Saturday, 18 March 2017


“So, tell me about the book,” he said. “Who published it?”

When I told him the name of the publisher, he joked: “And how much they paying for an advance these days? I hope you got a few pounds.”

Derek Walcott in 2012
 (Photo: Centro Culturale di Milano)
That made me laugh. The advance was not worth mentioning, but I was happy the book was out. Still, what was there to say about a first collection of stories to a Nobel Prize winner?

Later, another writer assured me that this particular laureate, Derek Walcott, was genuinely interested in the work of young authors. He had in fact lent his support to several up-and-coming writers in his homeland St. Lucia and other Caribbean countries.

His graciousness stood in contrast to the star treatment that he was receiving at this conference on Caribbean literature, organized by Italian scholar Luigi Sampietro. We were in Milan, in the early Nineties, and everyone hung onto Walcott’s words. Applause broke out at his every utterance. It was surreal to be sharing a table, not only with him, but also with Guyanese writers Wilson Harris and David Dabydeen and with Jamaican prize-winning author Olive Senior.

Walcott mixed erudition and humour, and he elicited laughter by constantly murmuring asides in patois. When I offered to translate the speech of a Spanish-speaking fellow writer, he said teasingly: “You sure you know enough Spanish for that?”

He was right, and I was happy when someone in the audience - who was truly fluent - volunteered to do the translation. Walcott had studied languages (Spanish, French and Latin) in Jamaica, at the University of the West Indies, so he probably could have done the interpreting himself.

At dinner that evening, he and his partner Sigrid Nama displayed unfailing good-humour and consideration towards our hosts and other guests, who got an insight into both his poetry and his personality. At the time, Walcott was working on a musical play with singer Paul Simon, and he was frank about the challenges of the project - which would reach the theatre several years later.

Asked about working with the music icon, Walcott didn’t use the opportunity to laud his own contribution, instead he was quick to praise Simon’s efforts, noting how difficult theatre work could be. In addition to being a poet and painter, he was a playwright, and he had full experience of the field.

Most people know of the magnificent legacy Walcott has left with his work, and many will also have heard of the allegations over the years, which should be openly addressed. But perhaps fewer realise the memories that will last of Walcott’s unexpected wit and his grace. – A.M.

On March 19 in Paris, France, writers will pay homage to Walcott’s work at the Poétiques de Résistance event organized by the Institut du Tout-Monde, an organization founded by another acclaimed Caribbean writer, the late Édouard Glissant:

For a complete profile of Walcott, and obituary, please see the New York Times article:

Monday, 13 March 2017


Laura Alcoba is an Argentine-born writer and translator who lives in Paris, France. Her first book, Manèges (The Rabbit House), described Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s from a child’s perspective, when even the very young knew what could happen “if your political sympathies drew the attention of the dictatorial military regime”. Thousands were killed, tortured, and abducted, and many names remain among "los desaparecidos". 

In the powerful and widely acclaimed memoir, readers see events through the eyes of the young Alcoba, whose father is imprisoned, forcing her and her mother to live in hiding with other members of the resistance movement.

Laura Alcoba (Photo: F. Mantovani - Editions Gallimard)
Alcoba followed this affecting story with Le bleu des abeilles (The Blue of the Bees), which recounts her move to Europe to join her mother who had been granted refuge in France. At the age of ten, the author discovered a new country and language, and the book depicts a child’s experiences with living in exile, even as her father remained imprisoned “at home”.

This year Alcoba has published La Danse de l’Araignée (The Dance of the Spider / Gallimard Press), her fifth book and the latest in the highly recommended trilogy of memoirs. In the following interview, she speaks with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie (SWAN's editor) about her new work, her natal country, and her life in France as an author. (The interview is translated from French.)

A. McKenzie: How would you describe La Danse de l’Araignée? What can readers expect?
L. Alcoba: In La Danse de l’Araignée,  the 12-year-old narrator lives with her mother and a friend of her mother named Amalia, in France, on the outskirts of Paris. These two women and the young girl are Argentine refugees.  The story takes place at the beginning of the 1980s. The narrator in the book is on the threshold of adolescence and all the changes it brings – anxiety and dreams. Her head is also full of the correspondence that she has with her father, a political prisoner in Argentina. Despite the separation and the physical absence, the father is very much present thanks to the epistolary exchange. In one of his letters, he speaks to her of a spider that could serve as a pet, as a companion. A huge spider, a hairy tarantula, which makes her dream.

