The Souls of Black Folk

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

By Kalamu ya Salaam of
Wednesday, February 25, 2009.
In New Orleans, we get ready for the lean by chewing on the fat. In a city once dominated by Catholicism, we indulge ourselves in preparation to endure 40 days of lent – a block of temperance and sacrifice that precedes Easter.
But our flagrant embrace of celebration is not really a religious duty; if anything, it is ordinary carpe diem wisdom. Only a fool would not laugh when there is fun; for, as our people in Brazil know so well, happiness ends, sadness is always. We will always have cause to cry; as we might not be in a position to laugh tomorrow.
If we are alive in the morning, then let our day be a carnival, which is a wise response to the vicissitudes of mundane life. Today we can dance; tomorrow, who knows. The oncoming night may last for 40 years or more. Or at least, this is our philosophy. Why we seem so happy even though we are at the bottom of nearly every index of material and social wellbeing. Win, lose or draw, we enjoy ourselves. We are serious about playing the game of life.
I know that not everyone looks at life the way we do. Many cultures try to fight death rather than celebrate life. Some even try to make promises not only about tomorrow but also about what will happen when there are no more tomorrows. Promises of a better afterlife are deeply suspect when they come from people incapable of enjoying the here and now.
If there is a major distinction between African heritage aesthetics and those of classical Europe, it is our approach to life after birth. Our enjoyment of the social rather than coveting material possessions is what enables us to surmount the downer of death. I am convinced this aesthetic is a major part of what attracts the world to our music, and this in turn brings us to Orpheus.
In another time—literally over half a century ago—a French film director, someone named Marcel Camus, decided to remake a Brazilian play, Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes, which was based on the mythic Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Camus wanted to make a beautiful film about confronting death—beautiful in that the images would affirm life. So he decided to ask the people of Brazil to give his movie life, and music, and love, and joy. He called this moment in cinema history Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus).
Who can say why judges make the decisions they do. Black Orpheus won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival 1959 and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960.
While universally admired, over time, the movie has been criticized by some for being patronizing of black people in Brazil.  40 years later in 1999, a remake of the move was completed by the Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Diegues with a soundtrack featuring Brazilian music icon Caetano Veloso. The remake updates the sights and sounds, and is more “authentic” but it does not have the artistic impact of the first film.
Perhaps, the attention to sociology clouded the truth that it is not poverty that makes us, but rather we who make something out of nothing—our way of approaching life, our passion, what we bring to the table. That is the ultimate importance not what is missing atop the table. What we bring is much more important than what is missing.
Our willingness to take a chance on life is why we so readily relate to Orpheus and Eurydice grasping at a wild and crazy affair. They are lovers, we relate to that. Hell, even a child can understand that.
The children dance and they believe music brings up the sun. This is the way we will risk death to embrace love in life. And especially our ability to seek, see and reflect the beauty of life regardless of day-to-day dirt. All of that is what infuses us not in a mystical way, but in a very, practical philosophical way—loving life is our praxis.
Camus’ Black Orpheus is a classic precisely because even though it is a flawed production about people with flaws, this movie successfully projects our passion for life. In the film, Brazilian soccer player Breno Mello played the trolley driver Orpheus, and the French resident and African American actress Marpessa Dawn, was the newly arrived ingénue from the countryside Eurydice. The production did not have any big names, and at that time, hardly anyone outside of Brazil knew the soundtrack composers, Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
At the beginning of the 1960s, there was no forewarning of the immense success Black Orpheus would achieve as a cinematic milestone. Moreover, the soundtrack literally changed the face of popular music and internationally established Samba and Bossa Nova. Black Orpheus is arguably the most successful and most influential movie soundtrack ever. The Greeks thought life was tragic. But we of African descent know that the true tragedy in life is not living when you are alive, not giving your all regardless of how little (or how much) you possess.
We are truly not from the tragic school. As the music and social ambiance of Black Orpheus illustrate, we are passionate believers in life. We know another world is possible – in this world. Right here, right now. While we also know that massive struggle will be required to create this new world, nevertheless we are confident of victory. Pamoja tutashinda  – “together we will win”.
Moreover, we work and play, thoroughly infused with the understanding that we must accompany the birth of our new world with song. So, we make music as we search and struggle, forever, which is as long as at least two of us are alive. We are prepared to love our lives, now and in the future – to love life whenever and wherever we find ourselves.
Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society – a Black writers workshop.
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