast and continue in bordering Liberia. Masks and sculptures have important social and spiritual functions in Dan society, with different appearances befitting “issues to solve”: war, police, or commenting/chastising (or “advising”) functions, also in connection with spirits. Masks and wood/sculpture cutting is here the domain of men, while “ceremonial spoons” are the domain of women. These, also spoons, were on display as well. Among the mentioned Laguna peoples, on the other hand, sculptures are also made by women. The Dan further believe in reincarnation, and masks also serve to ”house” and appease spirits (Du, a divine spirit present in all humans) who have not found a new body yet to dwell in.

Interesting, these differences between bordering peoples, but of course to be expected. In Europe also, Celtic, Germanic, or Slavic peoples (Or Ligurian, Basque, Iberian, Etruscan, Dinaric, and others), often lived in bordering areas within Europe, but had quite different customs, values, and social structures as well. Part of this remains noticeable, despite shared Christianization and Romanization.

Between the Dan and the Baule, live the Guro people, more or less in central/western inland Ivory Coast. In the Guro section of the exhibition, several interesting masks and sculptures were shown. The focus in Guro culture is more on masks than on sculptures, due to the importance of masked dances. The Guro worship different spirits, and also know secret societies. Masqueraded and dressed performers represented “holy” characters in ceremonies , and cannot be touched.

The Lobi, including related subgroups, live in the far North East of Ivory Coast, and continue in Burkina Faso. The Lobi speak a language related to that of the Guro, but are culturally rather different.. Here the focus is on sculptures, rather than masks, for instance. The sculptures are among the Lobi regarded as living beings, functioning to ward off evil spirits: a function I have heard of before.

REFLECTION

Most masks and sculptures shown were made around 1900, so quite some time ago, though modern art based on them was also exhibited. I still mostly use the present tense, though, because partly at least these mask and masquerade traditions live on in the regions. Recent limitations of such expressions relate to modernization, or maybe Christian or Islamic mainstreaming. This last aspect is also relative. Nominally, many among the mentioned peoples are Islamic or Christian; in practice what are called “animist” beliefs live on underneath these religions, or got intertwined with it. As some may know, Islam forbids images of living beings (people, animals) because it is expected to stimulate idolatry. Both Islamic and Christian hardliners also object to spirit possession activities, often combining with these masquerades. Current figures are interesting: in present-day Ivory Coast about a third is nominally Christian (especially in the south), another third Muslim (especially in the north), and another third “animist”. I assume there is some overlap..

BROADER PICTURE

Masks are in fact known in many cultures historically, world wide. The Halloween holidays in the US (and increasingly celebrated in Europe, as well) originates from a masquerade, with (as is assumed) some Celtic Scottish antecedents. The masquerading related to spirits coming from the other world, and needed to be appeased, or hidden from. Also Ireland, or for instance Celtic-influenced parts of Spain like Galicia, had interesting mask cultures, sometimes still related to spirits or ancient Celtic deities like Lugh. My family on my mother’s side is Spanish, though not from Galicia (more to the south west of Spain, Extremadura), but I remember we had in our paternal house a somewhat mysterious Galician wooden mask of a face as a sort of tourist souvenir from Orense (a province of Galicia), possibly once received as a gift by an acquaintance. Scandinavian and other Germanic/Teutonic peoples knew masks as well. Celtic and other European cultures had interesting mask cultures, but so did Amerindians and cultures in Asia and Oceania. And, of course, Africa.

That “broader picture” is what I missed a bit in the museum exhibition. It was very locally focussed. Understandably, of course: it was also about Ivory Coast artists whose names we know now. It was of course the Ivory Coast context where all these masks and sculptures developed and function(ed).

Still..masks and sculptures appear in several cultures world wide, often with connections to “spirits”, or magic. For that reason, some more information and illustrations how masks (and sculptures) functioned in more unique ways in African culture – according to African values -, would be welcome on the exhibition. There is much cultural variety within Africa, but certain values are shared throughout large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Even comparisons with masks or sculptures in other parts of Africa were rarely made in the exhibition, despite apparent similarities. Masks functioning for secret societies, for policing in communities etcetera is – to give an example - found also in the Ekpe secret society in Nigeria/Cameroon (predecessor of Abakua in Cuba).

The connection of masqueraded dances with polyrhythmic drum-based music is one such African aspect. I’ve seen such masked dances on YouTube films (from the Guro in Ivory Coast, see film hereunder), and the masqueraded dancer interacted with specific drum patterns and rhythms. African music, as well as dance, was however mentioned little in connection to the masks or sculptures, in the exhibition. I found this to be a pity. A missed opportunity, really.

Maybe they wanted to let the masks speak for themselves, and these were also uniquely African in shape, visually. This uniqueness, however, connects to other cultural aspects (music, dance), likewise uniquely African.

