Monday, December 23, 2013

Farewell Madiba: Reflections on the indelible life of Nelson Mandela, sacrifice and social change

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Nelson Mandela, prisoner 46664, in a contemplative mood, revisiting the bars of his old Robben Island jail cell where he spent 17 of his 27 years as a political prisoner.

Even after having lived in South Africa for 8 years, I found it very hard to write about the passing of Nelson Mandela, partly because South African society is so insular that one inevitably has to write a great deal of historical information to give American or international readers enough context to grasp the significance of some of Mandela’s most important life events. In the wake of Mandela’s death and the chorus of accolades for one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century, there is much more to say, discuss and analyze. While Mandela has been lionized in the international press, many people in South Africa have more controversial and nuanced interpretations of his life and legacy. One narrative claims that Mandela is far too often described in terms of peace and reconciliation, while his true history as a revolutionary freedom fighter has been lost; others say that after Mandela was released from prison he made too many concessions in favor of accommodating South Africa’s white minority, thereby legitimizing the rigid racial and class inequalities of the apartheid status quo. I’m not sure that I can provide much clarity on these issues, which require a very different kind of conversation; but if I have written this article in such a way that it gives a broad insight into the some of the lesser known and understood forces that shaped Mandela’s imprisonment and rise to power, I feel my work is done.

Farewell Madiba: Reflections on the indelible life of Nelson Mandela, sacrifice and social change

On April 4, 1968, the world came to a standstill, as the hopes and aspirations of people of African descent – in the United States and around the world – suffered a traumatic body blow with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the .30-06 caliber shot rang out from a rifle and Dr. King lay in a growing pool of blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, a 26-year-old journalist snapped a photograph of the scene, with Dr. King’s colleagues pointing in the direction from where the shot came. The image, hastily developed at a local Memphis darkroom, was eventually acquired by Time-Life and became one of the most recognizable and iconic photographs of the 20th Century.

Few people know that the young photographer – the only journalist at the scene – was the late Joseph Louw, a black South African who was traveling with Dr. King and producing a documentary on his civil rights work. While it may seem unusual to some that a black South African journalist would find himself in the heart of a critical event in African-American history, Louw’s presence is actually a reflection of an abiding intimacy between the South African struggle against apartheid and the American civil rights movement. Despite the cruel and desperate isolation of African, mixed-race and Indian people by the apartheid government, there have been common influences, communication and enduring bonds that have influenced both causes. These ties go back to 1920, when co-founder of the African National Congress (ANC) Sol Plaatje traveled to the United States and met with W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). During the apartheid era, thousands of South African exiles like Louw studied at American colleges and universities, joining exiled musicians, artists and writers like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Ezekiel Es'kia Mphahlele, Keorapetse William Kgositsile, Mongane Wally Serote and Dennis Brutus, who achieved international acclaim in the United States.

On December 5, 2013, the world lost a great light, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – the world’s most famous political prisoner and respected elder statesman – passed away at the age of 95. With a memorial service attended by heads of state – including U.S. President Barack Obama – and countless news reports, documentaries, online tributes, immense activity in social media and the blogosphere and the release of a feature film, the mourning of Nelson Mandela’s death was like no other in modern history. In Johannesburg, it seemed that the heavens were crying, pouring endless rivers of rain, with reams of thunder and lightning punctuating the pain of South Africa’s mass emotions at the great loss. The rain rolled right over the memorial service itself at FNB Stadium in Soweto, and President Obama’s eloquent speech; but rain is also a sign of prosperity and well-being in Africa, and crowds of ordinary South Africans came to celebrate in the deluge and feel the full spiritual impact of their history, with the whole world watching. On the streets of Soweto, in front of Mandela’s old home on Vilakazi Street, they had been singing and dancing in the rain for days. Their beloved “Madiba” – the Xhosa clan name by which Nelson Mandela is affectionately known in South Africa – left this world with an unfathomable outpouring of love and grace.

Much like Dr. King, Mandela became a charismatic leader and a personification of his nation’s human rights struggle, and the power of his personality somewhat overshadowed the complexity of the very movement he came to represent. Given South Africa’s unusual history and its insularity, it becomes tempting to summarize its transformation symbolically in the Father of the Nation, a black man who spent 27 years in prison and then forgave his white captors. Although Mandela would assume the helm of the transition to a new state, the forces that led to his release from prison and the fracturing of apartheid’s political power were far more complex than the ideals of non-violence and peaceful reconciliation that are typically ascribed to him.

The Congress Alliance and the Limits of Civil Disobediance

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Twenty Congress Alliance leaders of the Defiance Campaign (a series of mass actions involving more than 10,000 protesters) appear in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court on charges of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act, August 26, 1952.

Both the American civil rights movement, as well as Mandela and leaders of the South African struggle against apartheid, drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s effective use of civil disobedience in India’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha – the moral power of the “insistence on truth” or the “force of truth” – to overcome political injustice. (Ghandi himself actually began his first experiments with non-violent political resistance and Satyagraha in South Africa in 1914 as a young lawyer, but his efforts were oriented toward securing rights for the Indian professional class.) In South Africa, civil disobedience tactics led to the Defiance Campaign of 1952, where 10,000 people of all racial groups – African, Indian, mixed-race and whites – protested the new apartheid laws and more than 8,500 were arrested, including Mandela.

While the Defiance Campaign changed little with respect to the government’s discriminatory laws, the campaign solidified heightened opposition to apartheid and increased multiracial cooperation among the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the Colored People’s Congress (CPC) and other activist organizations. Later, the Congress Alliance would all merge into one organization, under the banner of the ANC.

While South Africa’s ruling National Party dug in its heels and continued to enact discriminatory legislation, the Congress Alliance began its next round of civil disobedience in the form of strikes, boycotts and protests that culminated in the Treason Trial of 1956, with Mandela and 156 co-defendants – once again, men and women of all racial and ethnic groups – being charged with high treason. Mandela and his co-accused were all acquitted on March 29, 1961, a year after the anti-apartheid movement reached a turning point with the new pass law protests – organized by Robert Sobukwe and the more militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – that led to the infamous Sharpeville Massacre.

On March 21, 1960, when between 5,000 and 7,000 protestors came to the Sharpeville police station to hand in their passbooks, police indiscriminately opened fire and killed 69 and injured 180 demonstrators, including many women and children. The despised passbooks were a politically emotional tripwire, as they were required to be carried by any non-white person outside of their segregated township residences. Ironically, the contrast of the nonviolent actions of the Congress Alliance protests throughout the 50s may have led to the acquittal of Treason Trial defendants; however, by that time, Mandela, the lead defendant and president of the ANC Youth League, had already begun forming the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe – “The Spear of the Nation” – to begin a new phase of targeted armed resistance to government repression.

In the wake of Sharpeville, both the PAC and the ANC were banned in 1960 and were labeled terrorist organizations by the South African and U.S. governments; in 1959, facing a banning order, Oliver Tambo, deputy president of the ANC and Mandela’s partner in the formation of South Africa’s first black law firm, went into exile in London, to build the ANC’s international anti-apartheid movement.

The Rivonia Trial

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Rivonia Trial defendants (left to right, top to bottom) Nelson Mandela; Walter Sisulu; Govan Mbeki; Raymond Mhlaba; Elias Motsoaledi; Andrew Mlangeni; Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg. The defendants were all sentenced to life in prison on June 12, 1964.

After his acquittal at the Treason Trial, Mandela wasted no time in organizing the new strategy of the ANC’s struggle. Between 1961 and 1963, Mandela became known as the revolutionary “Black Pimpernel,” for evading authorities and going underground to foment continued resistance. Mandela even slipped out of the country and traveled throughout Africa – as far away as Libya and Morocco – to seek military aid, finance and training for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). But once he returned to South Africa, he and his MK comrades were arrested on July 11, 1963 at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. Of the 13 people who were arrested, eight – including Mandela, as “Defendant Number 1” – would stand trial for conspiracy and subversion in what would become known as the “Rivonia Trial.” It was during this trial that Mandela gave his famous speech from the docket,challenging the apartheid government’s legitimacy and moral authority to question his patriotism and charge him with sedition. While the Rivonia Trial and Mandela’s subsequent life sentence eventually made him the world’s most famous political prisoner, it is less well known that – in typical Congress Alliance multiracial fashion – seven other Rivonia Trial defendants were given life imprisonment sentences along with him, including five Africans (Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlageni, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki and Elias Motsoaledi) one Indian Muslim (Ahmed Kathrada) and one white Jew (Dennis Goldberg.) Beyond the Rivonia Trial defendants, Robben Island continually filled with new political prisoners from more militant organizations like the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the PAC; the apartheid government so feared Robert Sobukwe that they built a separate housing unit to completely isolate him from all contact with other Robben Island prisoners.

As the ANC became the most well-known anti-apartheid organization internationally, its singular promotion of Mandela as the face of the movement tended to eclipse the contributions of other leaders like Robert Sobukwe and awareness of other dimensions of the struggle. A similar trend happened in the African-America civil rights movement, with many people assuming that all nonviolent resistance was led by Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), while most of the lunch counter desegregation actions and the Freedom Rides were organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through leaders like James Lawson of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who trained 60s youth activists like James Bevel, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry and John Lewis.

