Monday, August 14, 2017

Roma's "Zimbabwe" Song

Roma, a Tanzanian composer and singer, has become a household name in Tanzania, albeit controversial, on account of his compositions. His latest song, "Zimbabwe," has just been released to much acclaim, but also reservations. It is a charged piece that is bound to raise sentiments and maybe ruffle a few feathers.

"Zimbabwe," is a music video that brings up seemingly disconnected and random images and references incorporating ideas, sentiments, and pleas. Clad in flowing robes, like a prophet, Roma traverses an expansive landscape proclaiming his message, which sounds like an apocalypse. I think of Yeats's vision--in "The Second Coming"--of a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, but Roma's vision is not entirely dark and ominous.

The plight of prophets is often uncertain and Roma's is no exception. He has experienced rejection, censure and even kidnapping, which is a key theme, if not the impetus, of his "Zimbabwe" song. A prophet can be rejected, becoming a voice crying in the wilderness. In this video, Roma appears in the wilderness much of the time, but he has a sizable following, heading with him towards the distant horizon beyond which, presumably, Zimbabwe lies.

I have stated that this song pulls together seemingly disparate and random ideas, sentiments, and references, but there is method in the madness. Running through the song is a mood, not of celebration or joy, but sadness, which is sustained by the repetitive beat of soulful sounds. The sadness and somber feeling is conveyed by references to kidnappers and their evil deeds, and is reflected in the faces of the people and accentuated by the image of a crying child. The randomness of images and references can also be read as a mirror or an oblique but caustic commentary on, or indictment of, the political system of today's Tanzania, which critics berate for what they consider its erratic and impulsive modus operandi.

Roma's song exemplifies Cleanth Brook's idea that the language of poetry is the language of paradox. The very image of Zimbabwe is paradoxical. Given the global, media-driven image of Zimbabwe as dismal and dysfunctional, Roma's song appears to present Zimbabwe as the Promised Land. We see Roma leading a multitude across the wilderness, in an exodus towards this Promised Land, in the manner of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament.

On the other hand, the image of Zimbabwe in this song can also be interpreted as bitterly ironic, with its suggestion that one is much better off being in Zimbabwe than in Tanzania. Although this might spark contention among Tanzanians, my interpretation shows how Roma turns the negative image of Zimbabwe on its head, essentially signifying upon the media-driven stereotype I have mentioned. Roma is a kind of trickster figure, driven to upsetting conventional perceptions and exposing the ambiguity of things.

The juxtaposition of Zimbabwe and Tanzania in the song can be further deconstructed. We can say that the song implies that Tanzania is deteriorating so fast that we had better escape to Zimbabwe before it is too late. This interpretation, needless to say, is not likely to please many Tanzanians. But I am not claiming that this is what the poem says. My reading of it might, in fact, be contested by other readings, which is the norm in the field of literary interpretation.

If we view the notion of paradox in the broad terms outlined by Brooks, Roma's song is packed with paradoxes. These manifest themselves not only in the image of Zimbabwe but in other ways as well, such as the image of the old African lady playing the piano. I doubt if there is any Tanzanian who associates old African ladies with piano playing. Yet, if we take a historical and broad view, we find that African women, especially old women, have been prime carriers of our artistic heritage--storytelling, music, and song. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for example, portrays a mother who tells stories to her children. In East Africa, there is a long tradition of female poets and singers, such as Mwana Kupona, Siti binti Saad, Bi Kidude and Shakila Said. The image of Roma's old woman playing the piano is not as far-fetched as it appears.

The discourse of Rama's song is propelled as well by both significant hints and direct statements. Among the hints are those relating to kidnapping and the experience of captivity. Among the direct statements is the challenge to the unnamed authority figures to lay down their guns and engage in debate propelled by reasons. In the context of the growing belief that Tanzania's political system is becoming dictatorial, the song's statement is a direct indictment of that reality.

In generic terms, "Zimbabwe" can be read as the continuation of the tradition of African prison poetry which includes poems such as Liongo Fumo's "Wimbo wa Saada," and Abdilatif Abdalla's Sauti ya Dhiki, from the Swahili tradition, as well as Dennis Brutus's Letters to Martha and A Simple Lust.