Alcoba's lastes book (Gallimard).
But how can a man play his role as a father even when he’s absent? In La Danse de l’Araignée, the challenges and obstacles are so many: distance, the prison where her father is, censorship (the letters are read by the prison administration and have to pass certain controls to enter or leave the prison). However, the narrator and her father manage to speak with each other, and the father/daughter relationship becomes a reality.

A.M.: Why have you told your story as a trilogy, rather than as a one-volume memoir?
L.A.: I didn’t set out to write a trilogy.  These three books came one after the other. A few years following the publication of Manèges (The Rabbit House), it seemed to me that the little girl who narrated the story in my first book – about her life under dictatorship in a house where there was a printing press behind a rabbit-breeding enterprise – should regain the words. To speak of exile, this time, and also the way in which an absent person could be at the centre of a child’s existence:  that’s what I did with Le Bleu des abeilles, where I evoked the correspondence that I maintained for a long time with my father. We wrote once a week to each other for two and a half years.

But after the publication of this book, I realized that the little girl hadn’t said everything there was to say. I felt that she needed to continue her story. Something important happens in La Danse de l’Araignée.  My latest book marks the end of the narrator’s exile: it’s after what is recounted here that she can fully put down roots in her new country. Furthermore, the age of the narrator in La Danse de l’Araignée particularly interests me. This age when one is between two worlds:  that of a child and that of burgeoning adulthood. 

A.M.:  In The Rabbit House, you began the prologue by noting that you thought you would write this story only when you were very old, but then one day you “couldn’t bear to wait any longer”. How did this day come about? What made you begin to “remember the past in much more detail”?
The first in the trilogy.
L.A.: In my first book, I recount a very painful period, under the Argentine dictatorship. A tragic story where several people lost their lives and in which a mother and her daughter are separated: Diana Teruggi and Clara Anahí Mariani. Diana Teruggi was assassinated in November 1976, and her daughter, who was then a baby of three months, was carried off by soldiers. As a child, I lived with my mother in the house of Diana Teruggi and her husband, before these events. Diana was then pregnant. The army was looking for my mother. We had to hide…

I remember very well what we lived through in this house, where several people lost their lives in a tragic way after our departure. For a long time, I had wanted to write about these events. I told myself that if I wanted to become a writer, I needed to find the courage to begin with this. That this story and no other had to be the first stone. But I couldn’t stop saying “later”. 

Still, I felt a sense of urgency at a certain moment. I had to write, immediately. I think the birth of my daughter can explain this feeling. I started writing my first book at the moment that my daughter reached exactly the same age that Clara Anahi was when her mother was assassinated. That, without doubt, contributed to a sort of closeness between Diana and myself, and the memory of Diana came alive. Suddenly I could see her again. Her beauty, her smile, her strength. It was necessary to save a trace of all that, which I could give to others in writing this book.

A.M.:  The events are all portrayed with gripping clarity and intensity in the books. How do you balance “truth” and “memory” as a writer?
L.A.: I tried to bring up all the images from memory (the visual dimension is very important in my writing – it’s always the starting point).  Using these images, I look for the child that I was, and especially her voice. But this voice is that of a character. It’s not me remembering myself from the present. It’s the child who speaks – a child that I no longer am, a child who has to be a creation since she speaks in the present for herself.  But this child, I look for her and I create her through the images of the past that I manage to bring to light. There can of course be some distortions. My books are not testimonies. I see them as the result of a sort of quest.

The intensity with which children and adolescents live in relationship to the world is very special. For them, everything is new, everything is discovery.  I think that the intensity comes from my making a child speak, that I try to give form to the past from this point of view, from this distance”.

