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FROM CAPE TOWN TO MOGADISHU

 

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com 

 

Monday, September 29, 2008.

 

Editor's note?: Part 1 of this article appears here http://www.thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=1577

 

 

South Africa: Ernestine Deane (main picture)

 

They call her Earnie. As soon as you hear her, you know. No explanation necessary. Earnie’s sound is an instant connect.

And like other notable contemporary female singers from Africa
, Ernestine Deane’s music runs far, far deeper than the surface seems to promise. Apartheid had classified Ernie as colored. She rejects that particular politicization of skin color and simply refers to herself as “brown.”

In their own way, each of these four women I have covered in both part one and two of this article are seriously investigating identity issues. In the interest of healing, they don’t merely finger the wound. They musically scrub off dirt-encrusted scabs, lance boils, release pus and other toxins, apply medicinal potions, and resultantly cleanse and expose their private and personal wounds to the antiseptic of public sunlight.

Because she sings in English, the political content of Ernie’s music is much more evident to many of us in the diaspora; and because Ernie’s stylistic preferences include jazz, gospel, reggae, hip-hop and R&B, her music is not only accessible but extremely attractive, except that her lyrics are consciously confrontational, almost severe in the oppositional stances she stakes out.

Although none of the four women make lush or highly ornamented music, Ernie’s backing is almost stark in comparison. Her voice is pushed way forward and, with the exception of sensitive sax or flute obbligatoes (particularly on "Brown" and "Think Again"), the backing instrumentation is spare.

 

While the musical accompaniment is minimal, the backing vocal tracks are almost as strong as the music. Ernie layers and overdubs her voice, weaving a vocal tapestry that is both subtle and omnipresent. But why try to describe the beauty of her sounds when the sounds speak so eloquently for themselves.

 

Ernie’s October 2006 debut solo album,  Dub For Mama, attains the level of serious Black music, a level both futuristic and ancestral. This is music not only appropriate for all ages, this is music for all the ages and eras that our people have seen, now see, and will see.

 

I am particularly impressed by the feature track "Prayer For Cape Town" (which is a variation on "Amazing Grace") and by the Yemanya-channeling of "Watersong."

But beyond the music itself, I relate to Ernie’s process of music making. Dub For Mama is not only a conscious statement about identity and ecology, it is also an assertion of political and economic self-determination.

 
Born in 1972, Ernie grew up on the
Cape Flats in Grassy Park, Cape Town, South Africa. (Cape Town is located on the lower tip of Africa where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean.) Her professional life as a singer started when she was 15 working with the hip-hop crew Black Noise. A few years later she made her mark in South Africa as the lead vocalist for Moodphase5ive with whom she released two albums: Steady On and In Superdeluxe Mode.

 

         

In April 2001, “Uneek,” a Moodphase5ive single, held down the number one spot on the radio charts for three consecutive weeks.

Her benchmark year of development was 2002 during which she undertook an exploratory documentary about her family history and became pregnant for the first time. Her pregnancy became part of the documentary’s focus. The documentary is simply called Brown.

Brown was co-produced by the South African media group Other-Wise and directed by Kali van der Merwe. 

 
In 2003, she had a feature role in the South African film Boy Called Twist, which was a South African take on Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist. In addition to acting Deane also sang and contributed original music for the film score.
 
A recent development is the theatrical collaboration Womantide. Working with singer-songwriter Tina Schouw and performance poet Malika Ndlovu, the three women weave music and poetry to produce a production that focuses on the feminine “in honour of the human spirit.”

Under the banner “healing through creativity” Ernestine’s main work is Konshus Pilot which is also the label for Dub For Mama.

 

Ernestine Deane’s vision of collective and community-based development is extremely difficult to sustain in the era of global capitalism, and it is particularly difficult in the new South Africa that has yet to resolve a number of old problems - color conflicts and access to resources based on social class and racial caste. A central contradiction manifesting itself in a myriad of manners, including high rates of crime and AIDS, persistent poverty and violent xenophobia.

 

Somalia: Saba Anglana

 

With a degree in Art History from the University of Rome La Sapienza and a major career as a star on Italian television, Saba might seem like the last person to be featured in a survey of contemporary African music.

But Saba pushes a lot of emotional buttons. Once I hit on the idea of choosing a singer from each of the four corners of Africa I found myself conflicted about including Saba. Wasn’t there a darker sister who deserved to be highlighted, someone who is not getting all the international press—and so forth and so on? It does not take much imagination to appreciate some of the conflicts I was feeling.


             [saba+anglana]
But if struggle to get over our own prejudices and try to open our ears (and hopefully our minds, hearts and total beings) to the other. In the long run it is important not only to recognize our common humanity with others, it is equally important to recognize and embrace the most profound paradox of human existence: we put a lot of weight on our self-identity, but none of us chooses our birth histories or legacies.

 

Saba Anglana struggles with this, even as her music causes us to struggle with our own perceptions of African music.

Africa is deep, deeper than any stereotype. The continent and its people are iconic of any aspect of humanity one might explore. Even the word “explore” has a stereotypical connotation in the African context not the least of which is the issue of “race” contrasted with the characterization of Africa as the dark, unknown - and some would say, unknowable continent.