These cultural aspects have travelled, of course, to the West with the Atlantic slave trade. This includes the belief in ancestral, nature, and other spirits, spirit possession, typically considered as active among the living, while there is often a higher, sole god recognized, that on the other hand does not interfere with the human world. This is found in present-day, what are called “spirit based” or “animist” religions/faiths, including Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, Jamaican Kumina, Trinidadian Orisha, and Surinamese Winti. As may be known, institutionalized religion – i.e. Christianity – forbid and marginalized these African spirit beliefs during colonial history. Yet, aspects of it are still found, as well as African mask dance traditions: the Abakua society in Cuba derives from the mentioned Ekpe secret society (Cross River region, southeastern Nigeria/Cameroon), including masked dances with similarities – also in social function – with masked dances among the Guro, and other peoples discussed in the exhibition. However, a link with such Afro-American retentions was neither made in the exhibition.

SPIRIT-BASED/ANIMIST RELIGIONS

These African spirit-based (or animist) religions are marginalized in colonial history. Also in the minds of African descendants themselves. Also, in Africa itself, these are changing or limited in influence in some parts. Belief systems like Vodou in Haiti, Kumina or Myal in Jamaica, Orisha in Trinidad, Santería and Palo Monte in Cuba, Winti in Suriname, and Candomblé in Brazil, tend to be associated with magic and the supernatural. Many discard it as vestiges of more irrational, now outdated contexts. Others see it as maybe interesting folklore, or historically somehow interesting.

Also among anthropologists – who must professionally (ideally) take these practices for their own value, without valuations – nonetheless at times show a hidden disdain, in some cases.

A book I bought at the museum, titled ‘Art in Black Africa’, mostly focussed on photos, with somewhat general, contextualizing texts. It stressed that art in Africa is not meant for reflection, but has a practical function (appeasing spirits to get rid of diseases, conflicts, or disasters). This is an example of such hidden disdain, though it might not be obvious to everyone.

The exhibition I am discussing here, and other African cultural aspects I studied before, made clear to me that people discrediting spirit-based African religions miss one point: the human need to make sense of the world through art and cultural expressions of human beings. The human need, too, to find comfort. That all humans are spiritual beings, to differing degrees. One may not believe in supernatural beings, and think of oneself as too rational for that. I myself consider myself quite rational, mostly (though not in all aspects, maybe). I still find beauty in African music, masks/dances, sculptures – or other expressions – even if I know that they are connected functionally to belief in certain spirits as supernatural beings “taking possession” of humans. Processes of which I may doubt whether they are really possible. Yet: I find intriguing how people try to make sense of the surrounding (often complex) world through cultural expressions of their own human creation; that is what “higher art” is all about. This can only be appreciated when one opens one’s mind to all human beings, and all cultures.

Unfortunately, the present-day world developed from a long period of colonialism, inequality, oppression, and power-based, evangelizing religions (Christianity and Islam notably) imposing their will and ideas on others. These become the cultural norm, and have created for all intents and purposes a “Euro-centric world”, even affecting the minds of people of non-European descent. Without such blinding bias, I sincerely think that there are no quality differences in the art between Europe and Africa. Classical music by Bach is not inherently more valuable or “better” than equally complex sub-Saharan polyrhythmic music pieces, with also a long history and varied cultural connections.

RASTAFARI

The Jamaican-originated Rastafari movement is Afro-centric – focussed on ancestral Africa - but also largely Bible-based. That makes it I think an interesting movement to discuss in this light.

Recently I saw a newly made documentary called ‘Dreadlocks Story’ (2014), documenting the influence of Indian culture on aspects of the Rastafari movement. While the Rastafari movement arose among African-Jamaicans in the 1930s, and aimed at freedom of Africans, African redemption, and hailed the African (Ethiopian) Emperor Haile Selassie, apparently there was interaction between the African and Indian community in Jamaica. While I heard that artist Peter Tosh disputed this, others confirm that the smoking of marijuana was a custom adopted from the Indians. Also scholar Kenneth Bilby, by the way, assumes another, African source of “religious” use of ganja, namely from Central Africa/Congo, where ganja/marijuana use has been known since the 18th c. Anyway, especially certain subgroups among the Hindus, priests excluded from mainstream society, known as sadhu’s, have been using ganja (as marijuana is called in Hindi, also as term used in Jamaica) since a long time. These saddhu’s in India even wear dreadlocks, which might constitute another influence, though studying African history one finds many groups in sub-Saharan Africa who have been wearing dreadlocks for a long time as well. Some Hindu or Indian rituals have however been taken over within the Rastafari movement.

This is relevant for this post, because it is argued in the documentary that of the traditional African spirit based/animist beliefs many slaves once had, too little remained in Jamaica - or was not appreciated enough - to serve functionally as rituals. This is due to the marginalization of Kumina or Vodou-like religions I mentioned, and the Euro-Christian socialization Jamaica went through. As Rastafari thinker Mutabaruka pointed out: Rastafari arose after and amidst this socialization, not apart from it, explaining the Judeo-Christian - and subtly Europeanized! - Biblical focus and mindset in the movement from its beginning in the 1930s.

