Life Abroad

Africa's Day In Calgary (3)

Micki, my new driver and friend takes me to her mum’s place for a late breakfast. Her mother Giselle, a retired nurse is so full of good humour and life, she gives me a warm welcome like she’s known me all her life. Micky tells her about the kid and her third world question. Giselle finds it very amusing, “Poor kid, probably thinking Africa is on another planet and you guys must have travelled in a space ship to get here…in my days as a child, things were even worse, all we knew about Africa were the animals…”

On the way to our next engagement, Micki becomes Michelle Honkanen, a Phd student at York University in Toronto. She is also a strict vegetarian, a lover of African music and an astute scholar of things spiritual. We connect on some issues including non-materialism, environmental protection and the brotherhood and equality of humanity. She is addicted to hiking and asks me to join her later in the day to walk up a reserve called Nose Hill.

Our second date for the day goes as perfect as can be prompting a gush from Dawodu, “Perhaps you and Kwasi should form a team playing poetry, music and drums all over North America”.

Kwasi has a drum workshop for kids starting at 8pm and invites me to come along but I choose to take Micki up on her invitation. First, we go to Giselle’s place to pick up some gear then head out for Nose Hill Park. She leads the way up the hills, we climb and descend several peaks in the next three hours and spend a further two hours talking of this and that at a serene spot as the day grew dark. At 12 am we decide to leave and lose our way several times before finding the car park. We are both very hungry so we share a Chinese food pack.

Micki’s time with me is almost up. She is going cross-country hiking with her father tomorrow and I will be given a new driver. I will miss her.

Thursday, August 15

We do our biggest school today. Five hunded-plus kids in a school gym all gorgeously dressed for the first day of school. Glenda McLeod, a blonde energy pack and the school’s music teacher leads the way with a song rendered in corrupted Yoruba backed by five of her white female colleagues on drums. We go through our usual stories and songs and get 100 percent audience participation. The hall reverberates with African music (It’s funny how North Americans are trying to bring Africa into the classroom while educationists in many parts of Africa are trying to keep it away). You can feel the overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement among both teachers and students as we do our job and everything really goes well, far beyond our expectations. We are presented the school pin as a token of appreciation and get to leave our signatures on the wall of the school library.

Glenda sees us off with effusive thanks and then, “You have touched more lives here than you can imagine, our single female teachers are asking if you guys are also single…”

Kwasi and I exchange glances of fulfillment.

This evening marks the commencement of the other and more visible aspect of the festival, the music concerts. Mona Mingole, a Camerounian powerhouse resident of Montreal gives an electrifying performance at a theme bar and had everyone dancing for hours. Except me, I guess, until Glenda, our friend from the school (and as I am to find out later, also one of the organizers of the festival) came at me with a dazzling smile. I show her a few fancy dance steps and then the spirit catches on and I loosen up. Mona has that effect on you, she taunts her audience, dares you not to get into the groove and seems on top of her act and in control. It’s a long night that ends in hot sweaty hugs and hearty laughter.

Friday, August 16

It’s the last day of the literary/art portion of Afrikadey! 2002. We round off our road show in a fitting finale, performing for five kids in a small but well furnished and appropriately decorated kiddies playroom. This is, by far, the smallest audience we have had to face and rather than feel depressed, we are happy for the opportunity to take the kids on – one on one. We try out all the things we couldn’t do with the other kids. I even get to dance in a circle with the kids. It may not qualify as our most perfect date but it is the most enjoyable. It is a great feeling to be able to throw away all your pretentions and liberate the little child within. Working with children always leaves me feeling like a reborn individual. It has been six days of a hectic schedule but nothing can take the place of this sensation of achievement. There is a little deficiency in North American education. Part of that gap is slowly being filled in the minds of the kids and adults we have met over the week.

The evening comes alive with another concert headlined by South Africa’s Lorraine Klassen. I spend a quiet night in my hotel room.

Saturday, August 17

Thinking my job at Afrikadey! 2002 is over, I pack my cameras and head for Prince’s Island Park where the grand finale of the festival opens at 10am and runs all day featuring, amongst others, Ethiopia’s Aster Aweke, Paris-based Zairean superstar, Diblo Dibala and Angelique Kidjo.

I join the thousands of festival addicts enjoying a clean bright day, listening to good African music, ducking from one food tent to another, tasting all kinds of cuisine, Carribean to Continental or just picking up art pieces at the art and craft tents. I bump into several friends and fans I made during the week especially many of those who had watched me at the Glenbow museum almost a week ago. And yes, my ardent fan, Paul, is there too and he has brought his wife and daughter to meet an African poet whose work he hasn’t even heard. A man with such blind faith!

