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Friday, 27 May 2011

‘In Mali, the Kora is no one-night stand, it requires commitment’

... the soul-consuming sound of this 21-stringed instrument is sensual and not cerebral

Pictures and story by Andrew Mulenga

Djelimadi Diabaté intimately closes
his eyes as he strums on the Kora
during a performance at the San Toro
restaurant in Bamako
BLISTERING heat, beverages, women and music may provide a short list of memories for the multi-sensory experience that is the capital city of Mali, Bamako, and for this article alone, these items will be ticked off in that particular order of importance.
First, the heat. Visiting from the far much cooler city of Lusaka, you realise how hot it is the minute your plane touches down. When sweat starts trickling down the groove of your back, you realise wearing black high-top basketball sneakers, a pair of jeans and a leather jacket was a grave mistake. You are in the Sahel, the place where the Sahara Desert in the north meets the northern most savannahs.
The beverages; luckily as hot as it is, almost at every stall or turn you find huge bottles of fresh, home-made gem-gem ginger juice and hibiscus, to cool you off. And there is just something about this non-alcoholic beverage that gives you a feeling that it has medicinal properties. Besides ginger and hibiscus is tea, which on the one hand is served scorchingly hot in small glasses. As it turns out, the people of this ancient land with a supreme cultural history have been drinking this beverage long before the Englishman embraced it in the 1600s as a symbol of refinement, to be sipped with cucumber sandwiches at four o’clock. Nevertheless, before we sidetrack, let us tick the next item off our short list.
The women; make of it what you will, but it truly is a spectacle that needs some getting used to, to see the women of Bamako pull up their long boubou [chitenge] robes to spread their legs across tiny motorcycles on which they zip through the chaotic traffic at mind-numbing speeds worthy of BBC Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson himself. And they do it without the protection of a helmet. Instead, they wear matching headscarves that despite the speed, do not fall off. It is only our next item that can rival the spectacle of these fascinating women.
Igo Diarra a Malian music producer, radio personality,
author and all round cultural operator introduces
members of the 
Ensemble Instrumentale
Nationale Du Mali
 playing the Ingoni (l)
and the 
Kora at the Palais de la culture in Bamako

