Compositionz -Undoing The Other-ring

After viewing Sphephelo Mnguni’s exhibition for the first time, I wanted to remark that his work, although probing into uncomfortable racial and gendered narratives, appears to NOT BE ANGRY. Yes, there is a lot of red and a lot of aspects that provoke one to reflect with concern over the un-transformed state of our Urban settings, but the Artist appears to have measured his message quite evenly, making his testimony in what seems to be a more reflective/ mirroring and objective way. Speaking during the launch of the exhibition, Mnguni mentioned that though he has a story to tell, he is eager to emphasize that his is “Not the only story.”  He urged us all to find in his work, a way to tell our own stories and face our own fears and prejudices. To question the spaces we exist in and often take for-granted as merely given. It is possible that I may be misreading his messages but as a person who also grew up in the Township before moving to the Suburbs, I saw so much of myself in this depictions of taxis moving along the ‘white area” along the walls, the  White routes in and out of the Ghetto. It is a story of Separate Development and deliberate race based underdevelopment, it is also a story of violence against the black body and as Mnguni also mentioned, the “Shameful violence against the Black woman.” The image of the primus stove, conjured up images of nights in the Township of KwaMashu where my Grandmothers would vigorously pump this hazardous ‘poor peoples stove’ in order to cook for us and keep us warm. But let me begin this way.

It was a serendipitous to walk into TheOtherRoom, an arts, books and music space situated next to Khaya Records at the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Florida Road in Durban’s Morningside suburb. Being one of Durban’s burgeoning vinyl record companies which is just one  area where history is brought alive so vividly by the kind of music that issues from within these walls. This particular afternoon was even more special as I walked into the space while a song called Ma-Afrika by Sister Cool was blasting from the record player. Sister Cool happens to be a Afro-Pop group which released this record through Cool Spot Productions way back in 1989. Before I proceeded towards my mission of viewing Sphephelo Mnguni’s installation titled Compositionz* in the OtherRoom and displayed all over the passage walls, i read these interesting words on the back of the Sister Cool album sleeve: “Afrika, Everything About You Appeals To All Nations.

Entering The OtherRoom I sat down on a stack of magazine cuttings, to view a film titled Ubuqhophololo/Staircase, Created and Directed by Sphephelo Mnguni. I was not too surprised to hear the distinctive guitar refrain aka Madala-Line of KZN legend Madala Kunene forming the first part of the film. The all too familiar Township scene that is shown against this musical background is both disturbing and intriguing in its ordinariness. Mnguni’s rendering of  black and white light, space and the textures of the shacks is a cinematographic masterstroke. After we see a Black boy running through the precarious pathways in the shack-lands carrying a 2 liter Coca Cola bottle half-filled with a clear liquid which we later discover to be paraffin, the scene shifts to a depiction of an older Black youth going to fetch water from the communal tap. While everything around him is rendered in Black and White, the 10 liter containers he uses exude a golden glow.  Once he returns into his one room shack he proceeds to have a bath, but while he is doing so, the screen is halved so that we also see a white woman in an advert for Palmolive soap, which appears to be a skin-lightening ingredient. The youth is applying soap and water on his face while the white lady also wipes her own face with this Palmolive, the image immediately reminds me of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin-White Masks*. Mnguni’s work as evidenced by many juxtapositions and scenes in this short-film and shot-through the whole gallery space presents us with the unmistakable nuances of the Black Consciousness tradition. So the Fanonian imagery is obviously not a mistake. Infact, although the young Mnguni does not come across as a deliberately political or ideologically motivated Artist, it is clear from viewing his work that there is no fence sitting here and that everything is political whether we want it that way or not.

I am not sure which aspect of this expansive and thought-provoking work to begin with as all of it is composed in such a way that one can see the politically fraught transitions from Township to the Suburb that part of this work explicitly focuses on. I am also careful not to give away to much information, as it is best to view the work for oneself. I will revisit this work and write a little more and perhaps add some images.

Leaving the gallery, these are the rough notes I jotted on my journal:

Draft Review: “Compositions, Collages, Co-existence, Confluence, Conditioning, Art as a conduit…

All these terms and more, come together in Mnguni’s installation work, visual arts, music and a psychological exploration of what it means to commute daily from a place of blackness to a place of whiteness while knowing that you are part of the majority population – yet the way the city is planned still makes you feel like The Other, the alien in your own native land. The work somehow reflects the character, personality and current conditions of the artist himself. Whether his work may be categorized as social-commentary, protest-art is speculative and would probably only box the Artist into some concept coined by both liberal and conservative viewers from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

What strikes me about this massive and expansive work is how it is devoid of any condemnation, bitterness or confusion. It is as the title suggests, Composed. It is the Artists work acting as a mirror to a society that is still grappling with the legacies of colonialism, apartheid and a convoluted nationalism. Mnguni’s voice reminds me of how Hip Hop mentions everything that is happening around us yet does not claim to hold solutions or any antidotes. The writing is literally on the wall. Sphephelo Mnguni is really a promising and intelligently articulate young Artist to watch closely. His sense of compassion and revolutionary consciousness is original, distinct and quite refreshing to see.” –

The Exhibition, titled Compositionz is up for the whole Heritage Month of September. Check it out and lets tell our own stories.