This attributed to the somewhat remarkable situation that an Afro-centric movement was partly influenced by non-African Hindu and Indian traditions, while denouncing Vodou or Obeah. Maybe not all Rastafari adherents, but many of them criticize Vodou and Obeah (described as evil witchcraft), or “Science” (used in the same sense as witchcraft). Musically, especially percussively, Rastafari was on the other hand influenced by such spirit-based religions, though this influence was undone of its literal “spirit possession” association. The basic “heartbeat” (one-two) rhythm (by the drums called “fundeh”) found in Nyabinghi drumming, and also the alternating/syncopating rhythms around this basic rhythm (with the drum called “repeater”), both have clear predecessors in such spirit-based religions (Burru and Kumina notably), though musically/rhythmically somewhat simplified. Beyond musical adaptations, this drum pattern was further spiritually undone of associations with things like “spirit possession”, at least formally.

Still, I understood that some of the early Rastafari leaders or “elders” (Robert Hinds and Archibald Dunkley), who were personally close to main elder and “First Rasta” Leonard Howell, were known for wanting to give a bit more space to such spirit-based African ideas and values within Rastafari. Also the “popular Christian” Zion Revival church in Jamaica mixed Christianity with some African animist retentions in form, and fed partly into the Rastafari movement. Other Rastafari leaders, however, were against this animist influence, associating it with outdated, un-progressive (divisive) witchcraft and magic. A later more orthodox group that arose within Rastafari in the 1950s (the movement existed by then a few decades), called the Youth Black Faith, attempted even “purges” when such influences like “spirit possession” from other religions entered Rastafari gatherings. Such practices were seen by some Rastas as “devilish” and needed to be kept away to keep the ‘Binghi’ (important Rastafari gathering, involving reasoning/discussion, drumming and chanting) - and the general Rastafari direction - “pure”.

“Purifying” a faith or religion occurs often, but in the wrong hands remind too much of historical “inquisition”, power play, and authoritarian repression. That being said, I think that some Rastafari thinkers critical of “spirit possession practices” may have some good arguments, namely that being occupied with contesting spirits within a community can have divisive, conservative effects, eventually working against “progressive unity” (and uniting Africans world wide). Yet, in a more derived sense, it can still have a “Black unity and pride” value. Many Europeans take for instance pride in massive, Catholic cultural architecture – the much-visited Sixtine Chapel for example or big cathedrals – while not even being practising Catholics. Or see Greek mythology as foundational for European culture, even if not believing in the fantasy stories figuring Zeus, Apollo and the like. Likewise actual “ancestral spirits” – i.e. the African foreparents who were enslaved, are in a sense ever-present among the Rastafari adherents, even if not in the Kumina or Vodou-like way of spirits literally possessing minds and bodies, and rendering people unconscious. The latter would be problematic in a movement aimed at “consciousness”.

Despite this avoidance of “spirit possession”, nonetheless African cultural values of course live on within Rastafari, such as in the way of worshipping, certain rituals, the role of music and dance as intertwined (traditionally in Africa music and dance are not separated) etcetera. In short, I would applaud more study on this matter, African spirit-based/animist belief retentions within Rastafari, eventually resulting also in a movie, just like the movie on the (partial) Indian influence, ‘Dreadlocks Story’, I just saw.

FINAL CONCLUSION

While I had some personal points of critique (I mentioned these earlier in the post.. the limited geographical focus, for instance), the exhibition ‘Magical Africa’ in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, on masks and sculptures in Ivory Coast, at least confirmed what I learned from earlier studies of sub-Saharan African culture. This is that they represent a beautiful, varied and fascinating cultural and artistic complex, including deeper layers (like in what Europeans call “high art”), such as moral aspects, philosophy, oral traditions, story telling, visual and musical art, and movement/dance. Perhaps partly outdated, but interesting in its time historically. While inscribed in the functional and community life, I argue that is contains inherently “reflection”. This is illustrated, just to give an example, by Senufo masks in the exhibition: these were reflections of deliberately made “imperfect faces” (called “concave faces” in the exhibition), meant to teach that no one is perfect. This is essentially a moral lesson, beyond the merely functional.

This contradicts that African art is purely functional as the book I mentioned stated, but has a deeper “reflection” layer as well. Nigerian writer Ben Okri also wrote: “the African mind is essentially abstract and Africans’ stories essentially philosophical”.

All this further goes to show that sub-Saharan traditional culture has an own beauty and intriguing complexity and philosophy behind it, that I think needs to be valued more for its own sake, without necessarily comparing it unfavourably to other belief systems or religious or spiritual ideas in the world. Art for art’s sake, so to speak. This would be merely a matter of open-mindedness, healthy curiosity, and recognition of shared humanity. You need not be a “museum buff” for that..

For those in the Netherlands: the exhibition is until 15 February 2015. More information here.

donderdag 2 oktober 2014

Personal knowledge trajectory regarding Haile Selassie

“Afgeschreven” is a Dutch word, which can be translated to English as “written off”. There are other translations possible as well: it can mean something like “discharged” or “laid off”.

I saw that word, Afgeschreven, written on some books I have at home. I remember I bought these books years ago, when public libraries in the Netherlands (where I live) happened to have cheap sales of such “discharged” books. All these books had a small sticker on the cover with Afgeschreven (added was “bibliotheekboek” which means: library book) on them, and Afgeschreven was also stamped on the first page.