The music; Mali has some of the most diverse and internationally recognised music cultures in the world. It dates back hundreds of years to the early ‘griots’ who served as royal praise singers, political advisors, historians, and storytellers that used it as a medium. Luckily, while there, yours truly managed to interview Igo Diarra a local music producer, radio personality, author and all round cultural operator who was kind enough to give more insight into the music of his country. Although he did it in an incongruous French accent, when it came to talking about the music and its instruments, his English was loud and clear and you would not imagine he spoke any other tongue.
“There are many types of instruments in our music, although the Kora has been the most popular for a long time. Another popular one is a smaller guitar-like instrument called the ingoni and they are usually played side by side,” explains Igo. “But the Kora is like a wife, that's why after many years of experience there is even a real marriage ceremony between the player and his instrument, especially when you attain a certain level. This is because it is the only instrument in the world that is held directly in front of you and caressed like a woman.”
To back Igo’s zany revelation of the matrimonial attachment between the instrument and its player, you have to hear and see the instrument being played live to appreciate and understand why for an artiste, the Kora is not a one night-stand partner. It is one that requires commitment. The soul-consuming sound of this 21-stringed instrument is sensual and not cerebral.
Ladies with a bit more money can afford
motorcycles and can be seen cruising on
the streets of Bamako at high speeds
with no helmets 
 "But like I said, the instruments are many," he says. "There is also the balaphon [called marimba in southern Africa or xylophone in the global West]. So basically it is the kora, the ngoni and the balaphone that are the three indispensable melody instruments of the 'Manding griot'. For instance, [the late] Ali Fakar Touré played guitar, as does Habib Koite. Toumani Diabaté is the king of kora, Bassekou Kouyaté is the king of ingoni and all these are well known international artistes.”
 Igo further explains that Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté’s 2005 album In the Heart of the Moon with Farka Touré on guitar and Diabaté on kora was nominated for the Album of the Year Award in the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music the following year, but lost out to Dimanche à Bamako by another Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. However the album won the Best Traditional World Album at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards in the same year.
“Nick Gold from World Circuit signed the contract with Toumani right here in my office. This too helped open up the rest of the world to the music of Mali. As you might know, Nick was the producer for The Buenna Vista Social Club from Cuba. He helped bring them to the world stage as well,” adds Igo.
He continues to highlight how diverse the music is, where it is coming from and how seamlessly it blends with 21st Century music styles and trends.
“Mali music is very diverse, it has so many different sounds. If you go to the north, there is Toureg music, like Tinariwen a desert blues band in Segou. There is a different style.”
Women in a Bamako minibus that has
no windowpanes owing to the heat,
a form of modified air-conditioning
He explains that the skill of playing music is handed down from older to younger people, and in many cases it is taught in high schools, but more serious teaching is done in the homes.
“We are a very old culture. Preserving heritage is a way of life. Mali music is traditional but it's very international. People come from all over the world to sample our music and also to collaborate," adds the part-time open air concert organiser who also runs a library for underprivileged children.
Speaking of which, Igo's passion for collecting children's books to create a library should not come as a surprise. For the people of Mali, as much as they had the griots to disseminate oral tradition, close to one million ancient documents known as the Timbuktu Manuscripts, ranging from scholarly works to short letters have been preserved by private households in Timbuktu, north of Bamako with the earliest dating back to the 13th Century. Which is somewhat ironic seeing in the past Africa carried the insulting accolade of “the dark continent”, owing to a supposed ignorance.
Igo talks of the collaborations with foreign artistes. “At Balanise my production company, I am doing this project called Roots To Roots where we are collaborating with hip-hop and ragga artistes from the UK. We mix rap with the Kora.”
Igo insists that although Malian musicians make it big globally, they never leave their country to settle in Europe. He believes this too has helped the sound maintain a certain richness through a sort of incubative process.
“If you leave Mali and settle in Europe you lose the vibe. Some say the music of Mali is inspired by the flow of the Niger. Right now with the technology you don't have to go to Europe - maybe just for some last minute mixing, that's all. But it can be done here. Be reminded, however, that Igo is also a radio presenter who is more used to interviewing than being interviewed so it is perfectly reasonable that at the close of the interview, he turned the tables and asked a question.
Homemade hybiscus (l) and ginger juice
served with cakes made from rice
flour are popular
¨Tell me about Zambian music; did you bring any with you? I would like to hear the Zambian sound."
Zambian music? Zambian sound? Is there even such a thing as a Zambian sound? How does one answer such a question? This is the stuff of fierce pub debate.
Of course, Zambian music today is enjoying an unprecedented vibrancy, which is at an all time high. In backyard studios, a new digitally enhanced song is released every hour and is well received and consumed by a voracious audience, which cannot seem to get enough.
But as for a “sound”, there really is no “Zambian sound”. All of it is hip-hop, Jamaican-influenced dancehall, reggae, R&B and [like it or not] Congolese Rhumba. The only thing Zambian about it are the languages in which it is sang. Much of it is produced fast and cheap at the expense of quality. To be realistic, even a lot of what passes for contemporary Zambian music contains explicit lyrics that seem to focus on sex and the demeaning of women, albeit with such an ingenious use of innuendo and metaphor that you will find yourself singing along before you realise how nonsensical they are. In this regard, the artistes are outdoing themselves and becoming better at it by the day.
OiLibya petrol stations and Libya Hotels
are well distributed across the
city of Bamako, suggesting a strong
presence of Libyan economic
muscle in that country.
OiLibya is managed by the
Libyan Investment Authority,
and manages Libya’s assets
in 21 countries across Africa
Nevertheless, Zambia is long bereft of a "sound". Yet who is to account for it; the sultans of 70s Zamrock or the kings of 80s Kalindula? Could the guitars of Zamrock and Kalindula have evolved into something that would have been accepted into the elite club that the global West calls "world music"? Looking at our current crop, a handover of skills never occurred so it is hard to find the live music element that may transcend us into this exclusive club. So until further notice, Zambia will remain a playback paradise.
If you have ever wondered, although most will be shy to admit, there is an entire generation of Zambian musicians that was consumed in the rapture of the first wave of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 80s and early 90s which leaves your average Zambian musician [or should we say singer] aged between 18 and 35. Not to say there are no artistes older than this, but there are too few, and too retired for lack of a better term to be of much significance.
 But for all that, this is not an article on Zambian music, a subject that deserves a dissertation of academic proportions. Returning to Mali, of course there is much more to the city of Bamako than our short list of blistering heat, beverages, women and music.
Often a traveller only sees what he or she wants to see. For what one writes too, the same argument holds. Even for Mali you could write about your experience in a luxurious, air conditioned hotel room with a scenic view of the unadulterated Niger River or how you washed down a plate of Poissons de Capitain [tilapia kebabs] with a bone-dry bottle of imported Sauvignon Blanc. Or you could write about rundown buses on the roads of Bamako. But aren't there such buses all over the African continent? You could write about how the locals appear sympathetic towards Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and how half the city seems to be made of the Libya hotels and OiLibya franchises. Indeed you can write about how the country is 90 percent Muslim or how according to the World Health Organisation in 2001 an estimated 91.6 percent of Mali's girls and women had some form of female genital mutilation performed on them.
Mali is ranked in the top half of the Mo Ibrahim Index on Governance in Africa and shares second spot for the best media freedom in Africa. But for yours truly, writing on the blistering heat, beverages, women and music will suffice.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lwando’s demystifying of tribal sculptures yields peculiar results