With time, apartheid resistance assumed new forms and police suppression became increasingly fierce, brutal and violent; quite often activists who were not imprisoned (or lucky enough to escape) disappeared and were tortured and killed, like the PEBCO 3 or the Craddock 4. But even as Mandela, Sobukwe and their comrades were captive on Robben Island, a loose alliance of trade unions, black “Civic” township governments, white anti-draft and anti-apartheid organizations and student groups gradually began to build broad coalitions to put economic and political pressure on the National Party government from within the country. In addition to growing public protests, strikes and boycotts, the ANC, PAC and AZAPO all organized their own underground military organizations, with arms being secretly funneled into the country from exiles and clandestine allies in surrounding states. South Africa was becoming an increasingly tense and violent powder keg, ready to be set off.

The 1976 Soweto Uprising, Internal Activism and Global Dimensions of Resistance

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A group of high school students protesting during the 1976 Soweto Riots. In an unusual coincidence, 18 years later one of the students in this picture, Mandy Mankazana (walking in front of the banner, on the right side) became one my first friends in South Africa. Mandy now runs a wonderful tour company, Imbizo Tours, offering cross-cultural tours to Soweto, Johannesburg and the surrounding region as well as other parts of South Africa. She can be found on her web site at:

On June 16, 1976, a group of more than 10,000 Soweto school children planned a peaceful protest at Orlando Stadium against the government’s new policy of providing education in Afrikaans, the language of white Afrikaners, as opposed to English that had been the standard based on the British education system. The protest, organized by Soweto Student Representative’s Council (SSRC) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was intended to be peaceful, but police blocked off the students’ initial route and the gathering quickly erupted into chaos. After the police opened fire on students armed only with rocks, at least 176 were killed, although it is said that as many as 700 youth may have died. A full 16 years after the horrendous Sharpeville Massacre, the Soweto Uprising once again focused an international spotlight on apartheid repression, while galvanizing youth throughout South Africa and making the townships increasingly ungovernable. A year later, on September 12, 1977, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) Steve Biko would be killed in detention, becoming a martyr and a national symbol of youth resistance. The impatience, fire and angst of Soweto youth ignited the final, most bloody and polarized phase of the anti-apartheid struggle that would not stop until the South African government unbanned the ANC and other liberation movements and released Mandela from prison on February 11, 1990.

Throughout the 80s the apartheid government doubled-down on its authoritarianism and state-of-emergency tactics, while it became increasingly isolated internationally as a pariah state.  With Cold-War era support from U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the South Africa government had free reign in its cruelty – including banning activists through house arrest, detention without trial, torture and murder of prisoners in detention and kidnapping protest leaders – while also waging war against socialist governments in bordering states of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and sustaining covert hostilities against Zimbabwe. The National Party’s grip on power was unbending, propped-up by the high price of gold within an international finance system that maintained strong government revenues and one of the world’s highest standards of living for South Africa’s wealthy white minority.

But behind the scenes, some business and political leaders recognized the situation as being untenable, and gradually initiated negotiations with ANC leaders in exile and with Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison. To his courage and credit, Mandela refused to renounce armed struggle in return for being released from prison; yet once he was freed, Mandela worked tirelessly to bring peace and reconciliation to South Africa. In the end, international events, the forces of economic globalization and worldwide resistance to apartheid would gradually render huge cracks in the fortified armor of the South African government. In Angola, the South African military suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 (in addition to other defeats in Angola in 1975 and 1976) that heralded new hope for South Africa’s black population – along with disillusionment among white South Africans and a strengthening of their own domestic anti-war movement.

Cuba’s interventions marked the first time an outside military force came to Africa to assist in the African people’s liberation, with Castro’s soldiers defeating the “White Giants” – Southern African military and paramilitary forces, armed and trained by the United States. Relentless work by international anti-apartheid activists to pass economic sanctions (particularly in the United States, where the Congress overrode a presidential veto by Ronald Reagan in 1986) as well as protests leading to the withdrawal of Citibank and calling back its loans to the South African government, creating panic in financial markets along with a dramatic drop in the South African rand/U.S. dollar exchange rate and capital flight.

The Congressional Black Caucus and the African American community were the spearhead of these protests, and deserve great credit for marshalling the moral ideals of the majority of Americans to steer the U.S. government toward passage of economic sanctions through the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. It is hard to overestimate the role sanctions played in devastating the South African economy and pressuring the National Party government to dismantle apartheid.

While South Africa’s police and security forces intensified their violent repression in the mid to late 80s, the National Party government seemed to be lashing out like a frightened, wounded and limping animal, cornered on all sides. Despite the government’s intransigence, in many ways large numbers of the white population had outgrown apartheid’s ideology, as the protest songs of South African popular music held forth a transcendent belief in a better, more hopeful multiracial future. Perhaps it can be said that the victory over apartheid, as well as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison – was truly a chain of interrelated global and domestic events, and a moral victory of the goodwill of ordinary citizens and activists.

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“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” – Nelson Mandela

As we celebrate the memory of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, let us remember that these great souls were figureheads of their movements, but no one leader acts alone. Both Dr. King and Nelson Mandela were at the vortex of the forces and wide-ranging actions of many groups and individuals. The life of Nelson Mandela, the death of apartheid and the peaceful transition toward South Africa’s new, multiracial democracy are a testament to what the world can accomplish when people of moral conscience and goodwill work together to end oppression.

Image credits: Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, Jurgen Schadeburg; Defiance Campaign, Jurgen Schadeburg; Rivonia Trial defendants, ANC archives; Soweto Uprising, Alf Khumalo; Nelson Mandela portrait, Greg Bartley.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Aboriginal Bling: Art, jewelry and the human alchemy of gems and minerals

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For many years now I’ve had some phenomenal experiences with crystals, which are sometimes hard to explain to people who think of the Earth and its minerals as being essentially inanimate matter and having no humanly discernible vibration or energy. I could go on and on describing these experiences, but one event in particular stands out. When I lived in Johannesburg I bought a huge amethyst cluster crystal from Zambia that was about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide; after I had it placed in my backyard near a banana tree, I watched the tree grow and expand until it bore clumps of bananas that were NEVER there before. In fact, the base of the banana tree grew so much it even pushed out some of the cobblestones in the surrounding pavement! Given my personal experiences, when I learned about Fulani Malik, Ras Tree and their jewelry, their “Aboriginal Bling Blam” concept naturally caught my interest. I believe their style and aesthetic – maintaining most of the natural size and characteristics of their gemstones – makes sense in terms of the way crystals theoretically may interact with our human electromagnetic field. Our bodies emit electricity – or to be more exact, electrical waves – that change with our health and emotional states; crystals are conductors of that energy, just like they function in modern electronic devices like cell phones and computers. I hope this article might spark some interest in not only in the beauty of Aboriginal Bling Blam creations, but also in the wider implications of what crystals can potentially mean for the personal experience and awareness of people wearing them.

Aboriginal Bling: Art, jewelry and the human alchemy of gems and minerals

Fulani Malik is a highly creative artist with an extraordinary mission. Along with his partner Ras Tree, Fulani creates very impressive hand-made jewelry out of virtually every mineral, gemstone, metal and crystal imaginable. Keeping most of their stones in a bulky, uncut or unrefined state, their creations resemble an African or indigenous native aesthetic, with bold, innovative shapes, textures and positioning. Their avant garde designs – wrist, arm leg and ankle bracelets, necklaces, pendants, earrings, crowns, tiaras or any conceivable body adornment – are truly distinctive and eye-catching. Their company, Aboriginal Bling Blam – is aptly named; it seems as if these two entrepreneurs are singlehandedly redefining the nature of visual opulence and “bling.”

The average Aboriginal Bling Blam creation might be three or four times the size of a typical Western style ring, pendant or bracelet; the stones are set in combinations of nickel, silver, copper and brass wire settings that appear tribal and primordial, yet also elegant, stylish and graceful. Malik describes the jewelry as “wearable art.” But the concept behind Aboriginal Bling Blam goes far beyond the abstract, Picasso-like innovations with brightly colored stones, unusual shapes and unconventional lines.

Sitting underneath a row of Sanskrit prayer flags in the artsy, bohemian atmosphere of the Gypsy House in Capitol Hill, Malik – sporting shoulder-length dred locks, a beautiful African mud-cloth robe and a charming, graceful smile – tells me how his improbable venture was born in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Malik and Ras Tree were both construction workers helping rebuild New Orleans – Malik laid electrical and fiber optic cables, and Tree did roadwork in the sand and swampland. It was Tree who introduced Malik to Baba Ken Amin, an elder who made jewelry with natural elements.

“Ras Tree knew all the different elements of the Earth from doing roadwork and I always had a lot of metal around,” Malik explained. “Ras Tree said, ‘Man, you got all that copper – let me do something with it.”

Through Baba Ken Amin’s guidance, Malik and Tree both started making jewelry – beginning with rings, necklaces and bracelets – while also learning about crystals, minerals and gemstones and the energies of the Earth as their work evolved. Before long, they began setting up booths outside of local events, and their sideline work became “another aspect of spreading good, positive, healing energy.”

“We would share the energies with people. We would have the literature and our different stones out, and it really helped people with the recovery process,” Malik said, “That’s where it just got kick-started and it was coming natural.”

Malik opens a large canvas bag packed with his fascinating combinations of gemstones, minerals and crystals and their unique copper, nickel and silver wire settings; the pieces look almost like they could have been retrieved from an ancient archaeological burial site. He carefully spreads the jewelry out on a table, showing some matching necklace, bracelet and ring sets, as well as remarkable individual pieces. Malik – whose grandmother is from Ghana – says most of his creations come from “ancestral meditations and ancient techniques” stemming from his West African roots, while about one-third of his work is custom jewelry he makes for individual clients.

