洋溢生命力的非洲 | Life-affirming Africa
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 3:21pm on 21st November 2017
Sona Jobarteh playing the kora and band at City Hall, Hong Kong
The Master Musicians of Jajouka answering questions after their concert at City Hall, 2017
Sona Jobarteh demonstrating the kora at HK01 Space in Wan Chai
(Please scroll down for English version)
by John Batten
Of my travel memories, one of the coldest is of a bus trip over the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The rickety bus had large gaps in its floor and the icy winds and snow swirled through and around the cabin. Then, we stopped at a mountain village just before sunset and the bus passengers joined the villagers on makeshift trestle tables under roadside trees and were served harira, a thick lentil and tomato soup, to break the Ramadan fast. A distant bell signaled that the sun had set and we tucked into a shared meal: the delicious body warming soup slowly replacing the cold of the journey, and the comforting feeling of being in a safe roadside station, a timeless caravanserai.
It was winter 1991; the first Gulf War was being battled in Kuwait and Iraq, and SCUD missiles were regularly being launched by Iraq on Saudi Arabia and Israel. Although Morocco was far from the war, tourists had stopped coming and there was visible apprehension on the streets. Only a week before in Fes, that wonderful medieval city of labyrinthine passageways, a hotel had been fire-bombed, killing 20 tourists. Even the local rapacious touts, infamous for their annoying cajoling to be your guide, sell you a carpet, or provide any service a tourist may not need, kept their distance. They had been warned: don’t be seen with foreigners, it might arouse trouble.
We hear, often, about the problems the current world is in. But history indicates otherwise: the world is always an uneasy flux of battles, whether it is personal, economic, political, military, ideological, civil, religious, territorial, environmental or inter-generational. The humanist Steven Pinker in his history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that our current era could possibly be the most peaceful.
And, it was only a short time ago that the 1986 ‘people power’ revolution in The Philippines overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, trigging a wave of similar protests and change worldwide. The fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, the return of democracy and freedom of speech in Eastern Europe, and the breakup of the Soviet Union resulting in a swathe of newly independent Central Asian nations. Even the 1989 student-initiated protests in China that ended in the disastrous Beijing massacre forced the country’s economic liberalization resulting in millions emerging from poverty. And in Africa, relative stability is experienced for the first time in generations after the ending of civil wars in Liberia, Angola and Mozambique, the peaceful abolition of apartheid in South Africa and strict government control in Rwanda after the terror of inter-tribal ethnic-cleansing.
If the world feels more dangerous than previous periods of time, it could be because our experiences are limited and memory of history is short and the recent proliferation of information on the Internet allows too-easy dissemination of bad news supported by the ‘evidence’ of graphic images and videos. This ‘reality’ is easily created by anyone using social media. Even when there is no personal involvement, such bad news - which should only be appreciated as any other received knowledge (such as that read in a book) - instead becomes a toxic shared experience, exaggerated by reports of the ‘trending’ of a story or the number of ‘shares’ generated. These are arbitrary numbers reflecting nothing of the present state of the world.
The recently concluded World Cultures Festival organized yearly by the Leisure & Cultural Services Department focused this year on Africa. This was timely as Africa is a sizable part of the world rarely considered in Hong Kong and the programming was a fresh variety of dance, opera, theatre, and musical performances. From the Rif Mountains near the Mediterranean (well north of the Atlas Mountains) in Morocco, The Master Musicians of Jajouka played a concert of their hypnotic, trance-inducing Sufi music. This rhythmic music was traditionally played in the courts of Moroccan kings and continues still at religious festivals to induce a feeling of being close to God. Also heard at the festival was a concert by Sona Jobarteh and her band playing the music of West Africa, traditionally only played by the griot, hereditary musicians. Jobarteh is a remarkable pioneer as the first woman to play the complex kora, a 21-string instrument that emits a harp-like sound and is played with both thumbs and first fingers and traditionally only by men.
In one of the arranged talks during the festival, Jobarteh explained that it was not sexism that excluded women playing griot music, but because of ancient roles when tribes hunted for food and music was only played by male hunters to “give back to the forest and appease the spirits when hunting and killing animals. Women, as givers of life, should not be associated with killing, so traditionally they have not been musicians.” But, Jobarteh said, music reflects society and these roles are changing in the modern world.
Wong Chuen-fung, Chair of Music at Macalester College in the USA, writes that with globalization of music and worldwide concert performances “…Sufi-styled global pop songs have blurred the differences between the sacred and the secular, the private and the public. Yet what musicians such as the Jajouka masters have achieved is the creation of a musical space that invites pluralist devotional pursuits and spiritual journeys across ethnicities and other pre-modern boundaries.” These two concerts did exactly that – an opportune, real, and life-affirming message from Africa.
This opinion piece was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly on 25 November 2017