Recently, I was commissioned by the British Council to interview two poets from South Africa. What was interesting was learning two very different approaches the service of spoken word or poetry in performance can offer the artist and the people who encounter this rich literary form. Mongiwekhaya is a subdued, potent spirit. His quietly considered answers focus on his thoughts about arts and community engagement producing work that is esoteric in its political and social commentary. Thabiso aka Afruakan’s enegry is spark driven to build networks for repurposing and trading the craft for an arts infrastructure to support artists to continue their chosen vocation. Both were very spirited and inspiring skype conversations that ran well over the 30 minutes time we’d put into each of our diaries.
“I was raised by my Grandmother from birth. I spoke with her words and her tongue and walked the streets of Witbank Township. But one day my parents returned from their travels overseas, collected me and took me up into a silver bird, and we, my sisters and I, were laid on a new earth. No one spoke my grandmother’s tongue. The child that spoke with any and everyone, found himself a ghost in a new place. He told himself little stories to remember himself. But eventually he told himself new stories. In English. And was reborn as someone new.” – Mongiwekhaya
Playwright, filmmaker and Royal Court writer Mongi Mthobeni (pen name, Mongiwekhaya) is a hardwired storyteller and the above quote wasthe story he told at the opening question of his interview with Poet and Writer Zena Edwards, when did he know he had chosen his life and career in the performing arts. His natural gift manifests itself today through directing and visual storytelling and his short film project, “Speed of Dark”, reveals a mentoring quality to his creative process when he engages with young artists too.
“Speed of Dark’ is adapted from a dance piece called “Open Happiness”, embracing the wonder South Africans felt about the construction of South Africa’s Underground train – The ‘Gautrain’. I started by introducing the young movement artists to the prolific works of Tom Waits, rich with storytelling. Then introduced them to the theatrical form of the French Buffoon and clowning, the ritualistic shamanic performance of repetition to compound the feeling of awe South African’s felt in a time of economic transition.” Continue reading “Writing Two Poets – Mongiwekhaya & Afruakan”→
Thank you all for the phone calls, notes, emails, tweets and Facebook message of support we have received regarding the racial abuse we were subject to on Monday 25th May, 2015.
On what was supposed to be our break on a Bank Holiday, it was with great shock and much sadness that we were called to work to see a disgusting piece of graffiti scrawled upon our very own walls. It was a disappointment to us to realise that someone could go out of their way to be so disrespectful and to have the gall to express such prejudice in public. There is no place in this community for such prejudice whether race, religion, sexuality…. NONE! London is such a cosmopolitan city, which makes it so special.
What we know and stand by is, that the culprit(s) actions do not represent the general feeling of the Herne Hill community.
We have received so much support from so many that we really and truly feel inspired and hopeful in a situation which frankly left us bewildered, violated and down-heartened. On the very day it happened, we had one very kind neighbour lend us some sheets to cover the obscene language, and since then a stream of well wishers checking that we were OK. We have been inundated with encouraging messages to focus on the good that we are doing, rather than the negativity of the incident. We appreciate your continued support.
To thank you all for your support, we have an open bar on Thursday, 4th June from 1800-2000 – we are putting on some entertainment by inviting the hosts of our comedy and poetry night, to put on an event of fun and laughter.
We look forward to seeing you and THANK YOU again for all your support.
The Dee Dee’s Team”
The above letter is from the owner of a Bar in a well-to-do area of London called Herne Hill. For mainstream media the racist intent of this attack has disappeared down the ‘blackhole’ of invisibility and erasure as most outcries and reports of racism do. Remember, it took almost 20 years for Doreen Lawrence to receive some sort of Justice for the racist murder of her son Stephen Lawrence. And all too often when racism is called out, those on the receiving end ie. the Black and Brown folk, are challenged for calling ‘the race card’ or ‘reverse racism’. This blog post is not the time to go into the depths of this distorted perception and psychology of what racism actually is as, right now, I want to speak about how this bar is symbolic of a complex set of issues that require a level-headedness almost devoid of emotion. Yet to the contrary, this attack seems to be all about rousing angry emotions. Dee Dee’s team have remained dignified and have moved with integrity every step of the way to reach a conclusion in favour of justice and equality.
I did not know of Dee Dee’s until I saw a Brixton Buzz article online about the racist graffiti. I went down there because a friend was performing with her band and to show some solidarity at the same time. When I heard what had happened and a few of the events leading up the graffiti appearing, I was appalled (and hurt for them) and came back the next day to talk to the manager and owner to (maybe) get a few words, documenting yet another incident of racism in a “post” racist UK. They gave me an extended 2 hour interview I thought might last just 30 minutes. And I’m grateful for that, as they had been talking to no press because of other complications around the investigation, trapping them under the threat of “incitement of racial hatred”, the police have told them. I shall explain in later blog. It’s incredulous. So they didn’t have to trust me. I’m a stranger, rocking up with a camera and a recording device.