By Andrew Mulenga

Another painting from Lwando’s
Stereotyped IDs shows a figurine
adorned with multi-coloured beeds
‘Afrocentric’, the two-man exhibition by Chilyapa 'Danny' Lwando and Nezias 'Neziland' Nyirenda that has been running at the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka showgrounds yielded some interesting results last week, particularly on the part of Lwando.
Two weeks ago, Lwando revealed that the "Stereotyped IDs" series  of his paintings for this exhibition were inspired by viewers' squeamish reactions to classical anthropomorphic African wood carvings and masks, the kind that unenlightened Europeans or the global west used to refer to as 'fetishes'.
"The reason why I went into this is because of the different reactions people had when I was doing a photographic documentary on these objects. (African) people are generally scared of them because they are believed to be used for magic, but honestly, some were just used by chiefs as ornamental objects. But people, especially black Zambians are still scared of them," explained Lwando. "They were actually small sculptures, collected by a white man, from different parts of Zambia and Congo, but mostly congo.”
If Lwando's supposedly innocent motive is true and that his intention was to observe viewers’ reactions, then he must have been more pleased than surprised when he ended up capturing the attention of a "non-intended' audience of European extraction who bought every single piece from his "Stereotyped ID" series, handpicking them out of the paintings that were themed differently.
Nevertheless,  as Lwando alluded, it is not surprising that Africans may cringe at the sight of traditional wood carvings because of the functional usage of these objects in the cultural systems from which they are derived. The figures may be used for anything ranging from simple medicinal functions to oath-taking, invoking of ancestral spirits and sorcery among other things, but for most, their functions remain a mystery.
It may not just be the spiritual aspect but also the physical aspect of the objects that Africans are unable to stomach, many feel a sense of genetic attachment to the ancient spirits of the 'ancestors' that may inhabit such objects and fear to be associated with them.
The objects that inspired Lwando's paintings such as the small wooden figurines from North Western Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC) are habitually ghastly in appearance owing to the random metal spikes that they have protruding from them or the human hair, finger nails and animal skins that are fitted on them as magical ingredients.
A painting from Lwando’s Stereotyped IDs shows the side
view of a sculpture with nails protruding from its back
Ironically, the elements that seem to ward off local art lovers do not seem to bother Western collectors. They have no issue with them and have remained voracious collectors of these items for centuries.
Augustine Chisenga, a craftsman from Ndola's Twapia township on the Copperbelt who collects and sells the objects once explained that the 'fetishes' are defused of their mystical powers by traditional healers and are then made ready for sale in the art market. This does not seem to bother collectors at all. "These antiques are treasured by whites (western tourists) when they visit my stall they buy my antiques without complaining about prices," said Chisenga (Weekend Post, Friday February 12, 2004).
Lwando's attempt to 'aestheticize' the 'fetish' image by painting it may have a two pronged result for him as a painter. First, if he becomes charmed by the geometric rendering of the human body as can be seen in these carvings, he is bound to continue on this trajectory of experiment which will in the long run have an effect on his style, that might be a good thing. Second, if he sees the paintings of these images as a money-spinner, owing to the enthusiasm of the Caucasian collector, he again is bound to continue but risks falling into the trap of producing production-line, or airport art, that could be a bad thing.
All this said, there is no harm in borrowing from the aesthetics of African sculpture. Did it not influence European artists who were key in the development of modern art, art in the western paradigm. In their paintings, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse with their Parisian friends copied the geometric treatment of the human form that is prevalent in African sculptures, they blended this with the styles extracted from  Cézanne and Gauguin post-Impressionist works. The outcome was a graphic flatness, and fractured geometric shapes that helped to define Cubism. Obviously, these artists knew nothing of the original, ritual use and function of these carvings but were fascinated by their composition and plagarised these qualities to their own advantage to transcend the naturalism that was the essence of Western art since the Renaissance.
Lwando's "Stereotype IDs" reminds us of the otherworldly lure that classical African cultures, or tribal art as it were, has always had on the West from the first time they encountered it. From Picasso to Lwando the painter and Chisenga the craftsman's collectors, to those who have used it as a touchstone for art historical research the images continue to be hypnotic. Why is this so, you may ask. That will probably remain a mystery deeper than that harboured by these very objects of marvel.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Images from "Afrocentric"