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Malik's voice becomes more animated as he talks about how Aboriginal Bling Blam’s jewelry taps into the "alchemical power" of minerals and crystals. He explains that minerals are the foundation of all planetary life, and basic components of our body’s cellular structure and metabolic processes; hence the stones have a vibrational relationship with the DNA codes of human evolution. Furthermore, crystals are the only substances that have the same microscopic, molecular symmetrical structures as their outer, macroscopic form, and therefore are excellent conductors and magnifiers of the human body’s electromagnetic field. Crystals also have a measurable impact of piezoelectric charges, and the energy sensations can operate like a biofeedback mechanism or a meditative process.

“The energy of this work is universal because of the DNA – these gemstones, the DNA – we all come from the Earth. I just tap into that, I can just pull in from that,” Malik says, adding that specific stones can affect different aspects of a person’s physical, emotional and mental awareness.

“Quartz in itself has a purifying affect; it’s a purifying and cleansing stone. Rose quartz specifically denotes love. So when I’m working with those two stones it’s a specific type of purification of love,” Malik explained, pointing out that he often works directly with his individual clients to meet their special needs. “I share the energies of the rose quartz. They tell me where they would like it placed, and then I can help.

“I can do anything from treating eye infections to healing the bond of the mother and a child. I try to steer people toward quartz if it’s their first time working with stones.”

Malik says the nickel, silver, brass and copper metals also channel the movement of subtle energies through the body. The metal designs are often formed into spirals and very fluid, waving, curving lines that look like little rivers or streams. Malik explained that through the evolution of his jewelry making he learned that those designs were symbolic of Kundalini, an energy that yoga masters say awakens and rises through the spine with a person’s spiritual development. In Sanskrit, Kundalini means “coiling, like a snake.” Malik believes that his jewelry pieces – the combination of the metal energies and the minerals and crystals – help facilitate a spiritual awakening in his clients, even if they might not describe it with terms such as Kundalini.

“I think the jewelry gives them an unconscious awareness of feeling the energy of ‘the river’ within them being unending, and not having the energy stop. I think it carries the natural flow of energy you possess – Kundalini is a non-stop energy,” Malik says. “The truth is, the ancestral vibe I’m drawing from, it’s not something I’m purposely trying to do – it’s something the ancestors want awakened.”

Malik lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Ras Tree lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Malik says he and Tree work together “like Voltron” no matter where they are, although they are most effective when they travel together; the two partners do about 6 to 8 art shows each year. Malik says that Aboriginal Bling Blam “easily” took first place among the fine arts booths at this year’s Taste of Colorado festival. Between their art shows and custom design work, both Malik and Ras Tree work full time on Aboriginal Bling Blam, while Malik also creates fine art for several art galleries in New Mexico.

“I moved to Albuquerque 5 years ago. I wanted to come out into the desert and open up my creativity,” says Malik. “To have the big space to meditate in is a wonderful feeling for me. I live in the outskirts, on the west side of the city where most of the petroglyphs are.”

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(Fulani Malik holding the First Place Award for Best Fine Arts Booth at the Taste of Colorado, 2013.)

Aboriginal Bling Blam custom rings start at $35, and can range toward $300. Bracelets start at $50, necklaces start from $80, which includes a consultation. They can be found online at and at or

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Paul Hamilton: Art, knowledge and a fundi's wisdom of Africa

Ife, Wunmonija, brass sculpture, early 14thCentury

From the "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria" exhibit at the Museum for African Art in New York City.

I never had much interest in the collecting and trading of African art until I saw Dr. Paul Hamilton's amazing collection and spoke with him and others about it.  It is quite ironic that most Africans and African Americans - including myself - have no concept of the high demand for African traditional art among the world's elite dealers and collectors. Somehow we never drew the connection between Picasso and Salvador Dali channeling their intensely creative "inner African" and international pricing, supply and demand.  I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with both Paul Hamilton and Paul's art dealer, Joseph Bankston, as they opened my eyes to the concept of African art as a highly-prized art form.  Perhaps this is just another symptom of the disconnectedness of our modern history, where Africans and African Americans often encounter some perceptual filters when it comes to valuing ourselves and our culture in perspective to how other people see us.  
Paul Hamilton: Art, knowledge and a "fundi's" wisdom of Africa

In his own humble and understated manner, Dr. Paul Hamilton can be described as what people throughout Africa call a “fundi” – a wise and learned man, an elder, a teacher, a researcher or someone who has specialized expertise, skill or knowledge in a given area. The name has many meanings and connotations; a musician can be a jazz fundi, an artist or sculpture can also be a fundi, and an educator or counselor who has a special way with youth is even yet another type of fundi. As an art collector, college professor, school principal and teacher and an author, Paul Hamilton’s life experience naturally confers many dimensions of that respected title.

Now at 72, as he faces retirement, Hamilton has a unique opportunity to reflect on his life journey and place his body of work in an enduring perspective. As the owner of a highly respected African art collection, Hamilton is facing certain decisions regarding the future legacy of his marvelous anthology of authentic carvings, sculptures, paintings, books and manuscripts, drawn from all corners of the African continent.

A visit to Paul Hamilton’s home is an unforgettable experience; sculptures, carvings, masks, figurines and ceremonial folk art of every conceivable size, shape and texture are placed on virtually every available shelf, corner, stairwell, credenza and window sill. The Hamilton home has an atmosphere of grace, antiquity and character; it is something like a living museum, a veritable master symphony of African expressions, qualities and personalities. Of course, Hamilton dearly loves his art, and he happily regales visitors with reams of information about the background, history and religious and ceremonial functions of the various objects of his personal passion.

Earlier this year a group of artists, organizations and Curtis Park community groups were coalescing around a plan – spearheaded by the Denver’s dynamic Redline Art Gallery – to redevelop the historic Temple Emmanuel Synagogue as a theater venue, artist studio and retail space, with Hamilton’s collection serving as the foundation of an African American museum and community arts center. But with administrative changes at Redline and the future of the ambitious project being unclear, Hamilton is now looking toward a new international art auction fundraiser that he hopes will introduce his African art to elite collectors around the world. The black tie art event, which benefits the Howard Dental Center, will be held on December 14 at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Denver, is expected to draw between 500 and 800 people.

Joseph Bankston, an art dealer and appraiser who handles Hamilton’s collection, points out that African art has always been among the most prized art forms in the international world of elite artists, galleries and patrons. “African art is one of the strongest art forms on the planet because basically African art has affected Picasso and the rest of the more famous abstract artists of Europe and America and elsewhere,” Bankston told me during a recent conversation at Café on the Points. “They use African design in all of their work, and most of it was a reflection of African art. So if you look at some of Picasso’s art, you’ll see replicas of African ritual pieces, and on and on. If you look at Dali and some of the rest of them, you see African art within them – they basically took their new form of modern art from designs in African art.”

With a soft smile that belies vast experience of decades in the art collecting world, Bankston told me that African art “has always been one of the most collectable arts on the planet, besides Chinese and Asian art and European art. It can be, at some point, one of the most expensive arts to collect; it depends on what it is.” He said that the auction – which will become an annual fundraising event to support dental services for those suffering from HIV/AIDS – is already developing its own buzz, with some well-known celebrities and art collectors expected to be in attendance. Online bidding begins in November, a full month ahead of the actual event.

“We sent out media presentations to all of newspapers and televisions stations, PBS, and also the auction companies will put it out to the public, and it will be widely acknowledged,” Bankston said.  He also noted that premier auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies will be participating.  

“We’re spending a lot of money on advertising and getting the word out. It will spread. All the galleries will be notified by e-mail and they will notify their clients and artists – so it’s a domino effect. It will spread like wildfire.”

The Howard Dental Center Auction will also feature an in-person appearance by renowned artist Majid Kahhak. Kahhak, who lives near Aspen and is well known for his live performance art paintings of celebrities like Bill Clinton, Ray Charles, Tiger Woods, Marcel Marceau, King Hassan II of Morocco, Jack Nicklaus and former Denver Bronco Terrell Davis.  Local artists are also being encouraged to submit their work.

For Hamilton, the auction is an opportunity to serve the Denver community while also increasing the international profile of his African art collection. Hamilton is donating the full proceeds of several of his pieces that have been appraised at more than $60,000; however, his focus is less on the monetary value and more on a long term institutional arrangement for his collection.

“I’ll make a little money on income tax. The big thing for me will be getting my name out there and getting my collection out there to Europe and Asia and places like that,” Hamilton said in a recent telephone interview. He added that he was very disappointed when he learned the Redline project fell through.

“My idea was to have my collection set up where different art groups and creative people can work and get inspired by the place around them, and also you have some kind of performances. So you take Redline and you expand the concept to have other groups, and then you have my art collection and library.”

Hamilton has had numerous discussions with Blair-Caldwell Museum curator Terry Nelson, but the Museum did not have the space to accommodate his thousands of books and manuscripts, let alone his art pieces, although Hamilton previously loaned some of his collection to the Museum for temporary exhibits. As much as Hamilton loves African art, his scholarly research is particularly close to his heart, which was the basis for his seminal book, “Shattering the Myths: African People’s Contributions to World Civilizations.” “Shattering the Myths,” which includes scientific research of race and evolution, as well as historical perspectives on Ancient Egypt and Nubia, the great kingdoms of West Africa and the African cultural roots of Western science, mathematics, philosophy and religion, is out-of-print after three printings in the mid 90s and remains in high demand.