What does this mean? Is it a quality evaluation?.. Were all these books on sale I browsed through (there often were hundreds) written off and removed from the library collection because they were crap, nonsense, perhaps incorrect or outdated? Damaged perhaps, with excessive “comments” or underlinings in them by readers? Pages cut/torn out even? Would they sell them if they were that damaged? Browsing through them, I found that there were quite some interesting books between them, even by known authors. Of some I could imagine an outdatedness – often dealing with technology, or changed geography. Think for instance about books on the former Yugoslavia. This territory is divided now in separate countries, following a bloody war. That does not mean that books called “country reports” on Yugoslavia were inaccurate in describing the history, the landscapes, ethnicities and languages, the cultures.. Politics (borders are political) is the main thing that changed, not other aspects like culture or flora and fauna.

It might also mean that the books were borrowed so little that there seemed no interest in them, or that thematic changes in library book selections were made for economic or political reasons. I am afraid that also cultural or ideological biases or choices can play a part in this. Thus, some books were removed from the collection. That is unfortunate, and mostly unjust, but commonly affecting library collections when under volatile economic or budgeting constraints: choices have to be made at the cost of some public groups; not everything can be acquired or kept as part of the collection (hence: afgeschreven/discharged).

QUALITY?

A quality evaluation of books – beyond outdatedness - in a public library does not seem a reasonable explanation for books becoming Afgeschreven (written off): they must have been bought by the library in the first place once, hopefully as what then seemed sound decisions. Nonsensical, incorrect, or ideologically driven or propaganda works, were – ideally, at least - selected out and dropped (or never made it to) “the books to buy” list for the collection. Like the chaff it was removed, before ever entering the library collection. This selection process is of course furthermore (again: ideally) in line with the type of library and its public groups.

To go back, I bought some of these Afgeschreven books: I don’t remember the date(s) but I think I bought these in my later teens or early twenties, I imagine. So over 15 years ago, at least. Then I was in the bookworm mode: I was on a (long) “bookworm” tip, you might say. I must have been interested in reggae and Rastafari already, because one of the books is a short biography on Haile Selassie – the Emperor of Ethiopia – written in Dutch, published in 1993, the other one a “country report” of Ethiopia (and Eritrea), also in Dutch, and published in 1994. I remember I borrowed many books on African countries as a member of the public library around that period too. Both the mentioned “Afgeschreven” books I bought for about a guilder at the time (less than half a euro today). What’s more, I found them to be very educational and broadening. These books were in that sense not at all “afgeschreven” to me, but valuable.

Speaking about valuable. I considered it also valuable for me to know still more about Haile Selassie and Ethiopia. That goal has remained in my mind since before I bought those Afgeschreven books: namely when I became interested in reggae, including the lyrics, and Rastafari. This started when I was about 11 years old, I imagine. Reggae lyrics were my first reference to Haile Selassie, and, after that, books about Ethiopia in the public library, wherein Selassie was discussed in a broader context. In educational, “popular academic” books, for different age groups. This was all before the rise of the Internet, by the way, so these books I still have remind me of that “pre-Internet” period as well.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Much more recently I finished reading ‘The autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I : 1892-1937’. These are the translated memoirs of Haile Selassie, which he wrote in 1937 when exiled in England - in the town Bath to be precise – and which were not published until 1972/73. I will come back to this Autobiography later on.

KNOWLEDGE TRAJECTORY

What is, I think, interesting from a didactical perspective, is my trajectory of knowledge and information gathering regarding Haile Selassie. Since around I was 11 years of age, I listened to reggae lyrics, then I read library books for children, later books for adults on Africa, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and Rastafari..

ETHIOPIAN CONTEXT

The book on Ethiopia was not the only book I read on Ethiopia. I would read several smaller and larger books on Ethiopia, that were of course partly on Selassie’s reign as well. This taught me about the complex, feudal, and hierarchical society that Ethiopia was, about the limited connections between towns and country, the Orthodox Ethiopian Christian religion and its dominant role, as well as the central role of the Amhara people and about other ethnic groups and religions. I got to know about traditional structures and customs ingrained in Ethiopian society, and about the very ancient (Christian) Solomonic dynasty, the long time of maintained independence, the highlands and more..

In hindsight, it was useful that I read more about Ethiopia as a whole, before reading more about Haile Selassie. It helped me to put his reign and his actions in the proper context from the start. Ethiopia’s feudal culture and society help explain how Selassie had limited ways to manoeuvre, even if he aimed at changing things for the better: ending poverty, illiteracy, remnants of slavery and more, which he sincerely seemed to aim and intend. For this reason his approach for Ethiopia’s progress was steadfast, thought out, but often “gradual”. These difficult hierarchies and sovereignties with little state/national influence, especially also in rural areas, limited or determined often as much what could change as Selassie’s own goals, plans – even when put in practice - or his determination.

I remained a member of the public library in the course of my life, though my bookworm mode became in time less intense. This partly relates to life choices: I moved the focus to experiencing first-hand, and actually socializing with people.