 

Saba is an African separated from herself, who is using her music to perform open heart surgery and emotionally suture together aspects that have been forced asunder.

 

"Nothing is so easy to do, but music and art in general are a good way to let us free ourselves to understand our nature as hybrid people. I wanted to be free. I wanted to speak about my way of learning to a culture but not only one. I don’t feel Italian. I don’t feel Somalian. I feel all these things together. When I speak to Italian people, they don’t think I’m Italian, and the same with Somalian people. I tried through music to express this feeling and this problem."


—Saba Anglana

 

Again we confront the issue of language. Although she is not only an actress but also a published author, Saba has found in music a way to express herself that she did not find in any other way.

 

"I’d always thought to sing in Italian or English, because I always heard music from the States and England. But at some point I tried to put the lyrics in Somali, just because of the beauty and the power of the sound. It was sort of an experiment. And from that time on I felt something very true was going on. I was free, setting myself free. I found out it was a way to speak about my identity for the very first time in my life. I’m not telling you I belong to Somali culture, but I have memories of my childhood and a part of my way of living was coming from where I was born, from Africa, where my father and mother wanted to be together and merge their cultures. So it was sort of a tribute to my childhood and my father and mother’s loving country."


—Saba Anglana


The back story is both simple and complex. Her father, a former colonel in the Italian military, went to Somalia (which had been a colony of Italy) to live out the rest of his life after the horrors of World War II. Saba’s maternal grandfather had been captured while fighting in Ethiopia against the Italian invasion and had been deported to Somalia where he continued to reside after the war. Although of Ethiopian heritage, Saba’s mother was born in Mogadishu, Somali’s capital city.

Saba’s parents met in Mogadishu, fell in love, gave birth to two daughters, and five years after Saba was born, the Somalian government of General Muhammad Siyad Barre gave her family 48 hours to leave Somalia or else.

 

End of story, beginning of story. Although she visited her maternal relatives in Ethiopia (Saba’s mother lives with Saba in Rome), Saba never returned to Somalia.

 

"We were a mixed-marriage family: inconvenient, perhaps a threat. I still remember nights at Bolimog (Cape Guardafui, near Alula — the extreme east point of Africa, where my father was working) when policemen came to interrogate my father, as they thought he was a US spy. In reality, he was there because he loved Africa, and my sister and I were born there."


—Saba

 

Today, Somalia is sometimes sneeringly and dismissively returned to as a basket case, albeit an extremely dangerous basket case. Ships bearing food and medical supplies are reportedly subjected to waves of speedboat pirate attacks, aid workers have been assassinated; hell, Hollywood made a whole action movie called Blackhawk Down, referring to an infamous incident in which a covert U.S. military operation in Mogadishu went disastrously awry resulting in not only death but also international humiliation for America’s armed forces.

 

Over a thousand Somolians died during the battle and the bodies of dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets. The light of hope for Somalia has been all but extinguished: is this the Somalia that Saba sings of?

Yes and no.

 

"Africa in general has a strong power. From one side, it has a sweet power, a joyful power. And the other side is a sort of dramatic power, violence. And these two things, opposite things, are living together. And, of course, it’s very striking.

I remember [
Mogadishu] was a joyful place where to live, and I wanted to record this positive side. Because we don’t think, we have to think about Africa
speaking about only the negative sides, and the poverty, and the diseases, and all this kind of thing.

But we are witness of this good way of living in
Africa
. It could be possible. I mean, I hope now that the situation could get better.


—Saba Anglana

 

And here is the conundrum: should we celebrate or be suspicious of Saba’s music, Saba’s choice to record in Somali, historically her mother tongue but in practice a language she knows at arm’s length and that she learned informally but consciously from her mother.

 

"I didn’t care about the grammatical correctness — the aim was to let my memories flow and to translate them into the other language very close to me: music. [My music] reminds me of the songs I heard when I was little and recalls a lost world. I wrote some of the lyrics with my mother.

 

The Somali language gives me great satisfaction for the musical and expressionistic sound of the words, but, more than anything else, for the value this reunion represents in my human growth. It feels like I’m moving closer to a part of me that lives in the woman that gave me life: my mother. In the evenings (as she did with her sisters and brothers around the fire), we rediscovered the pleasure of storytelling and I’d fight against her shyness to get her to speak in Somali. Like many people, we were never able to go back to Somalia. This is my return."


—Saba Anglana

 

Who am I to doubt the sincerity of Saba’s music? On the other hand, Saba's debut album, Jidka immediately strikes the ear as a polished, professional album. How much is memory, how much is Memorex? On the Italian television cop-series “La Squadra,” Saba plays the part of a cop who is half-Italian, half-African.

 

How much is type-casting: Saba simply being herself while acting like someone else, and how much is acting: Saba donning a mask she intimately knows—and is it even possible to separate the two?

Saba’s band exemplifies my ambivalence. 

Musically, part of me recoils from the slickly polished “pop” elements, from some of the sights and sounds of her videos, sights and sounds which are premeditated if not out and out contrived but then behind the façade there is a reality and a powerful pulse that I respond to.

Like it or not, Saba’s music perfectly exemplifies major issues that Africa is being force to sort out. Jidka (The Line) is Saba’s high wire attempt to cross borders and unite opposites.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com 

 


 

 

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