Currently a teacher at Brady High School in Jefferson County, Hamilton has committed himself to retiring at the end of the 2013-14 school year, and he intends to write a second volume to “Shattering the Myths,” in addition to producing a large, high quality coffee-table photography book on African art.

With the excitement of Howard Dental Center’s First Annual Art Auction and the freedom of a well-deserved retirement, we can expect some new and wonderful offerings from one of Colorado’s great fundis.

This article was originally written for the November 2013 issue of The Urban Spectrum. For more information on the Howard Dental Center Art Auction, see, and for more information on Paul Hamilton and his art collection, see  

Monday, August 05, 2013

Chiwoniso Maraire and the wounded heart of Zimbabwe

Oh beloved Zimbabwe… I remember you, when crossing the border from South Africa in 1994, I was entering a land of peace and quiet harmony with the Earth, and the feeling of being in the abundance of towering baobabs and ancient stone ruins and all that we imagine is the graceful, loving beauty of Mother Africa. I recently learned that Chiwoniso Maraire, a great Zimbabwean musician who brought the traditional mbira to urban audiences and contemporary music in the 1990s, passed away a few days ago at the young age of 37. The mbira instrument was also introduced and somewhat popularized in America by Maurice White and his band Earth, Wind & Fire in the 70s; Maurice called his instrument the kalimba, and he even called his music publishing company Kalimba Music. In the face of such a great loss, what else can one say except thank you so much for the wonderful music you left us, Chiwoniso... God bless your great journey in Heaven.

I can't help feeling more sadness and pain at Chiwoniso's death because the Zimbabwe of today is nothing like the Zimbabwe I first came to know in July 1994... Crossing the border 19 years ago, I was struck by feeling a sudden sense of calm, stillness and joy, leaving South Africa. At the time, South Africa had squeaked through its first all-race, one-person-one-vote elections that of course established Nelson Mandela as the first president of a truly democratic New South Africa. But the new nation was fraught with anxiety, violence and confusion, with conspiracies abounding about black-on-black violence fomented by "third force" old apartheid security forces determined to throw a monkey wrench into the democratic process. On April 27, 1994, the day of the elections, a flurry of bombs went off in black township taxi ranks, intended to strike fear into the hearts of Africans seeking to exercise their new right to vote. Right-wing white Afrikaner militias were organizing openly, and a few were dramatically and brutally killed by black security forces - broadcasted live on South African television - after making an excursion into the Bophuthatswana African homeland. Zimbabwe felt like it was a million miles and several lifetimes away from that madness and violence. Zimbabwe seemed like an almost perfect blend of traditional Africa - grand wildlife and scenery, charming villages with lovely folk art and welcoming people - with Harare's modern business district and skyline, stately suburbs, quaint restaurants and jazzy nightclubs. The tranquility of Zimbabwe was like a balm, an antidote to the uncertainty of South Africa's violent conflicts; Zimbabwe had already been through its own bloody wars of white minority rule and appeared to represent the future goodwill that South Africa could look forward to. No one had any inkling that the future would painfully change in dramatic ways for so many people, black and white. It's ironic that South Africa now has a massive Zimbabwe refugee problem, and the image and relationship of the two regimes, in that context, is in somewhat of a role reversal.

So Chiwoniso's death feels like a double-dagger into the heart and the body, a piercing, bleeding wound with salt poured into it. But Chiwoniso's spirit and presence is eternal through her great music, and somewhere in that sound is the true heart of Zimbabwe, a pure heavenly song.

Chiwoniso Maraire, Africa's Queen of the mbira photo 5b3da117-9fdc-4a2b-8e57-bd95b3974d34.jpg

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Michael Winslow: Sound, Comedy and the Origin of Beatbox


Michael Winslow, man of 10,000 sound effects and the "founder of modern beatbox"

Michael Winslow is like no other modern comedian. His vocal contortions are absolutely amazing, and he astounds his audience at what is possible with the human larynx. I think this story is captivating not only because of Winslow’s path to Hollywood success, but what his comedy style may tell us about sound itself. Winslow has pushed himself to edge of exploration in sound, whether it involves interspecies communication (Winslow has imitated and interacted directly with both tigers and dolphins under scientific observation) or developing his own internal ear by immersing himself in natural environments with no human sounds. As a motivational speaker, Winslow sometimes speaks to audiences about awareness of sound and developing a “feng shui” of sound in one’s home. He believes that kind of sound awareness can improve one's intelligence, educational achievement and overall well-being. Quite something to consider from the man who made millions of people laugh over and over again through 7 “Police Academy” productions. In some ways it's not all that surprising that Winslow was one of the originators of the creative phenomenon known as beatbox.

Michael Winslow is an utterly fascinating comic genius. The man who achieved fame in the 80s as Officer Larvell Jones in the “Police Academy” movie franchise has traveled around the world spreading his unique style of vocal comedy, which can include anything from imitating an entire film soundtrack with his voice, to performing Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin – vocals, guitars, bass, drums and reverb, auto tune, delayed echo, etc. – all with his voice. Or how about watching Winslow execute a fascinating sound performance of a Wimbledon Grand Slam tennis match? Winslow gives new meaning to the truism that the average human being uses only a small fraction of the potential of our vocal cords.

More recently you may have seen Winslow doing the Black Hawk “Cha-ching” Casino commercial, or Geico or Cadbury ads, or on the television program “Robot Chicken.” In addition to having a cult following from his hilarious appearance in “Space Balls,” Winslow’s voice or vocal effects are found in the movie “Gremlins,” Disney’s “Back to the Future" and “Terminator” rides and in the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” He is truly a prolific entertainer and one of the most unique comedians of our modern age.

After getting his first taste of a successful comedy performance at Tulagi’s nightclub in Boulder in 1979, Winslow dropped out of Metropolitan State College in Denver and decided to move to LA to pursue a career as a standup comedian. A TV appearance on Chuck Barris’ popular “Gong Show” earned young Winslow a grand total of $516.32, which he used to buy a 1969 Mercury Cougar that temporarily solved his homelessness problem. The Cougar also got him out on the California comedy circuit. Eventually Winslow was spotted by director Hugh Wilson and Producer Paul Manslanski, who were so impressed they decided to write him into the script of “Police Academy” as Cadet Larvell Jones, the crazy sounds effects man. It was a stroke of genius - Winslow fit perfectly into the enormously creative role that would endear him to millions of fans for decades. But searching for his big break and finding his place in Hollywood turned out to be an incredibly tense and stressful journey.

“For me it felt like a sword fight. Everybody felt like that,” Winslow told me during a recent telephone interview. His tone changed and there was a certain sadness and humility in his voice. “It was like sword fighting with time itself. You’ve got a hundred folks that want to come in, and you’ve got slots for 40. You have to be there early and you have to fight for those slots. And you get three minutes, so you’ve got to put in 8 hours or 11 hours or however long you’re going to be there and get that three minutes and you hope that it’s a prime period when the audience is there.”

Winslow has some memories of hanging out with the legendary wild man, the late Sam Kinison, which certainly made life in California interesting. Now he looks back and laughs, but Winslow remembers a time when Kinison nearly got the two of them killed.

“We were at this one place, one of the colleges we were playing in, and Sam was going off. He was doing his thing. And I remember the Iranians wanted to kill him,” Winslow said, with a nervous half-chuckle. “And I’m thinking, ‘Man, come on Sam, you’re my ride home. Be cool, please?’ I go to the bathroom and then I come out and then Iranians are rolling on the floor laughing. How did he do this? The Iranians were on the floor – literally, laughing! I don’t know what he did, I don’t know how he did it – all I know is he was picking on this Pakistani guy. And the Iranians thought that was funny. ”


Larvell Jones from "Police Academy"

Many people loved the “Police Academy” movies because of Larvell Jones, the eccentric character whose sounds turned drove people crazy or turned a scene upside-down, always leaving the audience roaring with laughter. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the original “Police Academy” (the franchise was so successful they eventually produced 7 sequels – an extraordinary feat even in Hollywood cookie cutter formula filmmaking) was the Larvell Jones' opening scene. When Mahoney (Steve Gutenburg) sat down next to Larvell Jones, Winslow is imitating a drum machine, pulsating 80s hip hop rhythms and beats with his voice. The vocal gymnastics were an innovation Winslow created and later came to be known in hip hop culture as “beatbox.”

“When Jones and Mahoney met for the first time. Jones was doing beatbox. That was 1983, so that made me the first person to ever to record beat box on film,” Winslow says. “I use the phrase, “the founder of modern beatbox.” There were a lot of folks who came out right about the same time, after Police Academy. But that was the first time anybody had ever seen beatbox – and that was a worldwide release of feature film.

“It’s been what it is ever since. Though now, I have to revisit everything, because everything’s come full circle. I will be putting one of those things out, raising the bar again. We’ll freak everybody out again and we’ll see what happens.”

Hip Hop culture generally recognizes Doug E. Fresh as the pioneer of beatbox; his first popular singles “Just Having Fun (Do the Beatbox)” and “The Original Human Beatbox” came out in 1984, and his first album, “Oh, My God” came out in 1986. The first Police Academy movie was also released in 1984, but production on the film was started in 1983.