A.M.: Yet, how much of your books is bearing witness, so that atrocities committed are not forgotten?
L.A.: The past resonates in us and around us. You cannot turn your back. When it is painful, when it brings wounds, to ignore the past could be toxic, even very dangerous sometimes. All my writing speaks of this, I think.  But if you have to give the hurtful past its place, if you have to listen to it and draw lessons from it, this is also to free yourself from it.

A.M.: You write in French, but you translate books from Spanish. How do you relate to the two languages?
I really need these two languages, which I love deeply. I pass from one to the other ceaselessly. I love translating. But for my literary work, it’s French that comes most naturally. Perhaps because Spanish is tied to fear, as I was growing up. When I was a child, during the Argentine dictatorship, it happened often that I didn’t know what I could say and what I had to keep hidden. So I preferred to keep quiet, it was wiser. It’s because of this that, although I dearly love my maternal language, I’m very grateful for French, very happy of the freedom that I’ve found using it.

A.M.: How have the books been received in Argentina, and in Latin America generally?
L.A.: In Argentina, my books have been received with a lot of warmth and sympathy. Each week, I receive messages from readers, often young people. The reception to the books in Spain, Latin America and particularly Argentina has really touched me.  

A.M.: What’s next for you as a writer?
L.A.: I’m currently writing a book that requires a lot of research and which I hope to finish in a year. But perhaps it will take two more years. It’s a story that occurs between Latin America and Europe. For this novel, I’m working on a true story that requires me to consult many books and to call on others for their memories.

Laura Alcoba and other writers from Latin America and the Caribbean will discuss their work at the Maison de l’Amerique Latine in Paris on March 15, 2017.

(Copyright: SWAN). For another version of this article, please see IPS News:

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


In a time of nationalist populism, closed borders, and hostility to immigrants and refugees, a film festival in Paris, France, is countering these trends with a focus on global solidarity via the movie lens.

In fact, the theme of the Week of Foreign Cinema is Resist! and many of the 22 films being screened literally deal with resistance to oppression and violence.

Poster for the documentary Last Shelter.
Organized by FICEP (Forum des Instituts Culturels Etrangers à Paris) - which unites a number of national cultural centres in Paris - the festival goes beyond the usual international offering of films and includes a wide range of countries such as Spain (with a separate entry from Catalonia), Belgium, Austria, Estonia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Greece and Cyprus.

The films are being screened at several cultural centres and a number of Parisian cinemas, and run until March 14.

Some works are having their first public screenings at the festival. The Portuguese entry, Ivo Ferreira’s Letters From the War, about Portugal’s colonial war in Angola in the 1970s, has already attracted critical attention.

In addition, the sharp Austrian documentary Last Shelter, by Gerald Igor Hauzenberger, has provided a talking point since 2015 about European policies regarding refugees. It portrays a group of asylum seekers who went on hunger strike and inhabited a church to protest against the rejection of their asylum request.

"A documentary that takes a look at social topics must get involved in contradictory discourses rather than serving up exclusionary or ideological worldviews," Hauzenberger has said. "It should initiate comprehensive examination and discussion of a topic that last several years and goes beyond clichés and superficial aspects."

SWAN will have reviews of some of the films at a later date. More complete information on the Week of Foreign Cinema can be found at the FICEP web site:  (By Dimitri Keramitas)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017


Politicians have shamelessly been peddling a “toxic rhetoric” that is creating a more divided and dangerous world, said human rights group Amnesty International at the launch Tuesday of its annual report on rights around the world.

Speaking in Paris, France, the organization’s Secretary General Salil Shetty warned that the “politics of demonization” was threatening to unleash the “darkest aspects” of human nature.

“Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes,” Shetty told journalists.

He said the dangerous idea that “some humans are lesser than others” was leading to a world that is more fragmented and “less safe for all of us”.

The Amnesty International report, titled The State of the World’s Human Rights, covers 159 countries and provides a wide-ranging international analysis of the human rights situation.

The report cautions that the consequences of the "us versus them" rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is “fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak”.

While the current U.S. president came in for criticism because of his “poisonous campaign rhetoric” and actions since his inauguration, Shetty said that Donald Trump was not the only one fostering the current climate of fear, blame and division.

“More and more politicians are calling themselves anti-establishment and are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people,” Shetty stressed.