Menzi Maseko (c)

 

 

 

 

 

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Inspired By The Living Road

Everybody gets the Blues! This is what I thought this morning, while driving to BK bookbinders to print yet another batch of my book Rock ‘n Rule – I was listening to one of my many mix-tapes ( I never can decide what to listen to so I decided to put it all into either mix-tapes /Compact Discs or in a USB ).

Between the Hip Hop,  Reggae-Dub, Jazz, Afro-Fusion and Rhythm&Blues,one can never be done with these labels, these boxes; there came along songs by such artists as Msaki and The Golden Circle and the indomitable and deeply engaging voice of Lhasa de Sela; The Mexican-Canadian artist was introduced to me by a very intelligent and eclectic Romanian ex-girlfriend a couple of years ago. I am yet to thank her for this and many other indelible gifts she may not be aware that she bestowed upon me. Only the music lives to tell the soundtrack of the journey.

Now, I am working on a film project about the Life and Dreams of an intriguing friend of mine and I am actively listening for Soundtracks or Cinematic music to fit with the spirit and images of this quasi-magical project. Hearing Lhasa’s song My Name, this morning got me so very inspired, I almost did not reach my initial destination. All I wanted to do was park by the roadside and somehow register this light-bulb moment, perhaps match the song with some of the images and texts that we have already put together.

Lhasa sings with such melancholic surrender and the musicians accompanying her carry her lovelorn tales with dexterous precision. The music is at once very modern or electronic based, yet remains decidedly grounded in the minimalist genius of the individual players.

Such is the power of music. We have even considered making the film project a sort of tapestry of sounds, scenes that a woven together in such a way that they form a coherently multi-storied collage. But let me not give away too much. I am now listening to Blue Note recording artist Lionel Loueke’s Heritage project, a swooning and magnificent project, co-produced by pianist/keyboardist Robert Glasper. Yet again, my ‘scatter-brained’ Self discovered Loueke’s Karibu album, another ‘gift’ from a friend who called Osmosis Liza, who is actually involved in the film project.

By sheer coincidence, (If we can call these strings of serendipitous incidents coincidences), Karibu contains a version of Naima, the John Coltrane song I recently told the lady who is the main subject of the project that I wanted to include in the Soundtrack. This is the difficulty with labeling music. This version of Loueke’s version of Naima is so string laden, electric and expansive, it is only the clarinetist and bassist who make it vaguely recognizable, yet somehow this now seems to be the perfect fit for this Afrocentric tale that we are trying to tell.

Here are the Lyrics to the Lhasa song that captured my imagination; I so hope that one can obtain the Rights to use it once the whole film is ready for Production etc:

Lhasa de Sela – My name (The Living Road 2003)

Why don’t you ask me How long I’ve been waiting / Set down on the road With the gunshots exploding / I’m waiting for you In the gloom and the blazing / I’m waiting for you I sing like a slave / I know I should know better / I’ve learned all my lessons / Right down to the letter / And still I go on like this Year after year / Waiting for miracles And shaking with fear /

Why don’t you answer /Why don’t you come save me / Show me how to use All these things that you gave me / Turn me inside out So my bones can save me / Turn me inside out You’ve come this close/  You can come even closer / The gunshots get louder / And the world spins faster /And things just get further And further apart / The head from the hands And the hands from the heart /

One thing that’s true Is the way that I love him / The earth down below And the sky up above him / And still I go on like this Day after day Still I go on like this / Now I’ve said this I already feel stronger / I can’t keep waiting for you Any longer / I need you now not someday When I’m ready /Come down on the road Come down on the road

My name, my name Nothing is, nothing is the same / And I won’t go back the way I came My name, my name Nothing is the same “

The sadness and the sheer Blues of these lyrics and the way the late Canadian-Mexican singer carries it just grabs at the heartstrings and will not let go until the last phrase.

Art is Life

Life thrives in the light of being. Life can also thrive in the dark. Like life, art must be felt, in all that words multitudes of meanings. To hear a Bob Marley song, such as Get Up, Stand Up or Redemption Songs, or to view Gerald Sekoto’s paintings and to watch and experience Musa Hlatshwayo’s expertly articulated choreography, the sounds, the colours, the textures, the sweat of the moving bodies … It is sometimes not enough to feel these things with the senses. There is a feeling for the beyond.

But this is how I first wrote these words:

Art thrives in communities

Through industry

Through civilization –

Without community there is no Art

Without community there is no Indutsry

Although Art is created by the daring deed, the industriousness of the Artist

The Artist is often diminished without the audience, the people, the ears, eyes and even the superfluously nonchalant light of recognition –

While Art need not be appreciated or recognized by the masses for its validation

It requires no validation or confirmation at all, as much as it thrives in the open

as well as in the mysterious shrouds of anonymity. Art does not merely imitate life. Art is Life itself.