AFROCENTRIC: Works by Zambian painter Chilyapa Lwando and sculptor
Nezias Nyirenda showing at the Henry Tayali gallery in Lusaka until May 27

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Budding LA-based actress aims at promoting Zambian art

By Andrew Mulenga

Gloria Huwiler in front of Kapaya Inzi by Geophrey Phiri at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, California - Pictures by Andrew Mulenga
Meeting Gloria Huwiler at her Los Angeles base for the first time, one would expect to be confronted with some aloof rich girl swagger. After all she was born into a successful business family known for the Pilatus BMW dealership and Le Soliel health spa in Lusaka, to a Swiss German father and Zambian mother. She is an aspiring stage and film actress in Hollywood and pursued acting training at Oxford School of Drama (OSD), Oxfordshire in the UK after she completed school at ISL in Lusaka when she was just 17.

But this young lady is nothing short of courteous, no ostentatious seduction or calculated detachment. She is in fact direct and relaxed, and for this particular interview wore no make-up. And as if trying get a foothold on the LA acting scene, a feat that has made and broke many is not daunting enough, she is also attempting to promote contemporary African art with a focus on Zambian artists.

“I started organising exhibitions with a gallery I was working for called Millenia Fine Art at the Times Warner Centre in New York. I organised a show with Zambian artists for eight painters and two sculptors, in 2008. The exhibition ran for a couple of months and was very successful.” says Gloria who after completing the foundation course at OSD, studied International Relations at Brown University, Rhode Island in the US where she was an active member of the theatre and filmmaking community, appearing in several theatrical productions playing Hecuba in The Greeks, Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet, and the Priest in The Trial.

“The exhibition in New York was my introduction to the world of contemporary art, but I also discovered how under exhibited contemporary African art is in New York and the US in general. There are very few galleries that specialise in contemporary African and Millenia were one of the few galleries doing so, and the big auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s where the major collectors come, do auction African art but its mainly tribal artifacts, antiques, masks, that kind of thing so I wanted to concentrate on contemporary African art.¨

To help support the numerous innovative artists who rarely get a chance at international exposure, Gloria created Anajuwa Gallery in Los Angeles, she conceptualized the exhibition Integration for Anajuwa Gallery; the opening reception was hosted by Sydney Tamiia Poitier and attended by Hollywood actors Sir Sidney Poitier, Oz Scott and Bernie Casey. Anajuwa Gallery is currently working with Audis Husar Fine Art on the exhibition Afrika that will open later this year.

"Since I left Millenia I have had two shows so far, and I intend to continue promoting Zambian artists here in Los Angeles as well as continue trying to link them to New York galleries. The purpose is to work with museums and galleries with hopes to get sales so that the artists back home can get some sort of livelihood."

She explains that currently Anajuwa does not have a show and it is at times such as these that she enters agreements like the ongoing one with Fairmount Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, California to display the work in their lobby and if someone is interested in buying, they can contact the concierge and make a purchase. She does however mention the challenges that Zambian art faces in the US.

“One of the challenges is that in LA people want to see cutting-edge stuff they really have a taste for conceptual work. So I try to encourage the artists to be bold and to push the frontiers and ask a lot of questions like the way Yinka Shonibares work does, Shonibares work is very political and really gets noticed. But the market does differ; some look for decorative work and others look for the more thought-provoking or shocking art... so we really have to start creating the Damian hursts of contemporary African art.” she explains.