In another way I was influenced by the Internet, that has become more important, also in my life. I can recall that looking on the Internet became a daily thing for me (with varying intensity) since I was about 22 years of age, when I started to study (Library and Documentation) and had Internet available at school, and later at home. Internet became more commonly checked by me since about the year 1996 (a bit later than Dutch youths of the same age from wealthier/middle-class families). Whether I wanted to or not – or even realized it – I in time began to approach “information” and “facts” differently because of the Internet and searching information on it. It became more technical, rational, and fragmented. A well-told history in a physical book that I enjoyed in library books I borrowed a decade earlier began to seem something of the past, though not entirely. Facts still need contextualization, so “texts” have remained important, also on the Web. Not all is fragmented. Take for instance the often long Wikipedia articles, especially on the Wikipedia in English. Besides this, of course, books and journals are still published.

Also on the Internet, I began searching for what had remained my interests: reggae and Rastafari. I got more interested in Marcus Garvey as well. I was interested in Africa and Ethiopia, also in topical events. The study and other aspects placed these interests of mine sometimes at the background, but never too long.

Apart from the “information media” (books, articles, Internet, tv, or video/DVD), what in the end is more interesting to me is the information itself. In that regard it is interesting that Selassie’s own writings followed in my case on what (mostly Western or European) historians wrote about Selassie. Following the reverence and “positive importance” Selassie has for Rastafari-inspired reggae artists – many of whom considered Selassie as God - , I also noticed critical comments in other sources, that often somehow seemed dubious. Not that I did not want to hear or read that, simply because I chose to “side” with the positive opinions of the reggae singers I liked. This might seem plausible to amateur-psychologists, but is in reality too simple an explanation. Writings about Selassie by different Western historians contradicted each other, I noticed, sometimes because of political ideology or other biases, sometimes because interpretation of complex issues differ easily from person to person. Ethiopia was indeed complex, as were Ethiopia’s traditions, politics, monarchical culture and history, and social reality. In all this Selassie had to find a way, as said explaining and shaping his actions.

SERGE VAN DUIJNHOVEN’S BIOGRAPHY

Serge van Duijnhoven, an historian as well as poet from the Netherlands, wrote the small “afgeschreven” biography (mini-biography) I bought on Haile Selassie, published in 1993. To Van Duijnhoven’s credit: his portrayal of Haile Selassie is not too negative and relatively neutral and balanced. It seems even understanding with regard to Selassie’s choices, even when other criticized these. Van Duijnhoven seems to put in context the complexity of the country Ethiopia and the Emperor. He was mainly factual, strove to balance (which is good), but not always got all his facts right, though mostly regarding less relevant details. Not overly relevant, perhaps, but odd mistakes there were: he describes Jamaican thinker and leader Marcus Garvey – who predicted Selassie’s coronation - as “Reverend” (analogy with Martin Luther King?). Garvey never was a Reverend. He wasn’t even formally Protestant anymore in the latter part of his life (he became Catholic), but never belonged to any clergy. He was the leader of a social Black Power or upliftment movement, not a primarily religious one. Van Duijnhoven does describe the general tenets of Rastafari well, on the other hand.

Still, if he got some facts clearly wrong, you don’t know what to believe anymore. Selassie became in his latter years more focussed on health issues – Van Duijnhoven relates – and had Indian advisors for his mental and physical health, as well as a Swedish “holistic” advisor. Selassie wanted to see his staff in the palace dance daily to “modern rhythmic” music for health reasons, Van Duijnhoven also relates as illustrative detail. This is not really a disturbing detail, and even sympathetic or funny in some way, but how did Van Duijnhoven find this out? However: maybe it is simply true, and he had reliable sources.

Other books - or journal or newspaper reports and articles - were more critical, and overall an image was presented of an authoritarian, absolutist Monarch in the vein of The Bourbon Monarchy (Louis XIV) as existed in France, centuries ago. An Emperor who aimed to keep absolute power, and even neglected the ply and problems (poverty, inequality, slavery) of his people. While Selassie in reality aimed at solving these problems as well as at modernization in several ways (legally, technologically) – influenced in part by the Western world and Europeans -, some historians still claim that Selassie’s efforts had little effect, and that he actually kept Ethiopia backwards. Several authors, however, also note more positively that Selassie made quite some progress, such as in modernization and education, in Ethiopia, despite difficult circumstances. In addition, several authors place Selassie in the broader historical context, pointing out with arguments that the following dictatorship under Mengistu was worse in several ways. Indeed there are strong arguments for that.

Marcus Garvey might have “predicted” the coronation of an African king that would mean the redemption of Black People worldwide (Rastafari-adherents see Selassie’s later coronation as the fulfilment of this prophecy), and was praiseworthy of the Emperor when crowned in 1930 and some time after it, but he became critical later. When Fascist Italy under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, Garvey became irritated by the support Selassie sought, against the invasion, of mainly European, Western powers – “who would let him down, eventually”, Garvey warned - while neglecting broader African connections within his own continent or with Black people worldwide against the Fascist invasion. He attributed this to his elitist position in Ethiopia, detached from the large populace, and used to riches, privileges and servants.