According to Amnesty International, many governments in 2016 turned a “blind eye to war crimes, pushed through deals that undermine the right to claim asylum, passed laws that violate free expression, incited murder of people simply because they are accused of using drugs, justified torture and mass surveillance, and extended draconian police powers”.

Salil Shetty
The organization chose to launch its report in France this year to highlight some of these issues in a country where human rights are “tightly woven into the fabric of the nation”, as Shetty put it.

Previous reports have historically been introduced in London, where Amnesty is based, but the group said it wished to draw attention to human rights abuses during France’s continuing state of emergency. The latter is in response to a series of terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of more than 300 people since January 2015 and injured hundreds of others in the country.

Amnesty and other rights groups have criticized “heavy-handed” French security measures that include thousands of house searches and detentions in the wake of the attacks.

“We understand that governments have to protect people but it has to be proportionate,” said Shetty, speaking at the Paris launch venue located along the river Seine - and overlooking a copy of the iconic statue of liberty that France offered to the United States.

“The emergency law is deeply discriminatory if you look at the people whose homes have been searched,” he added. “It’s one religion that has been targeted.”

The report also throws light on the treatment of refugees and migrants - “often an easy target for scapegoating”.  It records how 36 countries “violated international law by unlawfully sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk”.

Amnesty said that if the targeting of refugees continues in 2017, “others will be in the cross-hairs”.

A demonstration in Paris last year in support of protecting
civilians in Aleppo. (Photo: Brunaud / Picturetank)
“The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion,” Shetty said.

Government crackdowns on free expression have equally targeted writers, journalists and artists in many countries, the report shows.

In response to a question about accusations of bias on Amnesty’s part in its reporting of violations, Shetty defended the organization and its record. “I take criticism from some leaders as a plus point,” he said. (Critics include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who have respectively accused the organization of bias and naïveté.)

Shetty told journalists that it was easy to imagine a “dystopian future where unrestrained brutality becomes the new normal”, but he said that would only come to pass if people allowed it.

“Where leaders fail, people must step up,” he said. “Today we need that spirit more than ever before.”

Meanwhile, Camille Blanc, the head of Amnesty International’s French section, called on French people to act on behalf of human rights, especially in light of coming presidential elections where the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen is leading in polls for the first of two rounds of voting.

"Citizens should not allow themselves to fall into the trap of politicians espousing hate and fear," Blanc said. "It's important to denounce ... but also to act."

Wednesday, 8 February 2017


The world is becoming “more violent, and violence is occurring in surprising places”, says a recent report by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Some 3.34 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, have been affected by violence over the past 15 years, according to the report. But many regions have also known violence for decades, if not centuries, and the arts have particularly borne witness to the issue.

In the Caribbean, writers and other artists are known for portraying societal violence in their work, and this depiction is now increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

Véronique Maisier, a professor at Southern Illinois University in the United States, is the author of a compelling book titled Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood, and she discusses the topic in the following conversation with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie.

A.M.: What was the motivation for researching and writing “Violence in Caribbean Literature”?
V.M.: My interest in Caribbean literature started in 2000 when I first read [Martinican writer] Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco. I found Chamoiseau’s novel to be challenging but also beautifully written, and fascinating. After reading it, I wanted to know more about Caribbean writers and cultures, and once I started reading novels by Simone Schwarz-Bart, Maryse Condé, Michelle Cliff, Edwidge Danticat, and Jamaica Kincaid, I could not stop. I realized early on that their narratives all emphasized the daily struggles of their protagonists. Most often, the characters had to contend with extreme poverty, and resorted to violence in order to survive, to express their frustration, or to reject an established order that had cruelly failed them. Other times, violence was triggered by jealousy, madness, prejudices, and resulted in murder, rape or domestic abuse. Whatever the causes, tensions were rarely absent from people’s interactions in Caribbean novels. A few years ago, it dawned on me that several of the novels I had read had in common a scene in which a protagonist grabbed a stone, and threw it at someone - a friend, an outsider, a child, a teacher. I decided to work on a comparative study of these scenes in order to look more closely at the violence that I had noticed in many Caribbean texts.