She says another challenge is that viewers in the US often want to question the authenticity of African art, something they don't do when it’s the work of a European artist. She is bothered because it appears for to be called "African" it constantly has to reference Africa. This is something that collectors often raise and it irritates her, because she feels an artist should be free to express himself without being bound to referencing the continent.

“But anyway, right now, video art has become quite popular here. That’s why it is important for Zambian artists to have exposure to get to grips with what’s going on, the new trends. Video and film have a certain intimacy. It’s a very unique and important medium that allows you immediately to enter the thoughts of the artist, to know how they think.” Says Gloria.

And she says despite her sometimes hectic work schedule, she will remain dedicated to promoting Zambian art because it is her passion and also because it has the potential to grow. She emphases that for her, art is a lifetime commitment which she probably picked up from her mother who still lives in Zambia and used to organise exhibitions. What Gloria is doing is literally flying the Zambian flag and needs to be encouraged. The least we can do is wish her all the best in her endeavours and watch how far she will go with it.

In addition to acting, she studied filmmaking and screenwriting, and while in New York she appeared in several productions including a two person show with Nigerian actress Okwui Okpowasili called Pent up: A Revenge Dance which went on to win a Bessie Award.

She recently formed the company Sunchild Productions with actor Patrick Ssenjovu. Based on their connection to Africa, Sunchild Productions was created to produce film and theatre based on themes from the African Diaspora with a strong original voice. Currently Sunchild is working on its first feature Muzungu Houseboy written by Gloria, which will be co-produced with award winning South African producer Joel Phiri. Sunchild also recently produced the play Valley Song, by Athol Fughard, in which Gloria played the role of Veronica.

Getty Villa: a time warp into ancient Rome, Greece

By Andrew Mulenga

Facade of the courtyard
Facade of the courtyard
As far as ancient artefacts go, it is often said “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”. With the protective glass, “do not touch” labels and stocky CIA-type security personnel with earpieces sticking out of their jackets, a norm in the world’s top museums, the phrase does seem quite true.

It must be said, however, that the artifacts on display at the Getty Villa, a museum overlooking the ocean on the Pacific Coast highway, in Malibu, California do not give the impression of heavily guarded and protected ¨dead¨ relics from the ancient world. These remnants of ancient culture ranging from statues to kitchen utensils some dating back to 700 BC, feel somewhat alive, probably owing to their settings.

In stark contrast to the futuristic design of its sister museum at the Getty Research Institute in Brentwood, Los Angeles, the Getty Villa is modelled after the Villa dei Papiri, a first century Roman country house at the ruin site of Herculaneum, an airy, sunlit environment featuring mosaic floors, colourful walls and of course 44,000 objects from ancient Rome, Greece and the less famous Etruscan civilisation.

Of late there has been much talk about the dubious acquisition of ancient artefacts by museums and collectors in the West, a heavily debated and unresolved issue that came up repetitively among the many art historians, archaeologists and scholars that gathered at the the Arts Council of the African Studies Association 15th Triennial Symposium on African art (ACASA 2011) held on the University of California LA campus recently.

Nevertheless, for a Zambian fan of antiquity transcending from the humble neigbourhood of Casanova which borders the yet more humble and generously dusty Kaunda Square and Kamanga townships in Lusaka, via decent hotel lodgings in the Brentwood, Bell Air area of LA into a reconstruction of a spectacular and almost sickeningly opulent ancient Roman villa, legality and authenticity of ¨ancient¨ artifacts has to be the last thing on one’s mind.

After you pass the 450-seater amphitheatre that is based on ancient prototypes and is used for staged plays, school tour lectures and musical performances, you enter a conventional looking museum entrance complete with the usual stairs and security personnel.

But all semblance to present day reality ends here, including images of LA, Casanova back home and the little events brochure you picked up from the front desk.

First you are led into a public area with some sort of sunroof that drops light straight to an indoor pond.

To the left is a temple-like area that is obviously a pantheon to the ancient gods owing to the huge statues of Zeus the Greek king of the gods, Venus the Roman goddess of love and mother of Cupid the god of erotic desire who often appears on Valentines Day cards as a winged baby boy with a bow and arrow.