Since, I have come to appreciate the Love people have for this space and as an artist, I understand the value of space. Gentrification is killing spots like Dee Dee’s. Let that be duly noted. But this is overt and aggressive prejudice. This event adds another sinister edge development programs are not considering. But they should.
There is no obscuring the nastiness of this appalling display of bigotry, not even behind the black paint that now covers it. However, despite this, the media managed to find an angle to deflect attention away from the harm and damage done to a people and their property that did not deserve it, shifting the focus to an initial possible suspect, the police say they are no longer investigating and who I will not give any more air time. Click here to read more. The owner of Dee Dee’s has expressed great concern for his staff – will this happen again? Will it be a physical act upon one of his staff as opposed to property, if there is a next time?. Something does not sit right.
There are conversations on social media you can follow here, also here, and here, about the investigation and the statement by the initial possible suspect in general – police are not pursuing the culprit, an obvious hot lead has not been investigated, Why did a local school headmistress say that the graffiti was a photoshopped fabrication? There are so many unanswered questions I will go into on a later post.
But right now, with an indomitable spirit, Dee Dee’s are opened for business as usual and on Thursday 4th June made a special event of performance and a 2 hour open bar to thank all their supporters. I went. It was heartwarming to see locals and some who hadn’t been before relaxing, enjoying the vibe and speaking out against racism.
Nuff Respect Dee Dee’s. More Power to you.
Listen to testimonials from those who came to support on the day.
Song: ‘She’ written and performed by Sian Roseanna Facebook & Twitter: Sianroseanna
Here we go again
Here we go again having to justify our existence
Here you go again with your colonial irrelevance
White spray on black walls
As if we our skin was still
a canvas upon which to paint your hate
But you underestimate the power we create
with words, with song
And Laughter, a joyful throng
Come together with Love for Unity
that rights a wrong
In the balance of karma
And in the light of knowing
the darkness in which your hate dwells
I wish you well, because as Marley says,
‘Oh, Time alone, Time will tell,
you think you’re in heaven
But you’re living in Hell.”
I was recently asked to be guest of the month for The PRS Foundationbecause my last commission was funded by the Women Make Music Award. Why is it important for these kinds of initiatives with pots of money to exist highlights the fact, that the imbalance in the representation of women in the music industry is very real. Its funds like this that give opportunities to artist musicians, like myself, spread our wings, to make journeys into the obscured treasure of their voices and then to put those stories and voices out into the world to inspire and galvanize others. These awards shift the imbalance so that audiences can have more choices about what they want to hear and have enrich their lives.
Gotta give a big shout out too Women Make Music!
Since I saw this horrifying raw piece of footage, I have pulled out all my music, novels and poetry collections to remind me of why SA is still a life changing place to visit.
My personal connection to South Africa is linked to something ethereal. I think. South Africa was my first visit to the African Continent in October 1994, just after the abolition of Apartheid and inauguration of Mandela. My returns since have been connected to the most important thing that has influenced me as a human being and that is the country’s passion of Creativity – turning the Struggle, concepts of Freedom and Liberation into breath-taking Art, Music and Theatre and Dance. I will always be grateful to Pops Mohamed, Busi Mhlongo, Moses Molelekwa, Madala Kunene, Bheki Mseleku, the Xhosa Singers of Lady Frere, Dizu Plaatjies, Kheti, Thandiswa, Zim Ngqawana, and Vusi Khumalo for the music they have given me.
Recently, I was asked by the Kassiani Lythrangomitis from the South African Tourist Board for an interview about my life as an artist and my relationship to SA. Below is the podcast.
In 1998, I was on tour with Pops Mohamed and the NGQOKO Women’s Cultural Group of Lady Frere – from the Ngqoko Village in the Eastern Cape. This choir is one of the last practitioners of the Umngqokolo (overtone) singing – an ambient trance song that made my hair stand on end, stirring the spirit in my very bones. I remember our tour to Zurich, Germany, Paris…. My mind was so alert as I was taught how to play Umgube (mouthbow) and some of their deep-rooted traditional songs whilst riding the tour bus. These Women knew how to party. One prominent memory of this tour was shopping in Paris. Parisiens stared as they walked through the chilly moist streets near Monmartre in layers of blankets, beads and headwraps and I was flipping mental somersaults speaking in broken french to market vendors translating their utterances into my even more scanty Xhosa to help the ladies get the right sized clothing for their children. But it worked. My brain was so alert. It was a time and tour I will never forget.
Here is Singing the Praises of Women – a poetic and song collaboration with The Lady Frere Singers, live in Geneva.
One of the other highlights of my SA connections in poetry and music was recording with the late, great Busi Mhlongo – one of the most powerful women I have met. She was a giant on stage. In 2000, still very early in my poetry writing career, I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute a poem to her internationally acclaimed album, Urbanzulu.
The track itself is epic and seemed to call for an epic poem – one that was declamatory and rousing.