A.M.: Is violence more of a topic, theme or trope in “Caribbean” literature than in other regional writing, and, if so, could you summarize some of the reasons for this, according to your research?
V.M.: I think that violence is especially present in Caribbean literature because of the historical forces put in place since the beginnings of the diverse cultures that constitute the Caribbean region today. Caribbean societies were born out of the extermination of the local populations, followed by the kidnapping, forced relocation, and slaved labor of millions of Africans, in turn followed by the indentureship of many thousands of East and West Asians brought to the Caribbean region after the abolition of slavery.  Populations with different cultures, religions, languages, ways of life, etc. were brutally forced together to inhabit a foreign land where they would be denied their humanity for several centuries. As a result, contemporary Caribbean societies have inherited numerous divides from the past - divides based on race, on economic status, education, gender, religion or politics - that express themselves in the numerous examples of violence found in the literature of the region.

Professor Veronique Maisier
A.M.: In the book, you discuss common historical events as well as differences among Caribbean nations. Regarding violence, what were the commonalities you found across the region?
V.M.: While there are many cultural and political differences among Caribbean nations, I found that there were quite a few commonalities in the scenes of violence that I examined. For instance, the attackers were all young individuals, typically teenagers who were rebelling against the authority of an adult or against a perceived injustice. Except for one case of violence that had clear sexual undertones, the acts of violence were perpetrated against persons of the same gender as the attacker. The attacks took place abruptly but resulted from tensions that had been building up for months. Blood was drawn in each of the incidents, and the consequences of the attack were grievous for the victims while the attackers remained unscathed and safe from reprisals (with the exception of Merle Hodge’s young boy who was sent to the Orphanage as a result of his actions). Not surprisingly, the stone was the weapon of choice for the young attackers who did not have any resources to acquire more advanced weaponry, and who reacted swiftly, with whatever was close at hand, to what they perceived as an immediate threat. 

A.M.: Do writers from different islands treat violence in different ways?
V.M.: Writers might have different experiences with violence depending on where they live but I do not think that this necessarily translates in a different treatment of violence in their novels.  Violence is a universal concept. While personal experience may vary - and sometimes even for writers from one neighborhood to the next, a general understanding, and empathy tend to level out differences based on geography.  It is more likely that writers treat violence in different ways depending on their gender, age, political views, or ideology rather than based on their country affiliation. In my opinion, a writer’s treatment of violence has less to do with geographical origin than with life experiences, even though I realize that those can be tightly connected.

Poster for the film based on Zobel's novel.
A.M.: Regarding the historical aspect, how do earlier writers deal with violence in their work?
V.M.: That is a difficult question to answer in a few words. Violence in the works of earlier writers appears under control, contained within the text. There is plenty of violence for instance in Télumée Miracle [by Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart] or La Rue Cases-Nègres [by Martinican writer Joseph Zobel]. The treatment of violence in these beautiful texts, however, seems somewhat conventional, as it follows the classic construction in which the reader is led to feel sorry for the victim(s). Recent writers are more challenging in that regard; they question the positions of victim and attacker, and generally speaking they make things less “cozy” for their readers. What I find fascinating with many recent writers is that the violence is found at the level of the text itself. It is present in the language - with the creolization of the colonial language, for instance - and in the very structure of the text - with the polyphonic approach, the orality, the rejection of literary conventions, etc. With some books, the violence becomes textual, it disturbs the text, and is felt by readers who get closer to being participants than mere observers.

A.M.: Does the theme cut across different genres - poetry, short stories, plays, novels?
V.M.: Yes, the theme of violence cuts across different genres, and can be found in poetry, short stories, plays, novels, and we can add songs, films, paintings.

A.M.: Do you think that there is now a movement towards gratuitous violence in some works?
V.M.: I am not sure. I am not aware of such a movement but that does not mean that it does not exist. In the Caribbean novels that I have read, violence is never gratuitous. There are violent characters who hit, hurt, and abuse other characters for the flimsiest of reasons or for reasons that might appear gratuitous, but I do not think that it was the authors’ intention to write about violence for the sake of violence or as a marketing tool to appeal to a certain type of readers.  In my readings, violent acts that appear unjustified remain a way to express one’s anger, one’s frustration, or one’s powerlessness. I admit that one of the most disturbingly violent scenes I have ever read was in [Jamaican-born writer] Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, when Christopher massacres Paul’s family. On the one hand, that scene very much pushes the limits of comfort with its horrific details, and raises the question: “Was such a graphic description necessary?” On the other hand, in the context of Cliff’s portrayal of Jamaican society, the scene is an essential precursor of Jamaica falling into extremely violent political turmoil, as exemplified in Christopher’s gruesome descent into madness.