If you have not heard grown women and men howling and moaning during a Bokani Dyer, Nduduzo Makhathini or Madala Kunene performance or getting Spirited away through a Bheki Khoza or Tlale Makhene composition, perhaps you have been present at a Abdullah Ibrahim solo piano listening session …Perhaps you have not been present while Sibongile Khumalo sings Mountain Shade, or her renditions of the Princess Magogo songss. . .

But have you heard Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Love & Peace album where she sings Lonely Woman or The Tokyo Blues?

And then there are visual Artists in the city of Durban, people such as Mthobisi Maphumulo, Nhlanhla Chonco and the consummate portrait master Philani Luthuli. Luthuli’s latest work on Jazz legends from Bheki Mseleku to Miles Davis is a work a breath short of a true resurrection of these masters…

There is Poetry in the city called Durban, and the word is lived and loved. There are as many platforms for the delivery and appreciation of the Written and the Spoken Word that one would be forgiven in thinking that the walls are sustained by verbs and nouns, punchlines, admonitions and technicolor-ed metaphors and even proverbs. Our poets are as much  soulful singers as they are ministers of a myriad of Gospels. There are private hell’s as much as there are real and imagined heavens. All you have to do is visit the Nowadays Poets at the BAT Centre since the year 2000. Listen to Word Long Ingo aka Ingonyama, listen well to Nkosinathi Ntuli or to the sonorous voices of the Sisters and the youth who pour their hearts onto pages ….

 

The Revelation

a poem for John Coltrane

“To tremble in prayer & trepidation

To tremble against trepidation in prayer

Screech – Scream – Cry

To tremble with prayer

and arch the muscles of my back

in face of trepidation,

transparent beads bubbling from my forehead

Screech – Cry.

Bird of blood with razor-sharp

wings of boiling stone falling from God into my throat

claws my tonsils

sticks its feet way down into my stomach

and I double over trying to vomit

forth this bird

to the rhythms of anklets ashake

in the dance of a black-blue-black blue – black a black blue black African

Witch Doctor wailing wailing –

Scream high out into God.

fall heavily from the pole of light He offers to the snow

of doubt that freezes

all Spirits dancing gallop

to slabs of ice across the tongue.

Father, Father, understands me

Make, Purification, Psalm of Warmth

within Light – understand the reverent

screams of this confused devotee. “

its all natural

There is a sacred relationship between the natural and the spiritual worlds. I want to write about and for Black people. The people of Afrikan descent who are found all over the world. But we are going to use all knowledge and all the language we have inherited through our oppression and subjection to colonialism and imperialism to express some of the colors we exude. To express the way we were, the way we are and the potential we have to become whatever we collectively seek to be in the future. There is a song by Bheki Khoza called The End of The Blues, it is an interesting title for a deeply moving song. Although it is a guitar led instrumental, one can discern the sighs and existential pains of the people who are going through great tribulations. The musician as a prophetic vessel of the spirit has the freedom to paint a picture of a future where All Blues are gone, the proverbial How Long Blues of yesteryear, when the social, cultural and economic death of a people has come to an end. Even though surely the memory shall remain. But it is the nature of all things to change. Nothing really stays the same, even shades of blue can become black or white with the passage of time.

Since what I write emanates from a place of blackness, there will be a lot of Blues, more Blues then Greens, more Sepia, Browns, bloody red and all the rhythmic colours that define us a people. As Amiri Baraka wrote : We are the Blues people. What does that mean exactly, when there are so many colours in the spectrum of life? Beyond the Afrikan Amerikkkan musical evolution, is there anything that can explain why the Blues are so called? Has it anything to do with the colour of the night illuminated by the Moon? Does it have anything to do with the night rituals of our ancestors as they sat or danced around bonfires in the Deep Southern plantations during times of slavery?

Poet and former president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor writes: “Rhythm is the architecture of being, the inner dynamic that gives it form, the pure expressions of the life force. Rhythm is the vibratory shock, the force which, through our sense, grips is at the root of our being. It is expressed through corporeal and sensual means; through lines; surfaces; colours and volumes, in architecture, sculpture or painting; through accents of poetry and music, through movements in the dance. But doing this, rhythm turns all these concrete things towards the spirit.”

This is about Nature. Nature and Music, Music and Sacred spaces in which we make and enjoy or engage with music. There are patterns in nature which parallel the human existence, it is our work to strive to understand or at least find some meaning in the suffering, the joys and the tensions in between.

Patterns in nature are beautiful. They help create order. The universe possesses such beauty and perfection. It has been the objective of many brilliant scientists for thousands of years to find ways to explain and express the universe using math, geometric shapes and even music. While most of us jazz musicians are not trying to explain the meaning of life in our solos, we are trying to express something meaningful. Improvising a combination of knowledge, technique, thoughts and feelings.” – Ted Nash ( How To Use Patterns to Enhance Your Creativity …)