KAPUSCINSKI’S BIOGRAPHY

Then there is the still most famous book on Haile Selassie: ‘The Emperor, downfall of an autocrat’, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. This was published in 1978. This work is on Selassie’s monarchic rule and habits, and sold well. However, the veracity of all facts in this book – including even relevant facts – has been meanwhile questioned by many. Not just by Selassie-adherents, by the way. Kapuscinski was known to “invent” or “make up” facts in his journalistic or historical writings, often as part of allegories, for political purposes in, for instance, his native Poland. In the said book on Selassie, Selassie’s rule was in this sense compared to Edward Gierek’s, First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, until he fell in disgrace in 1980. If this comparison really made sense is already doubtful, but Kapuscinski’s historical methods have been criticized overall as “unscholarly” and biased, including – as said – made up (or unverified) facts.

See this review:

http://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/29/books/the-dictator-s-downfall.html

In a quite recent article (January 31, 2013) in the Dutch weekly journal Vrij Nederland, Harm Ede Botje calls Kapuscinski a “fantast”. He furthermore worked for the Polish secret services, making him a fanatic, practising Communist, and which explains his “propagandistic” journalism. That Selassie was ousted by Communists in 1974 for instance had to do with the negative image of Selassie that partly comes through in Kapuscinski’s 1978 work on Selassie.

Kapuscinski was seen as good (literary) writer, a poet, as well as a journalist, but when a book is presented as “nonfiction” and historical, one may assume that the facts in it are correct. Artistic licence is okay, so are literary aspirations, but this is just lying and deception.

http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1972048,00.html

Van Duijnhoven’s small biography I mentioned before was read (or sold) much less than the bestseller (deemed classic now) by Kapuscinski. Van Duijnhoven’s “mini-biografie” has not been even translated into other languages than Dutch, so the market remained limited. Even Dutch public libraries “wrote” the book “off”, as I told. Serge Van Duijnhoven (who is also a poet) is also practically unknown outside of the Netherlands. Yet, his work on Selassie seemed more neutral and “real” to me. Not extremely academic in tone, but a good read, (seemingly) factual, and educational for young and older people.

Other more neutral biographies of Haile Selassie may have appeared in other countries and languages as well, but Kapuscinski is the more known as an author and journalist, even if his bias has become more evident recently.

LOCKOT’S WORK

Another biographical work on Haile Selassie cannot go unmentioned: the very readable ‘The mission : the life, reign and character of Haile Selassie I’ by Hans Wilhem Lockot, published in 1989. It is overall a quite sympathetic and positive description of Selassie as a person and of his reign. Lockot describes Selassie’s political and social talent as outstanding, for instance, and also points at actual progress achieved in Ethiopia toward modernization and education under Selassie’s guidance. He characterizes the accusation that the Emperor “hid” the drought and famine in Wollo province of Ethiopia from the world as fabrications, inventions by his enemies: Lockot points out that many foreign journalists worked freely in Ethiopia before and during the famine. Also, that Selassie supposedly had a lot of money (billions according to some German journalists) hidden abroad in a Swiss bank account, had “not a shred of truth”, Lockot points out, as all the extra money was needed for Ethiopian developments and policies.

Overall Lockot’s work, rather than unreasonably laudatory or apologetic, seems upon closer reading a balanced portrayal to me, making it more convincing. Much information recurred that I already have read before in other works on Selassie, but details in it were new for me.

SUBTEXTS

Different writers – outsiders/non-Ethiopians in most cases – partly repeat the same general events surrounding Selassie, but with individual differences between them, especially in the details. Hans-Wilhem Lockot, a German, lived and worked in Ethiopia as head of the research division of Ethiopia’s National Library. He really loves Ethiopia, coming across also in his other writings. In this particular work on Selassie, Lockot furthermore admits that he aims at a positive reassessment of Selassie, after negative comments about Selassie following the revolution in 1974, led by Mengistu, overthrowing the Emperor. He brought this overthrow onto himself, seemed to be a subtextual meaning about the Empreror’s rule in several commentaries.

Subtexts – or in other words “reading between the lines” – is what I do with all these books on Selassie. Biases can be hidden, to differing degrees, as we saw with Kapuscinski’s “biography”. Yet, also with more seemingly “neutral” or “impartial” works a degree of intellectual mistrust seems healthy to me. European countries Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium also had violent, oppressive colonial pasts in parts of Africa. The seeming respect granted by e.g. the British government and state to Haile Selassie, including wartime assistance, and Ethiopia’s independence, was perhaps helpful, but at the same time hypocritical as Britain denied self-rule in other African countries it colonized. This smells like the proven imperialistic method of “divide and rule”. Many articles, reports, or books on Selassie are by Britons (and other Europeans).

DOCUMENTARY FILMS

Then I saw a few good documentaries, some on DVD (and before that video) , that I considered quite educational for me: on Ethiopia and Haile Selassie’s rule. These include a British-made one, a seemingly neutral one, called ‘H.I.M. Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah’ (http://youtu.be/75GQ3rwxtZI) - worth a watch I think.

Another, more recent one, spoken mainly in Amharic, I saw as part of a film festival, and I discussed in another post (December, 2011) on this blog: the documentary is called ‘Twilight revelations : episodes in the life and times of Emperor Haile Selassie’, is from 2009. It is based on interviews with Ethiopian people who worked closely with Selassie. To quote myself from that post: “This documentary gave a balanced, and overall positive (and human) view of Selassie as person and Emperor”.