Following Brooks's warning against what he called "the heresy of paraphrase," I will say that Roma's song, like any work of literature, speaks for itself. No interpretation will adequately capture its complexity, nuances and its capacity to generate meanings, which is limitless. For me, however, this song, unsettling as it is, remains timely, relevant, and indispensable. It is a mix of disturbing sentiments and images made palatable, nevertheless, by melodious and irresistible music that will endure in people's memory for a long time. I feel it has the makings of a classic.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Thank You Message From Global Minnesota

On July 10, I mentioned on this blog that I had been invited to speak at Global Minnesota. I did make the presentation and described it on my Swahili blog. Subsequently, I have received a letter of appreciation from Global Minnesota, which says:

Dear Dr. Mbele,

On behalf of Global Minnesota, I would like to thank you for speaking at the Global Conversations program on "African Folktales to Contemporary Authors" at the Minneapolis Central Library on July 12.

Your extensive knowledge and skillful storytelling captured and kept our audience's attention throughout the program. The program was both informative and entertaining, and the feedback we received from the attendees and our partners was extremely positive.

We were also so pleased that you brought your daughters to the program and rekindled an old MIC/Global Minnesota connection.

Thank you for partnering with us on this program and helping us in our mission to bring greater awareness and appreciation of African culture to the general public in Minnesota. We look forward to engaging with you again on future Global Minnesota programs!

I can only say that I am always ready and happy to share whatever knowledge I have that people want me to share with them. I have a high regard for Global Minnesota. I got to know about it when my daughter Assumpta worked there as alluded to in the letter above. I look forward to future collaboration.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Forthcoming Presentation to Global Minnesota

I have been invited by Global Minnesota to give a presentation on African verbal art on July 12.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Global Conversations: African Folktales to Contemporary Authors

JULY 12 @ 6:00 PM CDT / Free

From ancient oral traditions to contemporary literature, African stories reflect wisdom, cultural identities, and social values developed over countless generations. Join us, St. Olaf College Associate Professor Joseph Mbele, and Augsburg College Associate Professor Mzenga Wanyama for an exploration of how these stories find expression today, both in Africa and in the African diaspora.

Joseph Mbele, Associate Professor of English at St. Olaf College, is a folklorist and author. His writings, including Matengo Folktales, illuminate the underlying values that shape cultures. Dr. Mbele has done fieldwork in Kenya, Tanzania, and the U.S., and has given lectures and presented conference papers in Canada, Finland, India, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the U.S. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and before coming to St. Olaf in 1990 to teach post-colonial and third-world literature, he taught in the Literature Department at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Over the years, he has taught courses such as Swahili Literature, Theory of Literature, African Literature, Sociology of Literature, Postcolonial and Third World Literature, The Epic, and African-American Literature.

Mzenga Aggrey Wanyama, Associate Professor of English at Augsburg College, was born and raised in Kenya where he received his bachelor’s of education and master’s degrees from the University of Nairobi and then taught English language and literature in Kenyan High schools and at Kenyatta University. In the United States, he had a two-year stint in the graduate program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before attending the University of Minnesota where he earned a Ph.D. in English. Mzenga also worked as an Assistant Professor of English at St. Cloud State University where he taught courses in literature and writing. His areas of focus are Postcolonial theory and literature and African American literary history.

Presented in partnership with the Friends of the Minneapolis Central Library.

Global Conversations: African Folktales to Contemporary Authors
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
6:00 PM

Friday, July 7, 2017

My Talk at Winona State University

On 27 June, I visited Winona State University, to give a talk I had mentioned on this blog. I spoke about Africans and African Americans, highlighting issues and challenges that have faced them historically, and which continue to influence their relationships.

I started with a discussion of the centrality of Africa as the cradle of the human race, the place where language, technology, and literature originated and evolved. The current division between Africans and African Americans did not exist then. It was brought about, primarily, by the Atlantic slave trade, which resulted in the two populations undergoing separate histories. That is the origin of the vexed relationship we witness today between Africans and African Americans.

Fortunately, I have learned about these problems over the years through my involvement with Pan African organizations in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. During my talk, I referred to what I wrote in a blog post regarding misconceptions and stereotypes that Africans and African Americans hold about one another.