The cover of Michelle Cliff's novel.
A.M.: What do you hope readers (and writers) will gain from your book?
V.M.: I hope that readers might gain an understanding of the various elements at play in the violence found in the context of contemporary Caribbean societies. In the book, I try to explain why the situation can be so volatile today in these societies, and I hope to show that, given certain circumstances, violence becomes not only unavoidable but also understandable. Understanding does not mean condoning. While one cannot condone violence, one should understand its components, its mechanisms in order to be able to find ways to remedy it, and to defuse it. I would like to encourage a compassionate reading of the victims, but also of the attackers, and to recommend an awareness of the injustices faced by members of society who are wronged for reasons of race, gender, age, poverty, sexual orientation, lack of opportunity or representation, as well as an awareness of the dangers inherent in a society where such injustices take place.

(Violence in Caribbean Literature: Stories of Stones and Blood is published by Lexington Books.)

For another version of this article, please see INPS / IDN news agency:

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 25 January 2017


The First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar 1966: Contexts and Legacies is an engaging historical volume and also the “first sustained attempt" to provide not only an overview of the event mentioned in the title, but also of its multiple legacies, according to publisher Liverpool University Press.

Edited by David Murphy, professor of Postcolonial Studies at Scotland’s University of Stirling, the book focuses on the "Premier Festival Mondial des arts nègres", or FESMAN, that took place in April 1966. The festival drew thousands of artists and performers from across Africa and the African diaspora to the Senegalese capital, with luminaries such as Josephine Baker, Aimé Césaire, Duke Ellington, Wole Soyinka and Mighty Sparrow among the headliners.

The goal was to bring together leading intellectuals and artists, and FESMAN did this even as it played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, with the United States and the former Soviet Union jockeying for influence in Africa.

Initiated by then President Léopold Sédar Senghor, the festival showed the world the wealth of African art and culture, and people got a clear taste of the rivalry between the superpowers of the era, as the Soviet Union sent a steamship to Dakar with about 750 passengers who participated "alongside" a large American delegation, underwritten by the U.S. State Department.

More than 50 years later, this publication is aimed at helping readers to better understand FESMAN’s impact as well as the ‘festivalization’ of Africa that has occurred in recent decades, says the editor.

Murphy writes, for instance, that the many legacies of 1966 include the series of “mega-festivals that would follow over the ensuing decade”.

He and other scholars examine the festival from a number of different perspectives, shedding light on questions such as: what did it mean to cover the event as a journalist and what was its “legacy in black popular magazines”? How did the organizers go about “staging culture”? How important is maintaining and protecting archives on cultural history and on such singular events?

This is a volume for those particularly interested in postcolonial studies, but it will also appeal to readers who just wish to know more about FESMAN and its role in various movements.

For an earlier SWAN article about the festival and a related exhibition, please see:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 4 January 2017


Someone once said that the best kind of music is that which makes you joyful and melancholic at the same time.  If such is the case, then Cape Verde’s national music - the morna - might be the perfect sound for the new year: eliciting happiness for fresh beginnings and sadness at some of the dire events of 2016.

The cover of Mornas de Cabo Verde (Lusafrica)
A recently released compilation, Mornas de Cabo Verde, evokes this swing between moods and the spirit of the times, even as it inspires admiration for the artists’ talents. Produced by the Lusafrica label which launched Cesária Évora’s career, Mornas features the late “barefoot diva” as well as earlier and contemporary singers.

The music resembles Portuguese fado, but “its accents are rough and heart-rending”, as Lusafrica puts it. Morna has its own characteristics and “probably comes from lament, a style of singing brought from Angola by slaves”.