I found the documentary of ‘Faces of Africa’ called ‘Haile Selassie: the pillar of Ethiopia, part 1 & 2’ interesting as well. See: http://youtu.be/bVki9t3anJU

Several interesting documentaries can furthermore be found on YouTube. This one, called ‘Ethiopia : the hidden empire’ is another interesting example: http://youtu.be/ZbyJyp2rQdE

I watched several of them, also on YouTube, encountering partly information I already learned about through other media and books, though with some added knowledge, and of course - the main advantage of films – visualization, images. Images can on the other hand also be manipulated and confusing, so I try to remain aware of that as well. Just like a main advantage of Internet, over other media: namely that you can search very specifically for information yourself, can also turn out to be confusing, and is also manipulated (by commercial parties, hackers, or virus spreaders).

RETURNING TO THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Like I mentioned, later than most other works on Selassie I mentioned, I also finished reading recently the Autobiography written by Haile Selassie I, called ‘The autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I : 1892-1937’. He wrote this in 1937. ‘Autobiography’ is a somewhat confusing term, because it mostly consists of memoirs from the perspective of a political leader. The actual title Selassie gave himself to the memoirs makes this clearer: ‘My life and Ethiopia’s Progress’. In other words, his life at the service of Ethiopian progress.

You won’t find too much personal or intimate revelations by Selassie beyond political, practical, or work-related issues, and rarely does he refer to his daily life or personal relationships or even feelings. The tone may even seem overly formal – because of this scope as an Emperor in function - while other linguistic formulations relate – according to the translator (Selassie wrote the memoirs in Amharic) – to the inherent social values present within Amharic, culturally different from the English to which it is translated. Hierarchy is also considered within Amharic’s linguistic formulations, as are politeness, traditions, social relations etcetera, rendering an inherent “opacity” to Amharic, difficult to translate to English.

It seemed, however, translated well in my opinion, and I consider it readable, though some formulations needed some getting accustomed to. Likewise did the practical and formal focus of Selassie’s descriptions require some adjustment from my part, but I could adjust and actually began to enjoy reading even the detailed descriptions. Perhaps the down-to-earth and practical focus corresponded with a “meditative vibe” within me.

It appealed, I think, also to shared human psychology. In past periods during my life, when I was sad or felt wronged by people, focussing on mundane/earthly, practical issues like hand and foot work, cleaning, repairing, putting in order, gardening, helped me to forget – at least temporarily - the hard “big” world of hatred, selfishness, power play, or tricky human encounters where you do not know friends from your foes. Maybe the suggestion of “keeping it simple and basic” or even “starting over again from from scratch” helps puts the mind at ease and focussed. Something of this mental, meditative “escape” I seem to find in Selassie’s descriptions and focus in the memoirs.

BATH

Selassie wrote these memoirs in 1937 while in exile in Bath, England (Somerset), after the Italians invaded and conquered Ethiopia in 1936. He stayed in Bath between 1936 and 1941. He read many international daily newspapers in that period, as Lockot’s relates in his work.

I have been to Bath in 2011, when visiting surrounding areas and nearby Bristol (I actually stayed in Bristol for some days, and visited Bath one full day from there). Bath was a well-preserved historical Georgian town, tourist guides explained. I also hoped to find the place where Selassie stayed during his period in exile. Just to get an idea of the surroundings where Selassie passed his days in exile.

Photo above: view of (central) Bath. I took this photo in 2011.

Bath was (and largely still is) a wealthy, stately town, with Georgian architecture, though with some “cosy” parts, and even some seemingly “rougher” parts, though it came across mainly as a wealthy, “middle-class” town. The large house/villa where Selassie stayed was called Fairfield House, served as his residence, and was in an outer, green part of Bath called Newbridge, close to several smaller and larger parks. Perhaps ironically the architecture of this villa was of the so-called “Italianate” style.

I walked through Newbridge and got an idea (with all the other knowledge I gathered about Selassie by then in my head) of how it must have been for Haile Selassie to have to leave Ethiopia to come to these Northern European, British surroundings.

Photo above: street in Newbridge, Bath. I took this photo in 2011.

The “Autobiography” covers up to 1937. The Ethiopian-Italian conflict as a foreplay of World War II – i.e. Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, and what lead up to it - are important topics in especially the latter part of the Autobiography, which is understandable, as he wrote this in exile soon after Italy’s invasion.

I became later in the work adjusted to the practical, formal focus of Selassie, but actually found it pleasing and educational as well. Thinking it through, I think it reflects some type of humility, of being dignified while realistic. Even when criticizing what he saw as wrong or evil actions by his enemies within Ethiopia, or the Italian wickedness, political tricks, and violence, the lack of support from the international community at times for Ethiopia, Selassie’s tone is critical but not very emotional or spiteful. Dignified, you might say. In these memoirs, Selassie certainly also recurringly makes broader (higher or deeper) philosophical and religious (Christian) references, which show his worldview and beliefs. There is quite some wisdom here and there in the Autobiography as well, alternating at times the practical elaborations on economics, agriculture, infrastructure, organization, trade, military actions etcetera with deeper (or “higher”, if you will) philosophical and social insights.

