Aspen embraces Africa |

Aspen embraces Africa

Stewart Oksenhorn
Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy composed, with Wynton Marsalis, the musical piece Congo Square, to be performed this week at the Benedict Music Tent. (Frank Stewart)

In “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a new novel by Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Olanna, a well-to-do businesswoman from the Igbo tribe, is cooking soup, and reassuring her house boy, Ugwu, that they are safe from the Nigerian soldiers seeking reprisal against the independence-minded Igbo. As she frets over the soup, there comes a sound – boom-boom-boom – of advancing military. Odenigbo, the master of the house, calmly says the family should plan on leaving that day. Seconds later, a town official drives up to the house, screaming that the “federals” have entered, and Odenigbo must evacuate. A few seconds more, and Odenigbo and Olanna have packed their car – with their daughter and the half-cooked soup – and are headed hours away to the village where Odenigbo was raised.

In a matter of minutes, the family has gone from preparing a meal to fleeing their home. The fictional scene seems to capture something about Africa – how trouble is heightened there, how security is delicate, how the routine of normal life is only a step from disaster. No society is blessed with an absence of war, poverty, disease and corruption, but in today’s Africa, seemingly ordinary problems can carry the weight of emergency, and the threat of tragedy seems to loom over each day.Or, as rock star Bono puts it in the current edition of Vanity Fair, speaking of the health crisis in Africa: “Diarrhea may be inconvenient in our house, but it’s not a death sentence.”After some decades of relative apathy on the part of the West, Africa has at least gotten the world’s attention. The Vanity Fair issue is devoted entirely to the continent; for the first time in the magazine’s history, a guest editor – Bono, who has tirelessly championed the cause of debt forgiveness – has been employed. “Instant Karma,” the latest in a line of benefit CDs, raises funds for Amnesty International’s effort to cease the ethnic killings in the Darfur region of Sudan; the CD features high-profile musicians – Aerosmith, Green Day, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, and Bono’s band, U2 – performing the songs of John Lennon. And African creativity is getting worldwide recognition. In 2005, “Tsotsi,” a South African film about gang life in Johannesburg’s black townships, earned the Oscar for best foreign-language film, the first movie from Africa so honored in two decades. Earlier this month, Adichie earned England’s prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, given to a female novelist writing in the English language, for “Half of a Yellow Moon.” A Vanity Fair piece heralds the arrival of an African Literary Renaissance.Aspen is on the front edge of this immersion in African culture. This summer’s cultural season offers opportunities to absorb a wealth of African stories and sounds. The burst of activity starts with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, which announced months ago that the theme of its Aspen Summer Words conference would be the writings of Africa. Summer Words, Sunday through Thursday, June 24-28, brings to Aspen six African authors, including Chimamanda, and the two recipients of the Aspen Prize for Literature: Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright and poet; and Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, whose politically oriented writings have earned him public praise and official condemnation.

Adding music to the mix, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Festival features Benin-born singer-activist Angélique Kidjo Saturday, June 23. On Tuesday, June 26, Wynton Marsalis conducts the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Ghanaian percussion ensemble Odadaa! in a performance of “Congo Square” at the Benedict Music Tent. The piece, co-composed by Marsalis and Ghana’s Yacub Addy, explores the connection between West Africa and New Orleans. Appearing at Belly Up this summer are Malian singer-guitarist Habib Koité (Monday, June 25); Nigerian Femi Kuti, son of the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti (July 30); and South African singer-poet Vusi Mahlasela (Aug. 7). Further ahead, the club has Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour (Dec. 3). The Snowmass Free Concert series has Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (Aug. 9).On the big screen, Aspen Film is presenting, in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival “The Devil Came on Horseback,” a documentary of the Darfur killings as seen through the eyes of a former U.S. Marine, July 6. SummerFilms, a series co-presented by Aspen Film and the Aspen Music Festival, features the South African film “U-Carmen,” an adaptation of the opera “Carmen,” July 15-16.