But any thoughts of why Cupid, a “pagan” Roman god should manage to establish himself as an icon of love and romance even on the African continent slips away as you now look down to the jeans and t-shirt you are wearing just to check whether they are still there and have not transformed into a “Toga”, the ancient Roman dress worn at the time people lived in buildings such as the Villa dei Papiri.

Proceeding forward, through a huge doorway probably made of bronze, you arrive at an open, courtyard area called the inner peristyle which leads on to other galleries or the larger outer peristyle a vast fish pond-like area surrounded by lush green plants and a series of ebony statues.

Looking at how ostentatious this area is, one can now imagine why the people of Herculaneum failed to leave their paradise and run for shelter despite the warning before the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius entombed them for posterity in 79 AD.

Nonetheless, the building has 23 galleries devoted to the permanent collection which are all, organised by theme. But among the vast collection, started by late oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty himself, only 1,200 out of the 44,000 artifacts can be on display at one given time.

And in addition to the public performances and exhibitions, the Getty Villa hosts a range of scholarly activities fueled by the presence of the antiquities collection and the resources of the Getty Research Library at the villa, with a capacity of about 20,000 volumes related to the ancient world.

The villa is also home to the UCLA/Getty Master’s programme in Archaeological and Ethnographic Conservation.

This museum, besides the one with a modern art collection that includes paintings such as Irises by Vincent Van Gogh (1889) which in 1987 sold for $53.9 million (although the museum purchased it in 1990); situated at the Getty Research Institute, is in fact a mere fraction of the oil baron’s legacy to his passion for the arts and the ancient world.

Getty, an industrialist who founded the Getty Oil Company, was in 1957 named the richest living American by Fortune magazine.

At his death in 1976, he was worth more than $2 billion. Over $661 million of his estate was left to the museums after his death.

He established the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1953, the world's wealthiest art institution, which operates the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institute.

All in all, pinching oneself to awaken from the fantasy of the classical Roman world of the Villa dei Papiri as well as returning to the reality of ill-funded and often badly curated public museums of beloved mother Zambia, one can only marvel at what one man’s dream and fortune can achieve by sustaining privately owned museums that allow the arts and culture of ancient worlds to be preserved for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Memories of ACASA 2011

An African delegate to ACASA 2011 zooms his camera on Jeff Koons’ Quad Elvis, 2008 (oil on Canvas) at the Jane and Marc Nathanson gallery in LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles. In the foreground is the artist’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988 (porcelaine)

By Andrew Mulenga

Sitting down to reflect on the Arts Council of the African Studies Association 15th Triennial Symposium on African art (ACASA 2011)held on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles recently, a tsunami of memories comes gushing through the mind's door.

Sifting through the debris brings about a series of wistful smiles to the lips as well as a sequence of head-scratching.

Among the memories, are how, in LA's little Ethiopia, an area filled with Ethiopian businesses and restaurants, a waitress would walk up to your dinner table after noticing your empty wine glass and ask "may I get you another cab sir?". Before you can answer, she turns round, disappears into the kitchen and returns with a full glass of wine. Then it dawns that the "cab" in question is not a taxi, it is short for "Cabernet sauvignon", the French red grape varietal. Surely a Zambian washing down an Ethiopian dish of ‘Injera’ (the nemesis of Zambian nsima) in metropolitan LA with wine from a French grape grown in California provides something of a cultural melting pot.

A melting pot that can be likened to ACASA 2011 which saw traditional and contemporary African art being boiled in the same calabash through the many conference paper presentations, discussions, museum and gallery exhibition visits. Artists, curators, art historians, art academicians and archaeologists came together for four days of intense intellectual discourse that examined the current status of Africa's cultural resources and the influence - for good or ill - of market forces both inside and outside the continent.

Still reflecting, another memory pops up in the form of a question. What was the deputy editor of the Education Post by day - and art journalist by night - doing presenting a conference paper amongst the likes of John Picton from the University of London, Sydney L. Kasfir of Emory University, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie of the University of California Santa Barbara and other demigods in the pantheon of Western-based African art historians and academics? Simple - Zambia has no art historians and the closest thing we have had to a regular art journal in the past eight years has been this very column, "Andrew Mulenga's Hole In The Wall" and therefore the closest excuse for a Zambian art historian is the author 'yours truly'. But what has really aggravated such a scenario of lacking in the area of a art historian is the fact that Zambia's academic elite have continued to look down upon the arts from their glass ceiling. As such, the University of Zambia still has no room for the creative arts as a discipline.
Fortunately about two years ago the Zambia Open University introduced a BA in Fine Arts, a faculty that is under the tutelage of William Miko. Luckily Miko, an artist turned academic, was also present to save Zambia's face at ACASA 2011 where he literally 'stood and sang for Zambia proud and free' as per lyrics of the national anthem, subliminally playing the role of 'arts and culture minister' a derelict portfolio which Zambia does not seem to have the political will for.