Winslow constantly has his eye on the horizon, thinking about his next innovation, something that can make his use of sound accessible to as many people as possible. Talking to him, one gets the sense that the new technical developments in digital communication and technology are tailor-made for a world of possibilities that Winslow is currently experimenting with, although he may not be able to predict the evolution our outcome of his ideas. At his home studio near Orlando, Florida, Winslow has already produced some new I-Phone and Android apps that are available for download from his web site. Like most everyone, he hopes his apps will turn heads or catch on virally.

“If there was a way that I could put it in a bottle, I’d like to give it to everyone. Around 1900, that’s what the guy from Coca Cola decided. 'How do I get this thing from the soda fountain to everybody else?' And some guy told him, ‘bottle it.’ That’s what I’m trying to do right now, is figure out, what’s the best way to contain this and use it as and educational tool – entertainment but education too,” Winslow explained. “That’ll probably be through applications through I-phones. It means I’m probably going to have to come up with games for the phones. But we’ll probably end up putting whole shows on there – people are going to be watching TV on their phones.”

Winslow relishes traveling because “sound is universal” and he finds he can reach new audiences across cultural barriers because everyone understands sound, regardless of the language they speak. A recent performance for a national TV program in Brazil charged an audience of 30 million and put Winslow in a “top 10” Twitter feed. Winslow was surprised at the response.

“You would be surprised at what will set people off,” he said, adding that he loved Brazil and hopes to return soon. “So you try to keep the sounds ready to go.”

In order to fine tune his ear and develop his creativity, Winslow has to immerse himself periodically in natural environments that are completely isolated from man-made sounds. His favorite place is Maui, but he also enjoys traveling to Australia and New Zealand, which have natural sound environs that are “very rich in the potential for the soil of creativity.”

Winslow is bullish on his concept of using sound for education. One of his latest projects is a children’s DVD which explores the world and various locations through sound. The pilot program was funded by none other than America’s favorite family and children’s comedian, Bill Cosby.

“All the animals can talk and the puppets have noises and the animals write the checks and that kind of stuff – it’s just nuts! Winslow says, his voice rising in excitement. “I’m taking it to television. I may have to go to all these other countries to shoot the episodes. None of our kids' shows go anywhere. But we actually go there. And I have no problem with actually asking a tiger questions, and I’m sure that the dolphin can show us which way we should go.”

Winslow says he did a few experiments with a scientist to see if he could communicate with animals. According to her measurements, Winslow’s voice was 93 percent similar to a tiger and a crocodile. But it seems his raw ability to communicate with other species needs some development.

“In order for me to speak to the thing I would have to sit with it for a few weeks, and I’d have to learn routines and mannerisms and what hunger means – basically we’d have to get to know each other,” Winslow says. “I know enough to get in trouble, but not enough to get out of trouble. That’s the part I’m learning now.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Genius, Vision and Broken Dreams: Remembering Zim Ngqawana

Jazz maestro Zim Ngqawana playing flute on stage.

I was stunned when I learned that Zim Ngqawana, South African jazz musician extraordinaire, passed away a few days ago, on May 10, 2011. Sometimes with musicians, a death can be especially jolitng, because somehow we expect the music to always be there, evolving into something that will grow even better with age, like a fine Cabernet. Judging by news reports in the South African media, many South Africans are also deeply saddened to lose their beloved 52 year-old jazz "genius." Perhaps now people will appreciate Zim Ngqawana more like a national treasure, a standard bearer of South Africa's fabulous jazz tradition. To experience Zim Ngqawana live on stage was to witness dazzling talent and exuberance, delivered in a captivating spectrum of arrangements and compositions. Zim would masterfully jump between the flute, saxophone, harmonica, piano and vocals, always with a great ensemble of musicians blending seamlessly with his unique stage presence.

I remember Zim telling me that his musical journey was touched off by a small harmonica his father gave him in a Christmas stocking when he was 4. Zim told me that he had a very strong relationship with his father, who taught him through the best of African oral tradition; on his album sleeves and bios Zim would simply say that he was taught the age-old wisdom of Ubuntu. Zim found it very perplexing and distressing that some people were earning masters' degrees and PhDs by doing dissertations on Ubuntu. He felt that making Ubuntu into an academic subject was an aberration and misrepresented the intuitive understanding that comes from centuries of African tradition.

Zim was a great composer and performer; but through all the year's I'd known him Zim's passion was to teach and expound upon South African music to as many earnest students as he could find. He envisioned a new generation of artists that would be multi-instrumentalists like himself, each with their own musical proclivities, but all being taught music theory and piano as a foundation. He wanted to create a musical pedagogy, instead of expecting young people to pick up individual instruments and learn music on their own. Building his audience and touring throughout Africa, Europe and the United States, Zim realized his dream by eventually buying a farm outside of Johannesburg and establishing his Zimology Institute where he trained talented artists. But criminals broke into his farm in December of last year, and besides stealing personal possessions, they vandalized Zim's studio equipment and broke the piano legs to his two prize grand pianos.

"This was an attempt to break us. I was demoralized see the grand pianos worth half a million lying flat on the ground," Zim said. "The souls of the people have been vandalized. What kind of criminal doesn't know the value of a piano?"

The spiteful thieves who broke Zim's pianos, broke his heart and his dream. Beyond anything material, the grand pianos and the Zimology Institute were part of Zim's passion to transmit and preserve the beauty of South African jazz for future generations. Zim may never have fully recovered from this transgression, this deep wound - it was like an attack on his soul and the goodness he was trying to create in the world.

With Zim gone, we have to find more fundis and griots to purvey the oral wisdom and human imagination that our world so desperately needs. Zim always believed that his music was medicine, his music was a kind of healing balm. Zim's 1999 album, was called Ingoma. The Zulu and Xhosa word for song is "ingoma," which also means "medicine;" a "sangoma" is a traditional healer or medicine man. Zim understood that he was a shaman, and his intention was to teach and share in a broad vision for the future. His music will always be with us, but it seems his dream has been mortally denigrated by the banality of jealousy, envy and greed. Hamba kakuhle, my dear bra Zim! Sizabonana kwakhona, umhlobo wam. Kwahkhona.


Tribute to Zim Nqawana in The Sowetan

Jazz giant Ngqawana is no more

May 11, 2011 | Edward Tsumele | 47 comments

SOUTH African jazz giant Zim Ngqawana died yesterday morning and was buried last night.

The country has lost a musical genius

Ngqawana, real name Zimasile, died at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg after suffering a major stroke.

He was 51 years old and is survived by his wife and six children.

Ngqawana was billed to perform at the Wits Great Hall on Saturday but suffered a stroke and collapsed during rehearsals at his home in Troyeville, Johannesburg.

Prominent South African jazz musicians will now perform at Wits on Saturday to commemorate "The Life and Times of Zim Ngqawana".

The jazz giant, known for his uncompromising attitude, was admitted to the hospital on Monday according to a statement released yesterday by his family.

"While rehearsing for his upcoming concert at the Wits Great Hall scheduled for Saturday, he succumbed to a major stroke.

"He was buried according to Muslim tradition last night at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg."

Ngqawana, who took his career seriously, created some of the most-valued and sophisticated pieces of music which was embraced by serious jazz lovers.

Mixing African folklore and complex jazz arrangements, Ngqawana was both a pioneer and originator of a deep-rooted sound that came to be known as Zimology.

Ngqawana is especially respected for his first album called Zimology. The album created raised the bar in South African jazz.

Ngqawana graduated in jazz studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He later organised a group of local musicians who received formal training in jazz studies from universities in the country.

Ngqawana performed in Europe, the US and other countries.

Promoter Peter Tladi told Sowetan that the country has lost more than just a musician.

"Zim was a friend who subsequently became a godfather to my son.

"Just two weeks ago we were together in Cape Town where he performed at the funeral of another prominent musician. He told me that he was working on a proposal for the Joy of Jazz and we were both excited by the proposal, and now this.

"This makes one wonder why our musicians are dying like this," an emotional Tladi said.

Tladi's company, T-Musicman, promotes the popular Joy of Jazz Concert that normally takes place in August. Ngqawana would have performed at the festival.

Gauteng MEC for sport, arts, culture and recreation Lebogang Maile said, "The country has lost a musical genius and the music industry is poorer.

"Zim's passing must serve as a reminder to everyone, especially the youth about the rich heritage we have.

"His music, including masterpieces such as Qhula Kwedini will continue to inspire many in the performing arts. Condolences to his family.''

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Remembering Zim Ngqawana

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Zap Mama, Marie Daulne and 1000 Ways of African Expression


Zap Mama, Marie Daulne and 1000 Ways of African Expression

In the mid-90s, Vusi Khumalo, one of Africa’s most accomplished percussionists, turned me on to an album that was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Vusi was one of the original South African musicians that Paul Simon collaborated with on his phenomenal breakthrough album, Graceland. Having traveled and performed with some of the world’s most talented artists, Vusi couldn’t say enough good things about a group of female artists playing in a band called Zap Mama. When he played their CD, Seven, I was enamored by a sound that was deeply African yet permeated with experimental jazz, rock, reggae and even hip hop influences, all held together by an incredible female vocal ensemble that fused rhythm and voice into something that blurred the boundaries of music, language, lyrics and beats. It was like beat boxing meets Ella Fitzgerald, Fela Kuti, Ziggy Marley and Weather Report. Truly fresh.