I emphasized that Africans and African Americans need to learn about each other's history. Africans need to learn about the African American experience, from the time of slavery, through the civil rights era, to the present time. Likewise, African Americans need to learn about the experience of Africans especially regarding the slave trade, colonialism and the struggle against it, and neo-colonialism.

Africans and African Americans need to learn about the struggles that have defined the black experience in Africa and in the Diaspora, manifested in movements such as Pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement. Without this serious and enduring effort, the relations between Africans and African Americans will continue to be unnecessarily problematical.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Conversation With Patrick Hemingway

Today, I called Patrick Hemingway, largely to wish him a happy birthday, which was June 28. I called him on that day, in the evening, but failed to reach him. Today I was lucky. As usual Carol received the call and called Patrick to the phone.

First I greeted him in the proper Tanzanian way, "Shikamoo." He responded in his usual jovial manners, and when I told him "Happy Birthday," he was pleasantly surprised that I remembered the day. I told him that the date is imprinted in my mind and makes me recall my visit to the Kansas City home where he was born.

As usual, we started talking about books. Patrick mentioned a book by an Israeli writer, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and wondered whether I knew about it. I told him I didn't, and he talked about it in glowing terms. He then asked if I had read the Ghanaian novel, Homegoing, winner of the 2017 Pen/Hemingway Prize. I told him I had not read it, but had recently received a copy, since I am going to teach it in a summer course on African Literature. He said he liked it very much.

I told Patrick that I was recently in Baltimore, and had bought, in a nearby town, a new book on Hemingway, which dwelt on his career in espionage. I said that whenever I go into a bookstore, I first look at the Hemingway section. He said he does the same. He asked for the title of the book, but I did not have it with me. He asked me to tell him about it after I finish reading it, so he could determine its worth.

I have the sense, from my numerous conversations with Patrick, that he is keenly aware of the shortcomings of writers on Hemingway, even reputable researchers. On the theme of Hemingway and espionage, he shared with me some interesting facts. He said, for example, that Hemingway took him and his young brother on board his boat, which he used to hunt for German submarines in the Caribbean Sea.

I told Patrick that I knew about this boat, called Pilar, but didn't know that his father had taken him and Gregory on board. Patrick also gave me a broader picture of what was going on at that time. The German submarines were active on the eastern side of the USA, seeking to sink oil tankers destined for Europe. Patrick told me this was called Operation Drumbeat. He also talked about what was going on in the Pacific at the time, and in Spain, when Hemingway was there. His remarks inspired me to read the book I had told him about, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, by Nicholas Reynolds.

We talked about Hemingway's relationship to folklore. I don't recall how we got into this, but Patrick noted that Hemingway owned The Golden Bough, and I mentioned Hemingway's short story, "The Good Lion," which imitates the narrative technique of a folktale. I said that in teaching my course on Hemingway in East Africa, I had discussed this tale as an example of Hemingway's appropriation of folklore.

I told Patrick that I want to write a book on Hemingway and Africa, which would project my perspective which he knows very well, from our phone conversations and the documentary film, Papa's Shadow. Patrick said he will be waiting to read the book, adding that he was flattered that I chose to study Hemingway, when I could have chosen another writer. That is the Patrick I know, always unassuming and big-hearted.

Monday, June 26, 2017

An Invitation to Winona State University

In early March, this year, I received a message from Mr. Alexander Hines, director of Inclusion and Diversity at Winona State University, asking whether I would be willing to go and give a presentation on Africans and African Americans, with a focus on the cultural dimension.

Mr. Hines and I have known each other for about fifteen years, and I am both humbled and gratified by how much he appreciates my work. I accepted the invitation and will be speaking tomorrow, June 27. My talk will be part of the annual HOPE Academy program held in the summer.

This is the third time Mr. Hines has invited me. The first time, I discussed my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. The second time, I dwelt on the educational function of African folktales, focusing on Matengo Folktales, as I reported on my Swahili blog.

The topic for tomorrow's talk--the relationship between Africans and African Americans--is vexed, intriguing, and frustrating, not only to me but to others across the ages. It is problematical and lends itself to responses ranging from romantic illusions to blatant stereotypes.

In my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, I make some remarks highlighting the differences between Africans and African Americans. I hope to do the same during my talk tomorrow. If I can inspire critical reflection on both the illusions and the stereotypes, I will be pleased.