Nevertheless, Miko, in his own reflections of ACASA 2011 says attending the symposium "felt like taking part in the World Cup dialogue of the African arts - from traditional forms (tribal) to new genres in contemporary art discourse."

Miko says to him the papers presented, the discussions and gallery visits unravelled past, present and future artistic paradigms.

"What inspired me most was to share the podium and interact with world renown authorities on the African arts who ranged from art funders like the Getty Foundation staff, researchers, artists to academicians and curators of international repute," he explains. "The Zambian delegation comprising Andrew Mulenga from the Post Newspaper and myself from the Zambian Open University, managed to indemnify contemporary Zambian art and inscribe it on the minds of most delegates".

He says as a result, a number of museum, gallery experts and PhD research candidates have already expressed their intents and wishes to come and research on Zambian art. More importantly, a lot of experts met wished to establish collaborative projects and offered literature on the arts and expertise to the Zambian delegation.

As Miko asserts, the gallery visits  were among the most intriguing aspects of ACASA 2011. Apart from getting to see works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Yinka Shonibare and South Africa's Zwilethu Mtetwa, chats with the likes of Chrisrine Kim, associate curator of contemporary art at the LA County Museum Of Art (LACMA) and Lauri Firstenberg director and curator at Laxart gallery in south LA revealed some interesting aspects of the role of curators in the contemporary art world.

While Kim is from a big budget, and more mainstream gallery system and Firstenberg is from a smaller and sort of anti-establishment backdrop, both resolved the fact that a curator is in fact an artist except his or her palette does not hold paints, but the works of artists. And instead of canvases or blocks of marble, they use galleries or exhibition spaces as a platform for expression. This in turn means curating an exhibition is not just a matter of hanging paintings on the wall.

The African arts symposium is sponsored by ACASA which was established in 1982 as an independent non-profit association affiliated with the African Studies Association.

The next gathering is slated for New York, followed by the first one on the African continent to be held in Ghana.

While most members of ACASA are US or Western-based, a record 15 delegates from the African continent were sponsored by the Getty Foundation for this year’s event.

‘Libanga’ system: DRC’s phenomenon of commercialised praise-singing

By Andrew Mulenga

Koffi Olomide, JB Mpiana, Werrason and more recently Fali Ipupa are household names of Congolese artistes that always manage to draw huge crowds whenever they visit Zambia for live performances.

But what the majority of Zambia's carefree Congolese music (Rhumba) fans do not know, is that while they attempt to outclass the so-called dancing queens, and sing along with the artistes they have paid so handsomely to watch, there is much more to Rhumba than the writhing of waists during trouser-tearing dance antics.

In a recent interview, Lubumbashi-based Congolese author and cultural operator Patrick Mudekereza explains the phenomenon of money-oriented praise-singing popularly known as 'Libanga' that is at the very core of Rhumba music.
"The Libanga system is one of the most important ways of making money.

'Libanga' means a small stone in Lingala and 'Kobwaka Libanga' means to throw a stone," explains Mudekereza who was recently invited as an advisor for the World Event Young Artists, part of the Cultural Olympiad in the UK.

He was ironically denied a visa despite it being a publicly funded event.
"Traditionally, 'Kobwaka Libanga' is an expression that can be used to describe a small child who throws a stone to get a parent or an older person's attention."

According to Mudekereza, in the musical context, the term 'Libanga' is however most frequently used to explain what musicians or singers do in a recorded song or live performance when they mention or sing the names of sponsors or wealthy businessmen, most preferably at the beginning of the performance. Individual names can be sang or shouted in between verses and choruses.

"I can say everyone is involved except for artistes like Lokua Kanza who are not really in the Congolese music system. Fali Ipupa, JB Mpiana, Werrason, Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide are all into this system", he reveals.