I spend some time with music teacher, Glenda who thinks the world of Africa and her cultures, “I just love everything African…I wish to sing your songs just like you and I try to play the drums and dance like a real African”.

“So what do you think of the community outreach programme?” I ask as I capture her lovely animated face on my camcorder.

“Afrikadey! Has always been mainly about music but this year’s effort to reach school kids with poetry, stories and songs has made a great impression and we should do more of this in the future” Then she goes ahead and, sticking out her ample chest proudly lunges into her corrupted Yoruba song, “E kaabo alaafia, Ase, Ase”.

And she does not even know what it all means “Well, I saw it in my music notation book and I have been singing it for long”, she says.

Tunde Dawodu cuts short my fun with an invitation to go on stage and co-MC the unfolding concert which turns out to be a fortunate move because it leads me to leggy, graceful and attractive Emma Blacker, the MC who is originally from Ghana and possesses the kind of voice that makes you want to sit down and listen to her talk for hours. We connect and, beyond the electrifying performances, she becomes my story of the day. The concert is brought to a shattering climax by Angelique Kidjo whose stagecraft is a statement in perfection. Afrikadey! still has one more event to go, the night party to end it all, where reggae giants Third World and Dibblo Dibala are billed to perform.

Due to a logistic mix up, the two acts show up late and Beautiful Nubia (my alter ego) is called up to do an impromptu acoustic session of eight songs. The scheduled artistes eventually arrive and Diblo takes over. I catch up with Glenda. She does everything to make me feel comfortable and, just as I am beginning to think here is my date for the evening, her husband walks up and introduces himself (or maybe she introduces him) Anyway, he keeps barging in anytime I am alone with his wife which starts to unnerve me. Luckily, my MC friend Emma arrives soon. We get together and she introduces her white friend, Katherine, a handsome lady with a transparent, shy smile.

Diblo is heating up the hall with his soukous and his half-naked girls are thrusting their ample hips at everyone and daring men to come on stage and do an erotic no – holds -barred dance with them.

I want to dance with Emma. Emma urges me to dance with her friend. In this tug of war, the set changes and Third World’s searing rhythms itch my feet .I agree to lead this stiff white girl to the floor. I tell a joke, she laughs, I hold her close and tell her to forget everyone else, close her eyes and let the music move her. She complies meekly. We dance, we drift off into our own little island. The music stops but we are still moving. I open my eyes and look into Katherine’s animated face, she is smiling. I smile too. I feel a connection, I have just found another friend. This is the summary of my one week in Calgary: connecting with people and sharing with them my love for my continent and culture.

Sunday, August 18

My departure date, but I still have some time with Dawodu who tells of how Afrikadey! evolved, “It was after we had handled this successful show for Fela, I felt that if we could accomplish a huge undertaking like Fela then we might as well start a festival which was badly needed anyway because Africa is so poorly represented and understood here”

On how artistes are selected for the festival he says, “We try to bring artistes representing all shades of African culture from as many parts of Africa as possible. We want only artistes who reflect Africa positively in their music and message, no R&B or pop, the North American audience is tired of that, when they come to our festival, they want to see and hear Africa.”

Time up. I have only one hour to make my flight back to Toronto. I think there is a lot to be said for Afrikadey! 2002. It is hard for me to disregard the strong impressions made on me by white Canadians I met who clearly and seemingly sincerely wish to know more about the good aspects of African life. Born and raised in a mass-hysteric, collective-paranoiac society of panic and hypocrisy which teaches its kids only about itself and paints other cultures poorly (if at all), many of these people have come to see that there is more to Africa than what is displayed daily on their TV as a nation of beggars, corrupt, evil leaders and warring idiots. They have come to see that, beyond the erotic waist-wiggling and the passionate drumming, there is a soul, a spirituality and a heightened awareness of the universe and man’s special place in it, possessed by Africans.

They are the memory I take away with me, these pale-skinned children of the Almighty flailing away at foreign drums, dancing slightly off-beat to the pulsating rhythm of an ageless, oft misrepresented continent. In Calgary, for at least one week, Africa became a desirable treasure house next door.

Greying Dawodu gets me to the airport just on time. Waiting at the lobby is my friend David with a forlorn look on his face “It was good meeting and knowing you man, gonna miss you ” he says.

I’ll miss you too, brother. But I have to run now, they say I am the only passenger yet to board and they won’t wait any longer. I am not Michael Jackson you know…

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