I came to learn that many of South Africa’s top artists – musicians that are attuned to the best that jazz and African music had to offer, loved Zap Mama. It seemed that Zap Mama and the group’s founder and lead vocalist, Marie Daulne, were musicians’ musicians, not particularly widely known or popular with mass audiences, but deeply appreciated for their creative talent and innovative avant-garde African style. Zap Mama evoked many emotional responses in me; their ambient harmonies, danceable grooves, thoughtful lyrics and flashy jazz riffs were soothing and exciting, charming and subtle - yet sometimes downright funky. To hear Zap Mama is to experience Africa’s music in a whole new dimension.

Zap Mama’s founder, Marie Daulne, was born in 1964 in Congo-Kinshasha, to an African mother and a Belgian father who was killed in a Simba tribal revolt during the early turbulent years of Congo's independence. Marie’s mother escaped with her one-week old infant into the jungle, where they were protected by Pygmies before eventually being airlifted to Belgium, where Marie was raised as a Belgian citizen. With interests in painting, gymnastics and martial arts, Marie was growing into a dynamic teenager when she began to feel an inner desire to know more about the mysteries surrounding her birth. At 18 Marie returned to Africa (at that time, Zaire) and she was attracted to Pygmy traditional onomatopoeic vocals and intrigued by cultural experiences that awakened something ancestral in her spirit. She began having “all these voices in my head” and hearing “things I’m not used to.” The strange sounds and voices spawned a creative urge for musical expression that gradually led her to form Zap Mama after she returned to Brussels.


Zap Mama began performing in 1989 and in 1991 released its first album, Zap Mama, in Belgium. A year later the group was performing in New York and met David Byrne, who convinced them to re-release their album as Adventures in Afropea 1, on Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop Records. By the end of 1992 Adventures in Afropea 1 became a top selling album on Billboard’s World Music Chart and the group was basking in the excitement of developing a new worldwide audience. But Zap Mama left Luaka Bop after the success of Adventures in Afropea 1 because of artistic differences and Daulne’s desire to resist being marketed as a pop girl band. Through 6 albums over the next 15 years, Daulne and Zap Mama would evolve their music into a more sophisticated, multifaceted sound with a wider range of instruments and less emphasis on a cappella vocals.


With 2007’s Supermoon Zap Mama is once again in top form, enchanting audiences and new fans with their enticing vision of musical possibilities. Daulne remains determined to follow her own creative path, and is finding her influence and music continues to grow with a new generation of followers. During our telephone interview, Daulne was relaxed and very comfortable talking about her music, even though English is not her first language; her voice glides beautifully, with great warmth and sensitivity, much like her fascinating singing. She was very open about her life experiences, and perhaps is somewhat astonished or amazed that her unique creativity is loved and respected by many well-known musicians around the world.

"Sweet Melody"
Ancestry in Progress
Luaka Bop, 2004

JA: Can you tell me about what “Supermoon” means for you, and what you would like it to mean for others?

MD: I want people to discover a new way of appreciation. I guess I have always understood jazz as an example of someone, an example of the person who made it. A lot of people focus on what something looks like from what is outside, but what about just feeling what you, personally, are born for? Every human being has their own way to enjoy life and really define by themselves what is true for them. I would call them a “Supermoon.” The word “super” means something that is very good, and is full of life. There is only one Moon, in the middle of all these stars in the sky – being a Moon is being true to oneself.

And also I suppose I want to think of myself as very feminine, very beautiful and elegant and it’s super – I mean my heart. My music never follows one kind of music, one genre. I always feel what I want to feel. Sometimes I play reggae, sometimes I do jazz, sometimes I play funk, and I think people can appreciate each one. My sound is unique, and my sound can speak to a lot of people in different genres, because if you hear with an open mind you can understand completely different genres. My own music is really different and a lot of people like it, because my music doesn’t fit only one description.

JA: What were some of the highlights for you in putting the Supermoon album together?

MD: To be true again, I think I’ve arrive into a maturity, and there is no “way” for me to try to do things. I mean, I’m not saying that I want to hand this to people and I’m going to make this album for them to appreciate. I will do what I appreciate. I really feel that if it is good for me I know it will be liked by others, and others will appreciate it.

We are all the same – we are all human beings, we are reaching for the same things and we want the same things …. And I’m not shy to express my emotions. Sometimes we have feelings in life that hurt you and make you react; sometimes they make you feel personally very nervous about creating a song. I will give you an example. I lost my best friend two years ago, and I was very, very harmed and hurt. As a woman in this society at my age something like this can be very painful. I felt so lonely, too lonely – it paralyzed my life – I couldn’t do anything. And when I decided to get the courage to go into the studio – at the end of the session I just found that it was amazing.

JA: Does pain or deep emotion drive a lot of your musical creativity?

MD: Yes; in the beginning I didn’t like that. People want to buy my music, and that’s nice, but why would I put my personal life in public – everybody has their own personal life. But then I started to realize that maybe I am more like a songwriter; songwriters write songs and people can identify themselves in the sound of their music. My personal life can be an example through music. If people like my music and can identify their emotions through my emotions, then why not? “Moonray” was that way. That was very hard, going back to this sadness – it was so hard. I would have to stop and I would start crying, and I was very embarrassed because the engineer was there.

A lot of songs come to me that way, like “Hey Brother.” It was 4 in the morning when Michael Franti and me went into the studio and we planned to do a song called “Bodia,” about people taking time to improve their lives. And we said forget about the audience – what about us, who are you and me, what happens between us? And the song became “Hey Brother” – it was just happiness, like when you receive an ice cream and it’s very hot outside. You have an ice cream and it’s something simple and fresh; there was real emotion there, accompanying the song. That song is deep, it is a real thing we have between us. Mike and me, yes, we are friends – and beautiful friends – and we did this song “Hey Brother, Hey Sister” and we really enjoyed it.

JA: Yes that’s a very nice song and I can feel the friendship and the feeling of a man and a woman supporting each other. How would you describe your creative process in terms of how your compositions come to you and how you write and create your music?

MD: I have no idea! Songs come in my head, music, melodies, harmonies – I feel it. And it’s like my melodies are turning in my head, turning around and around and around and they want to go out. They say, ‘Can I get out of here?’ And I say, ‘Okay, okay, okay’ and I run into the studio and whew – I get the melodies out like they are. It’s like I have a conversation with my own music. I started music at a very early age and I had so many ideas. I have this music in my head and I keep struggling and then Monday morning a song is there with a melody and the words. I have no idea how the music comes to me, because I’m just born like that.

JA: When was the last time you were in the Congo and how often do you travel there? Do you have a strong feeling for the music scene in Kinshasha and other parts of the Congo?

MD: No, not especially. For me it was important because I wanted to know who my father was, because he was killed when I was born, and I wanted to go back there to see where I was born. I was 18, and I said, “Bye bye now, it’s my time.” And after this I went back to Belgium and I decided to discover the world. And I asked, “What do I have? I have Belgian culture, I have European culture and I have received African culture through my mom, and I said, ‘I have this, what can I do with this?’ Play with what you know, what you received.” And that’s it. From there I opened myself to the rest of the world. For me Congo is not especially my nation – I don’t feel nationalist at all. I’m really an internationalist. I don’t really know my family in Congo. My family is in Belgium and my home is Belgium. But if all my family moved to the United States, I would feel home is the United States. But I don’t feel like I fit in one place.

Sometimes people want to see where they are born and they are very attached to their land. And I can understand that people are attached to land and that kind of beauty, but I don’t feel that. I think we human beings can attach ourselves anywhere. I’ve always tried to find the perfect place to live. Like when I’m in New York, I saw, “Oh wow, I love to live in New York.” And when I’m in Brazil, I say, “This is a place I would like to live.” I love the Earth. I need nature; I need very beautiful scenery around me.

JA: How often do you travel between Belgium and the US?

MD: I’m here every month.

JA: Really? I didn’t realize it was that often.

MD: Yes, I moved here to the US two times and I lived here for three years, and then I went back for my kids to be able to stay with their grandma, and their auntie and uncle. That was an easy decision for me, to tell you the truth, because I travel a lot and my kids need to know their cousins, and they are attached to their family. And then I decided to come and produce my music in the US, and my record label, Telarc is here. I’m like a businessman or a businesswoman traveling between Europe and New York.

JA: When I first heard of Zap Mama, I heard about your music through musicians from South Africa. Your music is one of the most respected music among Black artists or African-influenced artists. But maybe I’m behind on these things, but I don’t get the sense that many Americans know about Zap Mama. Maybe in New York City they know Zap Mama more. Maybe you can describe the difference between your audience in the United States and your audience in Europe?

MD: I think I have audiences everywhere – underground audiences everywhere. I don’t have a place where I’m especially bigger, maybe in some cities, places in California and New York. According to what the label said, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the main places; and Brussels, Belgium and Paris for sure – I have a little bit of an audience everywhere. But it’s always underground in certain cities – not countries – like Paris, Amsterdam and London. I can always keep traveling and there is an audience that is always following me, always discovering me.

JA: Do you find that your audience is growing rapidly by this underground contact and word of mouth?

MD: Yes. But the only problem with underground audience is they give (away) copies of my music – they don’t always buy music if they like it. But if they like to have art they should support artists and buy their music.

JA: I think some people from Congo might see your music as being more mainstream, while other people would see your music as more complex, blending different genres. I find that difference of perception interesting.

MD: I think my music is more avant-garde than mainstream. Some of the ideas we’ll think of 10 years after now, when we see what Timbaland introduced into hip hop music – he used sounds from world music – will be finding its way into the mainstream. I remember being in the beat box world, and what I brought 10 years ago - finally now I see its meaning. My music is advanced reality because I’m like Timbaland, or David Byrne – we can hear new music and we produce that work, and the way we present it to the audience is special. I’m really serving art and culture and people are inspired by what I do. Even Erykah Badu told me, “You’re an inspiring woman.”