"For instance, you can hear a name like Didi Kinuani; and most of the time it is followed by an adjective such as 'Didi Kinuani, vous etes le sauveur du monde' which means Didi Kinuani you are the saviour of the world' because he gives money to everyone. Or 'Adam Bombole les Congolais Abramovich qui n'a pas été affectée par la crise économique'… meaning Adam Bombole the Congolese Abramovich who was not affected by the economic crisis."

The two he mentions here are Congolese men of stature: Didi Kinuani is a renowned diamond dealer who sponsors many bands, and Adam Bombole, a close associate of strongman Jean-Pierre Bemba, a politician of considerable wealth.

Both have appeared on several songs by the biggest names in Rhumba, Bombole even had an entire JB Mpiana song commissioned for his wife Janet Bombole, the song whose title the author cannot remember, was a worldwide hit.
Also mentioned in the songs is Congolese Chez Ntemba night club chain owner, Kayembe Kaloji.

"We know in DRC that some big artistes can mention the names of up to 10 powerful people in a single song and earn up to US$10,000 per name mentioned. You can imagine how much money that is," adds Mudekereza "It's a business. How do you think those musicians get all the money to buy expensive clothes and cars.
I don't think any Congolese musician is making money from album sales."
He says not even Rhumba giant Papa Wemba, who is still living a lavish life in DRC with a string of houses and expensive cars, is able to earn as little as US$100 dollars through CD copy sales. Mudekereza links this sales predicament to the MP3 digital music file-sharing era we are living in. So the likes of Papa Wemba are making earnings from live shows, promotional concerts for beer and sometimes by government sponsorship but most of all 'Libanga'.

But it should be noted that although 'Libanga' is a form of social recognition for whoever's name is chanted in a song, it also works for the artiste who by 'throwing the 'Libanga' even without being paid, can appear to be closer to a certain class of people.

"Sometimes as an artiste, someone may just want to show off to his friends that he has sung about big names like Bombole and Kinuani so they will think he has money. But sometimes when these big people are told to say you have sung about them, they will look for you and pay you." he explains.

Libanga is nothing new. It can be traced back to the golden age of Mobutu's Zaire, where the late leader's son Kongolo an officer in the Special Presidential Division who went by the nickname Saddam Hussein was the most sang name of the 1980s. It is said that those who did not mention his name in songs and at concerts would face stumbling blocks in their careers, or even suffer more sinister fates.

Nevertheless, as a form of commercialised praise singing, 'Libanga' does not go uncontested. Bana Ba Congo a network of young DRC nationals in the Diaspora intends to organise a form of boycott against popular artistes that have been benefiting from 'Libanga'.

But sincerely, what moral right do Bana Ba Congo have to deny a musician to earn a living? Besides, on the dance floor, who has the time to care if the song they are dancing to is a beer commercial or was dedicated to a Congolese tycoon's wife.

After all, closer to home haven't people been dancing to the so-called 'JK featuring R-Kelly' song 'Hands Across The World', which if truth be told is an Airtel advertisement.

Like Mdekereza alludes, in this part of the world, artistes struggle to earn as little as US$100 from album sales and rampant file sharing. So it can be welcomed when we see, as in previous elections years here in Zambia, our local artistes benefiting from a form of 'Libanga'. According to reliable sources, this year Zambian Republican President Rupiah Banda's campaign CD which is yet to be released features JK, MC Wabwino, Kayombo, Leo, Raydo and Ty2.

Surely these artistes are not yet known to be MMD party praise-singers, so presumably it will be done for commercial benefit, to put food on the table, as it were! Particularly so for an artiste such as Ty2 who is known to be struggling to get a foot hold on the Zambian music scene since his return from the UK a couple of years ago. Before he left for the British isles, he enjoyed his proverbial 'fifteen minutes of fame' as reigning 'King of Zam Ragga' (a Zambian derivative of Jamaican dance hall Reggae) with his one hit effort 'Smile'. But upon return, he ceased to be a crowd-puller owing to the saturation of the genre by the likes of Petersen, Dandy Krazy and others, and crowds are what pays the rent. In this light, Ty2's 'Libanga' must have come in very handy.

Nevertheless, without digressing too much from the moral of the story, next time you take to the dance floor at the sound of your favourite Rhumba track, as the song plays listen out for "Didi Kinuani the saviour of the world", "Adam Bombole,the Congolese Abramovich" or Kongolo Mobutu aka Saddam Hussein.