Rochelle Ferguson, is an independent producer for Vox Africa and when I received a call from her to appear on her program ‘Women’s Corner’ for a short interview, I was honoured to be part of a weekly happening especially designed to inspire, inform and affirm women. It was such a great interview. I was made to feel at ease and I must say I have a lot respect for Rochelle and her ambition to be successful in the media industry with this much needed and inspiring concept. Thanks for the invite, Rochelle.
IN 2009 I performed “Security“, my first one woman show in Amsterdam’s prestigious venue Podium Mozaiek. In march 2012, I shall be returning again to perform “Travelling Light”. Both shows have challenged me to stretch my appreciation of Spoken Word and Poetry in the world of theatre and how extended works such as these are ‘cultural vehicles’ exploring poetic language in performance, or literature made ‘live’.
Interview: Performance poet Zena Edwards in Amsterdam
With a fusion of poetry, the spoken word and rhythm, Zena Edwards’ new performance piece ‘Security’ straddles the gap between generations as she takes storytelling into the twenty-first century. Amsterdam, Podium Mozaiek, 20 February (English language).
‘As a performance poet, I focus on both crafts individually and then fuse them. The craft of performance and the craft of poetry. I feel poetry has all the drama, pace and power right there in the text and it is there to be discovered and brought to life through performance. Over the years I have developed a performance style that pays homage to the musicality and emotion in the language. I try to keep my style conversational as this type of language is dynamic, rhythmic, with so many shades, colours and tones. So I work hard to find these. I enjoy singing so I include this too.
On Sunday 18th, I was invited by Henry Bonsu to be a newspaper reviewing guest
on his increasingly popular current affairs program on Vox Africa called “Shoot the Messenger”. It felt like we were just warming up when the 1 hour was over.
Many thanks to Henry and Juanna, the STM producer for having me.
“FemFest was developed in response to my hearing from women playwrights that they were having trouble getting their work produced. It was clear that by not getting productions it was then harder to get more productions. We established FemFest to break this cycle and in hopes that by showcasing the work of women playwrights, more of their work would be picked up by other companies. We also set up FemFest to allow for a networking opportunity for these women. Having a place to come and share work, learn from other artists and just talk about being a playwright seemed invaluable at the time and
continues to be important. In the long-term we’d love to get to the point where women are being produced so much that we don’t need a festival to showcase them. We are working towards a day when FemFest is unnecessary, but we know that is a very long-term goal. For our immediate future our hope is to continue to find ways to offer women artists what they need most. We don’t plan to grow any larger but do plan to continue to explore new
initiatives to work with the community.”
At present I am sitting in a hotel room in downtown Winnipeg unable to sleep because of jet lag. Its 2.16am Canada time, 8.16am London time.
I am here because of FEMFEST – a festival of women playwrights and performers who battle hard to get their work produced because it is a very masculine dominated industry. Dare I say it, but a bit shameful?
Later, I intend to interview Hope McIntyre who set about making this possibility, for this festival to have life of 9 years when others have folded. I am privileged to be here because Hope took a risk. She saw some of my work on YouTube, Like the Travelling Light blog had a short conversation with me on the phone and spent her hard won funding money to get me on a plane to be artist in residence for the festival. I’m honoured. More to come…
I’ve been gutted about missing performance, trains, planes, friends gigs and birthday parties before, but I have never been so disappointed at being denied to perform at a gig because of illness. I had been Scheduled to read/perform between, Hanif Kureshi and Yusuf Kumonyakaa and my voice had deserted me, left me with what sounded lke sandpaper being dragged across the back of a miserable toad. Gutted. I was in Paris, it was the coming into Autumn, the air was fresh, the festival buzzing and my voice was gone. The festival organisers were really cool and told me to take it easy, “take the pressure off”, relax. they realized before I did that I had been working to hard. My voice folded half way though a performance of my one woman show “Security” at the Shizoka Theatre Festival in Japan. I attempted to sing. Toad croaked instead.
But I had a great interview that got me tracking my career path, investigating why had reached a point of exhaustion that my voice packed and went on vacation without me.
“I fell into poetry when I was training to do stage management. I did the lighting and designing for a group of dynamic, young, black writers. I went to the group for a while and started re-exploring my writing, which was something I had always done as a child. But there wasn’t much of a scene in London at the time, and it wasn’t until I was in South Africa eight years later, working with a musician friend of mine, that I started writing some poetry again. I went along to a night called Monday Blues and got up and read this rough little poem I had in my notebook, and I really enjoyed it. So when I got back to London I checked out the spoken word scene and found myself falling back into it again, and it escalated from there. I never believed it would get me to the point when I could come to a festival like this. I was just having fun, but people kept inviting me back.
“The scene in London has exploded over the last seven years. There are so many circles that occasionally overlap. I’m lucky enough that I can pretty much move through all of them. There’s a spoken word cabaret scene, a spoken word comedy scene, another very literary scene, a black scene, a music and spoken word scene, which is huge in London now.