JA: And do you do see your influence reflected in Erykah Badu’s music? Or did she just tell you that and you didn’t see your influence in her music before?

MD: Erykah said, “It’s because of you and your concept that helped me find something in me.” And yes, after she explained to me why she got certain parts of her songs, then I said, “Okay, now I get it.”

JA: I think my musician friends in South Africa felt that you have a kind of deep influence on very talented musicians. Would you agree?

MD: Yes. I didn’t know I was influencing them, but now I see it and it’s true, I agree. People listen to other famous people for examples, and music is supposed to be like that. You give a young person this dream to follow what they want to do. I focus on my way, and it works; after all these years I’ve been successful all over the world and then I realize that, Bobby McFerrin, Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau and all these big names from the jazz world, they appreciate my music. I realized that I had something special because I didn’t just go to them; they come to me and appreciate what I do.

JA: What artists or musicians do you like to listen to, and who gives you inspiration?

MD: There are so many… The first music I was listening to was jazz, the second music was funk; and when I say jazz, I would say Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, people who are very classical, basic jazz music, and Louis Armstrong and doo-wop. I identified myself with American jazz themes because as a Black European I didn’t really compare myself to the African community; I think I was attracted more by the Americans, maybe because of the Western mentality. I like old movies and musicals. I also listened to Neil Young and Graham Nash, Supertramp, Genesis and other things; with the guitar we were influenced by Bob Marley and Cream. And then later I was attracted by again by jazz, but more modern jazz like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. I also listened to Kraftwerk, Art of Noise, and then later James Brown and hip hop.

JA: When would you say you discover James Brown?

MD: When I was an acrobat and I when I was in my 20s we would go out to parties and dance. James Brown was my man! And when I started to do a capella things I realized that I could do funk with my voice. And I started thinking, what can I find in funk – it’s fun, it makes you dance and it grooves – and I thought, how can I do that with a band, with all these voices? My second album (Sabsylma), for me that was funk. And people would say, “There was no funk in there.” But it’s my description of funk –t’s fun, fresh and it grooves. I can’t move like James Brown, but I can do that with my voice.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat?

President Obama and members of his administration observe the U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's compound (AP)

The May 1, 2011 assassination of Osama Bin Laden has conferred new prestige to Barack Obama's presidency and of course, his poll numbers are bound to go up. His ‘gutsy” decision and the success of the Navy SEALs operation has become a history-making moment defining his presidential legacy, much to the chagrin of his Republican detractors and right-wing pundits. It’s quite interesting that the covert action has taken place within a week of the President releasing his "long form" birth certificate, as the wild cacophony of the “birthers” and Donald Trump the “carnival barker” became an increasingly absurd distraction. Many of Obama’s supporters felt the birth certificate decision was needless capitulation to crazy conspiracy theorists who will never accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama simply because he is African-American. The cloud of fabricated propaganda and distortion was so extreme that even CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schiefer stated that there was an“an ugly strain of racism” underlying Trump's courting of the birther movement.

Many Americans seem unable to move beyond seeing Barack Obama through a compulsive reactive filter of race. Rush Limbaugh may not be a birther, but he can’t bring himself to give Barack Obama any credit for his leadership or any role he played in bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. The bold decision to target Bin Laden inside Pakistan is certainly confounding birthers, as they will be forced to spin more elaborate conspiratorial delusions to ease their own cognitive dissonance. Their (temporary) silence is deafening right now. On the other hand, many of Obama’s supporters on the left are confounded by their own perception of Barack Obama as a symbol of change. They feel deeply betrayed on progressive causes like a public option or single-payer national health plan, extensions of the Bush tax cuts, gun control, environmental regulation, expansion of the war in Afghanistan and many other issues. (To be fair, Obama expounded his views on Afghanistan during the 2008 campaign, but current critics probably didn't listen carefully enough to his speeches.) It seems on both sides of the divide, Obama has become an enigma, as identity politics obfuscates the realities of a human personality attempting to navigate powerful special interests that inevitably weigh on the office of the President and his administration.

Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat?

Judas Goat: noun 1) A goat that is trained to lead other animals to being slaughtered, to the point where the Judas goat is allowed to pass safely

Since his historic inauguration on January 20, 2009, I’ve observed Barack Obama’s presidency with a perceptive analysis that has almost felt like unveiling a mysterious prophecy. Two years into his term, Barack Obama’s public persona, gravitas and his poll ratings look vastly different than what most of us might have expected from the exultant optimism surrounding his election. With tremendous criticism and disillusionment from liberal and progressive supporters and a mid-term election “shellacking” by Republicans and the Tea Party movement, Obama seems to be operating from an obscure no-man’s land where no one seems to know or recognize the charismatic leader who made so many grand promises in the name of hope.

In 2008 my friend Andrew P. Jones published his brilliant book, Barack Obama: America’s Savior or Judas Goat: The Diary of a Mad Black Voter. He wrote the book while living as an expatriate in South Africa, keenly observing the elections and being fascinated by the prospect of America electing its first Black President. While the concept may have seemed unlikely in 2005, Obama’s 2008 campaign awakened many people to the idea that the United States is changing and perhaps entering into a new “post-racial” era. Indeed, the inauguration itself was a mass event that the vast majority of Americans openly celebrated as a historic transformation. But Andrew’s book was written as something of a warning to Americans to not confuse Barack Obama as a symbol of racial achievement with the actual constraints of Barack Obama as a human being contending with overwhelming forces beyond his control. Barack Obama the man could end up inadvertently compromising and selling out key aspects of his own progressive agenda, because in the euphoria of electing a Black President his followers could be caught unaware of the dangerous pitfalls of politics and pragmatic policy decisions.

In 2011, the question of whether Barack Obama is really “America’s Savior or Judas Goat” is more prescient than ever. So many people, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, feel deeply betrayed by Obama on many issues. From health care and a public option to gun control, the environment and energy, Obama has disappointed vast numbers of his supporters and abdicated many of his campaign promises. It seems that Americans – and perhaps African Americans in particular – are gradually awakening to dealing with Obama apart from being a symbol of change, but as a real politician, with personal weaknesses and actions that belie his lofty rhetoric. During the 2008 campaign, Andrew Jones was trying to get Americans to ask these very questions, even before that extraordinary historical inauguration day. He was encouraging everyone to be a mad Black voter - to pressure their elected representatives and to demand the changes they seek.

A remarkably far-sighted thinker, Andrew sought to stimulate a broad-based discussion with his ideas, so he sent copies of his book to a wide range of people on all sides of the political spectrum, including John McCain, Rush Limbaugh, Jesse Jackson, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and of course, Barack Obama. He didn’t really have an agenda; he simply wanted to cut through illusory public perceptions and elevate the dialogue around the potential and meaning of an Obama Presidency.

Barack Obama: America's Savior or Judas Goat
Diary of a Mad Black Voter

Andrew P. Jones © 2008. Black Earth Press, Johannesburg.

Andrew was a brilliant journalist and television producer, a truly insightful, talented and intelligent man. But the world has lost a great light, as sadly, Andrew committed suicide on October 20, 2010. I believe something has died in all of us who knew Andrew, and something deep and profound in our humanity. Andrew is not with us to help raise the right questions as we confront the paradoxes of Obama’s presidency and the challenges of a world reeling from oil spills, nuclear contamination, economic uncertainties and revolutionary conflicts.

I cannot explain in words what my extraordinary friend Andrew meant to me. Shortly after I first met him, Andrew scooped the South African media and international press agencies with an interview with Dr. Wouter Basson, detailing the CIA’s involvement with South Africa's apartheid chemical and biological warfare atrocities. Beyond his serious political views, Andrew was bright, funny and warm, a great pleasure to be with. He was a virtuoso violinist who played heavenly music daily for the pure joy of his art, and it was oddly beautiful to see a Black man so thoroughly entranced in the classical genre. On certain beautiful, clear sunny days Andrew would take me on short flights around Johannesburg, as he was thrilled to share his skill as an aviator after earning his pilot’s license. His son Cochise and my son Morris were the same age and played together and became childhood buddies. Andrew's wife Kubeshni was a very kind friend who worked together with me in designing media promotional material for the South African Gender Commission. Andrew and I worked on scripts and treatments for SABC (South Africa's main public broadcaster) and we spent hours in his home editing suite or at the Congress of South African Trade Union's (COSATU) media department. I knew Andrew for more than 10 years and I often sought his advice about virtually all of the personal challenges, achievements and setbacks I experienced.

In honor of Andrew, I would simply ask that people continue to confront the questions and paradoxes of Obama’s presidency, as these questions really represent are our own American paradoxes, our own dilemma in this rapidly transforming world. Our leaders are an extension our active involvement with government, and the voices of democracy are precious, whether in America or the Middle East or Tibet or Cote d’Ivoire or Zimbabwe. If a movement toward more critical, grass roots participation in politics were to manifest in 2012 and coming elections, I know my friend would be smiling, as if his cautionary message was received and understood. I would also ask that we open our hearts and extend loving compassion to everyone who may cross our life path, because we never know what someone may be struggling with, or what difference we personally can make.