To appear as more than a blip on the West’s radar, however, is not necessarily a cause for celebration among Africans. For one thing, the world has been notoriously fickle, responding in times of extreme need then turning its head once its appetite for good deeds has been filled.”It seems a bit fashionable at the moment,” said Adichie of the current wave of attention, “and part of me is concerned because all fashions are passing things.”But even a sustained focus on Africa is a mixed bag, because of the nature of the attention the continent attracts. After the fall of colonialism in the 1960s, there was an optimism “that these new countries would become major players, equal players. It was a kind of attention that was more respectful,” said Adichie, who splits her time between Nigeria and the U.S., where she has been a student for the past decade.As a continent, Africa is now too often seen as a basket case, with all 53 countries, 800 million people and countless ethnicities lumped into one big basket filled with holes. “It’s now an Africa that one needs to pity,” rued Adichie. “They do need help, of course. But what bothers me is Africa is seen solely as a place needing help. Lots of countries need help; look at the countries of Europe after World War II.”It’s what kind of help Africa needs. It’s about asking Africa what it needs.”

Maybe the place to start is by showcasing the best of what Africa has to offer – exactly what Aspen’s art organizations are doing this summer. Three of the writers participating in Aspen Summer Words are prominently mentioned in the Vanity Fair story on African literature. The musicians coming to town represent the continent’s superstars. Collectively, the artists address African woes: “Half of a Yellow Sun” is set around a bloody civil war; Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars formed in the miserable setting of a refugee camp in Guinea. But they come from a perspective of hopefulness, unpersuaded by the outsider’s grim views of their countries. Adichie’s characters struggle to find dignity; the Refugee All Stars’ reggae-derived sound is uplifting, often jubilant. A centerpiece of the Vanity Fair issue is an essay by Kenyan Binyavanga “Binj” Wainaina (another Summer Words speaker), extolling the enormous social, political and economic advances made by his country, Kenya.”I find so much hope in Chimamanda’s writing, Binj’s writing,” said Aspen Writers’ Foundation executive director Lisa Consiglio. “Binj’s article on Kenya – his perspective is, I know the whole continent has been knocked down, but he wants to point out the hope and beauty. He doesn’t want people, every time they open a newspaper or magazine or see a film, to see only the dark side.”Finding the positive side of Africa has been easy for Andy Hanson. The Aspen resident has turned his time in the Peace Corps in Liberia decades ago to an avid interest in African culture. A board member with Friends of Africa International, a local organization that distributes funds to causes on the continent, he has advised the Writers’ Foundation in programming its conference, and advocates for African-related events locally, with a specialty in music.To Hanson, what Africa lacks in wealth and infrastructure is more than made up for in matters of the heart and spirit. “There’s a sense of family in Africa that’s missing in our culture,” said Hanson, who attended Mali’s Festival in the Desert (a subject of another Vanity Fair essay) last year. “For me, what African culture has is – I hate to use primitive, but there’s something very basic about African life that’s missing in America.”

Hanson also subscribes to the belief that out of adversity comes strong, committed art. African music, he said, “isn’t about fun. Fela [Kuti] was involved in politics. Habib is involved in storytelling; he’s a griot, an inhabiter of stories from the past. Music weaves its way in and out of all subjects – politics, women, arguing about land. It’s more elemental there. It’s basic. Basic to breathing.”What Hanson observes, what Adichie emphasizes, what Consiglio hopes to present in the Summer Words conference, is the same thing – the fullness of African life. That whole picture – the suffering and the optimism, the problems and the striving to overcome them – is what makes great art. That’s just as true in New Orleans, São Paulo and Belfast as it is in Timbuktu.”If you’re true to yourself, your art, your audience, your country, your culture, people are going to see all the sides of it,” said Consiglio. “I don’t think any of these authors come to the table trying to trick their readers. They’re loyal to the truth. And these cultures have a message of hope – that you can do anything you want, if you don’t back down from the truth, what you know to be true.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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