Listeners will find that the album fully captures these songs that convey “a sadness full of hope”, starting off with Ildo Lobo’s poignant Nós Morna and quickly moving to Évora’s eternally sublime Miss Perfumado - which was the title of her best-selling 1992 album, and of a successful single.

The tracks also highlight the gifts of other singers such as Lura, Nancy Vieira, Zé Luis and, of course, Elida Almeida – the 23-year-old powerhouse who is regarded as Évora’s heir apparent, although their personal styles are very different. (For more on Almeida, see:

Almeida’s contribution, the plaintive Mar Sagrado, comes from her debut CD, and prospective listeners should be warned that the vocals might bring on an inexplicable urge to weep, while the instrumentals simultaneously make one want to dance. But then, that is the dual nature of the morna, and of this album.


The morna also appears on the latest work from Angolan artist Bonga, aka José Adelino Barceló de Calvalho. Recados de Fora (Messages from Elsewhere) is his 31st album, and comprises Angola’s traditional semba as well as Portuguese fado.

Bonga in concert.
Bonga lives in Portugal, and the album was “quietly” recorded there, in Paris, and in the Cape Verdean port city of Mindelo, says label Lusafrica.

“In Mindelo ... all members of the African-Portuguese community of musicians inevitably meet one night or another on the island of São Vicente,” adds a label spokesperson 

“This is Cesária’s hometown, and it takes pride in its many excellent musicians, including the guitarist Bau and Chico Serra, who both feature on the album.”

Along with Bonga’s gravelly voice and sharp lyrics, the compositions boast excellent backing vocals, infectious percussion, brass, flute and particularly the dikanza – a segment of grooved bamboo scraped with a stick. Producer Betinho Feijo orchestrates the whole with a “light touch”, but the turbulent history of Angola comes across in Bonga’s critiques of globalization and declining solidarity, and in his message of non-violence.

Bonga's Recados de Fora (Messages from Elsewhere)
The singer, now 73 years old, started life as the son of a fisherman, became a successful athlete, and then had to go into exile after working in support of Angola’s independence from Portugal. The story goes that he used various pseudonyms and carried messages between pro-independence groups who opposed the then regime (the country achieved sovereignty in 1975).

He permanently took on the name Bonga in 1972, and recorded his first album in the Netherlands that same year, Angola 72. Its leading song Mona Ki Ngi Xica contained lyrics that were deemed seditious by the Angolan authorities and a warrant was issued for his arrest, forcing him to continue on the move.

Bonga lived in various European countries and settled for a time in France, where he met many other artists who had fled military dictatorships, according to biographical accounts. He made his second album, Angola 74, with musicians who had escaped brutal regimes in South America, for instance.

The early songs were uncompromising, in politics and artistry, and the same can be said of those on Recados de Fora, even with the danceable tunes such as Tonokenu and the title track. But the morna stands out in the compilation, as Bonga returns to a part of his roots with Odji Maguado, a performance in homage to the influential Cape Verdean songwriter B. Leza. This is a song that Évora made popular in the 1990s, and Bonga does it justice in his own way. 

For more information about the albums: 

Sunday, 4 December 2016


Rumba in Cuba, the beer culture in Belgium and merengue in the Dominican Republic are among 33 new elements inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, from a total of 37 nominations.

The selection was made during the 11th session of an Intergovernmental Committee that met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 (see previous SWAN article).

The inscription of rumba came shortly after the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Nov. 25, giving the timing added significance. The music and its related dance have been an important aspect of Cuban culture since the late 1800s, growing out of African traditions, and later supported by Castro's revolutionary government.

A group of "rumbers" in Cuba. (Photo: M. Hernandez)
According to UNESCO, Intangible cultural heritage includes oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and various practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Community involvement is an important aspect of all this, and Belgian political representatives expressed delight at the inclusion of the country’s beer-drinking tradition, alongside the other elements on the List.

Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, said: “The beer culture is something Belgians are proud of, something that has been a part of our society since time immemorial, and which has garnered international appreciation. I hope that this recognition will contribute to encouraging Belgians to share our beer culture throughout the world with even more pride.”