Shocking and tragic end to activists' incredible life

by Brian Wright O’Connor

Andrew Philemon Jones didn’t just play the violin, he made it sing. Horsehair bow flying over the strings, resin rising like smoke, he’d walk around the room, coaxing notes and chords from the fragile shell that came at you in a wall of sound.

Throughout the performance, his eyes would peer out over the lacquered wood, gauging the effect of his solo symphony as his digits ran up and down the fingerboard. A wry smile completed the picture of Andrew in his glory, provoking with music before setting down his beloved violin to provoke you with ideas.

In all the years I knew Andrew, he was a gentle soul – angry at injustice towards humanity but possessing a great love towards humans. News of the manner of his death in South Africa came as a shock. In late October, after an argument with his estranged wife – the mother of their three young sons – Andrew left their office, returned with a handgun, and fired one bullet. The shot went through her shoulder. He pulled the trigger a second time. The gun jammed. Andrew killed himself after she fled from the room. He was 58 years old.

Andrew had battled demons but demons could hardly explain or condone such a violent end.

Friends and family who attended his funeral in Johannesburg, the city where Andrew had started a new life after leaving Boston in 1995, were similarly shocked. His wife, Kubeshni Govender Jones, was sufficiently recovered to attend the services, as were their boys – Cochise, Sicelo, and Ayanda.

Many Bostonians may remember Andrew as the driving force behind the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project (GRIP) – the movement for the secession of Boston’s African American neighborhoods into a new municipality. The 1986 referendum campaign attracted national attention and embarrassed the Flynn administration, which mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat a ballot question seen as a vote on the quality of City Hall’s governance of Boston’s black community.

The idea for black self-governance was not a rebuke, however, to the South Boston-born mayor who made racial reconciliation a theme of his administration. It came to Andrew during a stint as an ABC News field producer covering a town hall meeting in Vermont, where the notion of self-determination, deeply stamped into the character and landscape of rural New England, struck in Andrew a resonant chord.
It just seemed to Andrew like the right thing to do. “The right of a people to self-determination cannot be denied,” he often said. “It’s as American as apple pie.”

Working with urban planner Curtis Jones, Andrew launched the campaign in 1985. By the following year, the pair had come up with the name “Mandela” for the municipality in honor of the imprisoned South African leader.

Faced with the hope of self-rule on one hand and predicted financial disaster on the other, voters rejected the question by a 3-1 margin in the midst of national news coverage of the bid for black self-determination.

Andrew was “crushed” by the loss but acknowledged that GRIP should have been hatched at kitchen tables in Roxbury rather than over linen table cloths at the Harvard Faculty Club. Joyce Ferriabough, who ran the opposition campaign, respected Andrew’s passion but questioned his judgment. After hearing Andrew grumbling about Flynn’s “plantation politics,” Joyce confronted him.

“How do you want your ass-kicking?” she asked. “Over easy or well done?”

Andrew just laughed. “You had to hand it to him,” said Joyce. “He had a sense of humor.”

Andrew had first come to New England as a child of the segregated Creighton Court projects in Richmond, Va. – a violin prodigy plucked from the banks of the James River and sent by the program A Better Chance to the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was a varsity football player and wrestler and played in the school orchestra.

Andrew loved competition. He thrived on full contact – physical and political. In music, it probably explained his love of Beethoven, the sweeping contrasts and plunging moods of a score in constant struggle.

After graduating from Exeter in 1970, he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, but concert halls and recording studios couldn’t contain his searching mind and restless spirit. He got a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1982 and set out to use the media to change the world. Or, as a more seasoned Andrew put it later, “I switched from one form of entertainment to another.”

The inevitable clash occurred when ABC sent an executive to the network’s Prudential Tower suite to advise bureau employees, who had long complained about strange fibers in the office air, not to talk to the press about asbestos dust falling from the ceiling. Andrew laughed at the man in the suit and denounced the network in public.

The end of Andrew’s network producing career gave rise to a successful run as an agent provocateur seeding intellectual sedition through documentary films. In segments for public television stations around the country, including many first aired on Boston’s WGBH-TV, Andrew told the story of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, captured the growing pains of Russia in the first gasps of post-Soviet life, and conducted pioneering interviews with the reclusive leaders of North Korea.

He broadcast reports from Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Jordan, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Mexico and Zimbabwe. He picked up a New England Regional Emmy and scores of film awards along the way. His segments aired on NBC, Black Entertainment Television, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the PBS Network and Russia’s TASS News Agency.

When leaving Russia after his last trip to Moscow, security stopped him at the airport gate, suspecting that the black American with the Homey the Clown haircut had illicitly obtained the expensive, 19th century violin in his possession. A burly guard came to escort him to a private room for questioning.

Andrew held up his hand. “Now wait a minute, fellas,” he said. “Just give me a chance.” Andrew removed the instrument from its battered case and tightened up the bow. Cascading notes from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major spilled from the strings. Andrew smiled his smile. A crowd of spectators, drawn by the bravura performance, applauded. The apparatchiks shook his hand and let him board.

In all his travels, Andrew did not just report history, he participated in it as an unabashed advocate, unafraid to show his political stripes. Hours before filming the first salvo of bombs falling on Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991, he was playing violin as a guest musician with Iraq’s national orchestra.

In 1989, Andrew interviewed members of Manual Noriega’s government hours before Special Forces troops assaulted the Panama leader’s barracks headquarters. Leaving Panama City with his precious video, he came upon American soldiers engaged in a firefight and barely escaped strafing machine-gun bullets when they turned their weapons on his approaching vehicle.

In 1995, Andrew left behind his U.S. producing career and a teaching post at Northeastern to move to South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s homeland and a society busy re-inventing itself.

He was one of the first black men to earn a pilot’s license in the republic. On the media front, he turned his critical eye to the faltering promises of the ANC government, which brought political but not economic empowerment to the masses of poor blacks still living in townships. He produced programs for South African television and in the course of his work met Kubeshni Govender, a talented media professional who helped launch their own company, Black Earth Communications.

After marrying and starting a family, Andrew and Kubeshni ran a successful media and production business, interrupted at times by Andrew’s focus on a crusade to protect “reproductive choices for men.” His “Fathers Bill of Rights” campaign grew out of his own bitter experience as a father forced to pay child support for a daughter born in the 1980s whom the mother and the courts would not allow him to see.

Andrew’s decision to force the issue in a 2003 Massachusetts Probate Court appearance led to a 40-day sentence at the Suffolk County House of Corrections for refusing to pay arrearages. Typical of Andrew, jail-time proved to be more educational than punitive, opening up his eyes to the reality of the prison-industrial complex and the sometimes whimsical power of the law.

In the dedication to his provocative 2009 book, “Diary of a Mad Black Voter,” Andrew offered special thanks to the judge and prosecutor who put him behind bars “and ignored everything I had to say about freedom of choice, justice, liberty, father’s rights, the illness of my sons, the safety of my family, and dignity. For had you not done so I would have been cheated out of the most special 40 days and nights of my life.”

The book, a searing examination of the Barack Obama candidacy as either a redemptive opportunity for black America or a cruel illusion, was based in part on his perceptions of the ANC’s failure to bring real change to the struggling poor of South Africa. In writing the book, Andrew thought back to his cameo role playing boxing promoter Don King’s aide in the movie “Ali.”

Zelig-like, Andrew was in Maputo, Mozambique, at the time of the 2001 filming and found himself in front of the cameras.

“One night, Michael Mann the director decided to replace 30,000 black Mozambicans, who were supposed to be spectators watching the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ with cardboard cutouts flown in from Hollywood,” wrote Andrew.

“My thought was ‘This is deep.’ All these people replaced just like that by cardboard figurines that actually looked better than the people did in the final movie. So that’s when it hit me that all of us regular people – black, white, yellow, whatever – walk a tightrope between what is real and what isn’t in our media-drive society. And at any time ‘mediarchical’ forces can replace any of us with cardboard cutouts.”

Andrew struggled against forces most people took for granted. He questioned everything.

Reflecting on Andrew’s life, Kubeshni recalled her husband’s belief in “Gaia,” the concept of Earth as a living organism on which mankind has become a threatening rather than benign and integrated presence. “Despite his reverence of Gaia – the living spirit of the planet – he came to believe that his way in life was to fight for everything all the time,” she wrote.

“In adopting this stance, he missed out on the blessings that were his from the start. I pray that our boys are always able to pause and still their emotional beings long enough to hear the tone of the universe, to realize the sound of peace and love that we are born with despite the trials that life will bring us.”

The last major work of Andrew’s long career as a political and media gadfly was a feature film completed just weeks before his death. The final scene was shot in the same cemetery where his body was cremated.

The film left Andrew frustrated because he had no luck finding a distributor willing to release it.

That failure came after he had come close to fulfilling a long-held dream of media self-determination. Black Earth Communications had won a valuable satellite TV license from the Botswana Telecommunications Authority to launch Black Entertainment Satellite Television.

But financing troubles scuttled the effort. “Andrew,” said a friend, “was a visionary but not a businessman.”

Meanwhile, Andrew’s marriage had faltered.

Darkness closed in. The end came after Andrew penned a final message.

“The illusion of death is that it’s final,” he wrote. “It isn’t. There is life after death. Life’s greatest illusion is that the conscious mind resides inside the body. It doesn’t. The truth is that we are avatars.”

If so, then Andrew is still playing that violin, sawing out notes for heavenly hosts, mortals, and avatars alike, his eyes peering across the strings, provoking, searching, and ever restless.

Brian Wright O'Connor's article was reprinted in its entirety from the Bay State Banner .