This combination of philosophy, practical development, and politics – furthermore written in a historically significant year, 1937 – helps make this Autobiography an insightful read.

BALANCE

In addition, and going back to my “knowledge trajectory” regarding Haile Selassie, it seems an interesting coincidence that Selassie’s own writings on his life and work followed, in my case, after I read, heard and saw so much about what other people said about Selassie. Opinions ranging from positive about Selassie to negative/disparaging, and from “praising” reggae lyrics, biased or less-biased commentators or biographical information from Western and European scholars/historians, of journalists, to opinions by other Ethiopians and Africans.

I find that you can be inspired and taught by life stories of people, especially when they were innovative or influential. When they had odds to overcome and aimed for the positive. I had this with the life story/biography of Marcus Garvey, even to a degree Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or, for that matter, people like Pablo Picasso, James Brown, Kemal Ataturk, William Pitt, Charles de Gaulle, Toussaint Louverture, Andy Warhol, Oscar Wilde etcetera. Artists as well as political and social leaders. These are often also “positive examples” for one’s own life. I really experience that this way.

Yet, even biographies of people with “dubious” sides like Napoleon Bonaparte, Muamar Khadaffi, or Stalin can be instructive, as of people who are not commonly known as really good or bad. Also the life story of (they say) a distant relative of mine, Manuel Godoy, prime minister in Spain around 1800, inspired me somehow. Such biographies give insight in personalities, the mere humanity of them when they made choices, and we all share that humanity, making the stories imaginable, even when dealing with other times and conditions.

I am interested in biographies/life stories, but also in autobiographies and memoirs: because then the person talks about himself “in his own words”. I think it’s good for balance: to put these own writings alongside what others say. My distant relative Manuel Godoy was a political leader in Spain, around 1800. There were many (positive and negative) comments about him then and later: he was what you call “controversial”. See the Wikipedia article on him, for instance. Godoy’s own memoirs, written later in his life after he was removed from power following popular uproar and was living in Paris, France, were – not unlike the discussed Selassie’s memoirs – more on his political role and with little attention to his personal and intimate affairs. Still interesting to read, I imagine even if he was not (as I heard all my life) somewhere in earlier branches of our family tree. Indeed he was from the same part of the province Badajoz, as most of my Spanish family (my mother’s side), and that surname Godoy was one of the two carried by my grandmother (in Spanish custom people have two official surnames, as readers may know).

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, a lesson I learned from all this, is that you must not neglect what the person him- or herself has to say about him-/herself and his/her life, even if many other people feel the need to comment on or describe him/her from the outside. Every human being needs to be given attention, listened to, and not just talked about. That’s my idea of a better world. Even when disagreeing with or not really understanding someone.

While many Rastafari adherents admit that Haile Selassie (re)connects them to an (ancestral) African history and identity, making him (Selassie also as symbol) important for the Africa-focussed redemptive movement that is Rastafari, quite other people writing or commenting on Selassie have also their own agenda, quite to the opposite of the Rastafari movement. One of these agenda’s was separating, through given honours and welcomes, the Christian monarch Selassie, the ancient dynasty and monarchy and extensive cultural heritage found in Ethiopia - and Ethiopia’s independence – from the rest of supposedly more “savage” Africa, as the British and French and others did as part of a colonial “divide and conquer” game.

Selassie corrected this himself with his leading role in organizing African unity and the Organization of African Unity (headquartered in Addis Ababa, since its foundation in 1963) since the 1950s and 1960.

On also a more cultural and spiritual level, the Rastafari movement also “reinscribed” Selassie within and as part of Africa, as of course he and Ethiopia always were.

One may or may not share the actual “spiritual” belief that Selassie is God (called Jah by Rastas), or more specifically the reincarnation of Christ as God returned to redeem Africans – as some Rastas believe –, or at least that (as many Rastas argue) Selassie is the divine Jah, still living because everliving, redeeming Africans (all Black people) now and in the future. People who find such beliefs irrational would be less hypocritical if they applied the same rationalist scrutiny to powerful world religions as Christianity or Islam (or Hinduism, Buddhism etcetera). People have the right to choose their own spirituality.

In any case, apart from personal beliefs one may have, the redemptive function of Selassie for Rastafari adherents, Africans, Black people - and perhaps even for poor developing countries in general - is real and proven. As also from other life stories, besides this I think all human beings globally can learn something from Selassie’s life.

This is, I think and conclude, largely due to the overall intelligent way in which Selassie ruled Ethiopia and protected its and later Africa’s interests, as most writings I mentioned above showed in different ways. Despite difficult conditions, and conservative traditions to be considered, Selassie maintained dignity, and achieved progress in Ethiopia in several ways, wherever possible at least, and also for African unity. Moreover, in the international arena he took an early stand against Fascism, against racism, and colonialism, in other words: in favour of international equality and solidarity. All this adds up to a positive example.

SHORT POSTSCRIPT

My “knowledge trajectory” is by the way not over (it never is.. as I live I keep learning): there is a Volume II to the Autobiography by Selassie I discussed, Volume II dealing with a later period of Selassie’s life and rule, also in his own words.. I have to find this to read it as well..