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity now numbers 366 elements and “shows the diversity of this heritage and raises awareness of its importance,” UNESCO stated after the meeting.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


Many people know of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, which include structures such as China’s Great Wall and Tanzania’s Stone Town of Zanzibar - “places on earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity”; but fewer perhaps know of the UN agency’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A snapshot of Belgium's beer-drinking culture.
(Photo: Stephane Radermacher)
This is an international register of cultural practices that are important for communities, in both traditional and modern ways, and 171 UNESCO member states have ratified a convention to safeguard such customs.

For ten years now, since the convention came into force in 2006, UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Committee has met annually to choose nominees for inscription on the List, and next week members are meeting in Ethiopia to focus on traditional songs, rituals, celebrations and, in one case, beer drinking.

According to UNESCO, Belgium has put forward its beer-drinking culture for inscription on the Representative List, stating that “making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout” the country.

“It plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions,” says the Belgian application. “Almost 1,500 types of beer are produced in the country including by some Trappist [monk] communities.”

A group of children "rumbeando".
(Photo: National Council for Cultural Heritage, Cuba)
The submission from Belgium is among 37 requests for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH), with others including rumba in Cuba, the Tahteeb stick game in Egypt, yoga in India, merengue music and dance in the Dominican Republic, a festival in Nigeria, and traditional wooden-boat making in Norway. 

“An essential criterion for the list is community,” said Tim Curtis, a cultural anthropologist and chief of UNESCO’s section on ICH. “The community voice takes precedence over the expert voice in this area.”

The Representative List so far numbers 336 inscribed elements and aims “to enhance the visibility of communities’ traditions and knowledge without recognizing standards of excellence or exclusivity”, says UNESCO.

Curtis told SWAN in an interview that another key aspect in the consideration for inclusion on the List is the “inter-generational transmission” of the custom.

Artists entertaining participants at Nigeria's Argungu
international fishing and cultural festival.
(Photo: A. Olagunju)
“As well as a historical or traditional function, it should have a future role as well,” he said. “I see it as an approach to heritage that is forward-looking, something that tends towards continuity.”

The Committee, meeting from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Addis Ababa, comprises the representatives of 24 of the countries that have ratified the convention, and its members will equally examine five nominations for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Among these are Portugal’s Bisalhães black pottery manufacturing process, whose future is “under threat” because of waning interest; and Uganda’s Ma’di “bowl lyre music and dance”, one of the oldest cultural practices of the country’s Ma’di people that is considered at risk - mainly because younger people think it “old-fashioned” and the materials used come from species that are currently endangered.

UNESCO said that the Committee will also examine issues concerning intangible heritage in emergency situations caused by conflict or natural disaster. It will “envisage safeguarding measures that can be applied in such cases and consider the role intangible heritage can play in restoring social cohesion and supporting reconciliation”, the agency said.

Merengue musicans in the Dominican Republic.
(Photo: Ministry of Culture)
Curtis explained that the Committee will furthermore look into the creation of “a monitoring instrument” to measure the convention’s impact and the progress achieved over the past 10 years.

“The real impact of the convention is whether countries are setting up programs to protect intangible heritage,” he said.

The fact that 171 “state parties” have ratified the convention at such a fast rate does show some commitment, according to culture experts, but there has to be action at the national level as well, even when it is practitioners of the custom that submit it for inclusion on the List.

Belgium’s beer-drinking culture was submitted by its German-speaking community, on behalf of all three of the country’s language groups, because “beer-drinking is an integral part of Belgian culture”, said spokesman Dirk Vandriessche.

“It’s really about the culture, and not about beer, and it is important to make that distinction,” he said in a telephone interview. “Every festivity is with beer.”

While this culture has long had hosts of admirers and seems at no risk of being swallowed up by modernization, other customs and practices - such as rumba - may need greater support and recognition, especially because of their traditional importance.

“Rumba in Cuba, with its chants, movements, gestures and music, acts as an expression of resistance and self-esteem while evoking grace, sensuality and joy to connect people,” says the Cuban submission.

It adds that the music and dance are associated with African heritage but also feature elements of Antillean culture and Spanish flamenco, reflecting significant historical movements. – A.M.

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale