Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bouncing Cats, A New Film by Nabil Elderkin, Shows How Hip-Hop Empowers Lives Across the Globe (Huffington Post)

Bouncing Cats is a documentary film shot and directed by Nabil Elderkin that tells the powerful story of Abramz Tekya, the organization he founded, and hip-hop pioneer Richard "Crazy Legs" Colon of the legendary Rock Steady Crew's trip to Uganda.  Elderkin follows the legendary B-Boy and several members of his crew as they travel to Uganda to teach breakdancing to the youth of urban Kampala (Uganda's capital city) and the war-torn northern region of the country.  While the B-Boys in Uganda are exhilarated to have Crazy Legs come to their hometown, the trip has an equally galvanizing effect on Crazy Legs and his life.

Abramz Tekya started Breakdance Project Uganda in 2006 as a means to empower himself and those around him to initiate social change.  Offering free dance classes twice a week, hip-hop is the tool Abramz uses to bring people into the organization, but he aims to do much more than teach people how to dance, "We're a hip-hop organization, but we're not just promoting hip-hop culture.  We're using hip-hop culture to empower people to help people.  That's why when people come to our program we usually try to help them discover themselves, get to know more about them instead of just being b-boys or b-girls.  So we realize we want to be computer literate.  People want to be writers, photographers, videographers, but they don't have the opportunity, so when they come to us, as an organization we try to see how we can use our influence or connections to help them get to their dreams.  So some people have become computer literate, or get school fees to go back to school, so there's a lot going on." 

Nabil Elderkin was first introduced to Abramz and BPU through a mutual friend working for OXFAM in Northern Uganda.  He was traveling through the region documenting the conflict areas with his camera.  Having shot and directed music videos for hip-hop artists such as The Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, and K'Naan, he was pointed in the direction of Kampala where he met Abramz.  He was amazed by what he saw and committed to come back to document the amazing work Abramz was doing.  He pitched the idea to Red Bull who eventually produced the film and connected Crazy Legs with the project.

"I've been signed to Red Bull as an athelete for 7-8 years, they presented it to me, it's a trip to Uganda, Africa, there's no money involved and I was like hell yea, I'm down, let's do this.  But for me I was into it more for selfish reasons.  I'm going to go to the home of the beat, for me that's where breakbeats started," Crazy Legs described what attracted him to the project originally.  "I didn't really understand the full scope of what I was about to be involved with, and the depth of the situation over there.  It became more of a mission after I came back."

Some of the film's most compelling footage is seeing Crazy Legs and the other members of his crew interact with the members of BPU and discover how much they share.  When the founding members of BPU and Rock Steady first meet, Crazy Legs stresses what they have in common, "It's important for you to know, this isn't something that came out of America, this came out of the South Bronx, the South Bronx at that time could have been any third world country, and that's what we have in common, the fact that we all come from shitty conditions, we're born poor.  This didn't cost me anything as a child, anything I wanted to do cost money, whether it be boxing, baseball.  Any sport we wanted to do cost money, but this...(he starts tapping a beat on a table and bopping his head), and you start doing your thing."

Crazy Legs and his crew then continue on their journey, teaching workshops organized by BPU in Kampala both in a community center auditorium as well as in the middle of Kissini, a slum community of over 30,000 people living without running water or adequate sanitation.  The experience visibly affects Crazy Legs as he walks through the streets and sees children walking through mud with bare feet, playing with machetes and sniffing glue to deal with their hunger pains.  He comments in the film, "I felt like I was in hell for a second, and it has nothing to do with the people, but the conditions."

While the experience of seeing the most poverty-stricken area in urban Kampala is a powerful experience, traveling to the village of Gulu, in Northern Uganda is even more dramatic.  Much of Northern Uganda remains devastated by a civil war where children were abducted and forced to become child soldiers, innocent by-standers had their limbs and/or facial features amputated, and girls as young as 12 or 13 were raped.  Abramz bravely travelled to Northern Uganda at a time when no one dared in order to bring BPU to the people of the region as a means of recovery and recuperation for their spirit and to provide a sense of hope.

Director Nabil Elderkin displayed a delicate balance in his selection of graphic images from the Northern conflict area.  While he didn't want to alienate any members of his audience, he wanted to show the gravity and reality of the situation, "It's a fine balance with any graphic imagery.  I just wanted to show conflict, I wanted to show them this is the reality, this is the situation they've been put through.  Without adding extra layers that don't need to be there, it's all about putting it into context, and not exploiting."

It's in Northern Uganda, during a workshop led by Crazy Legs and his crew, that Rocksteady is on the receiving end of a dance lesson.  Abramz explains in the film that when he first ventured to Gulu, he would only teach the local kids b-boy moves after they taught him one of their tribal dances.  In that tradition, the kids in Crazy Legs' workshop perform their tribal dances for him, and he and his crew become the students.

One of the major themes of the film, is seeing the artform of hip-hop and breakdance come full circle and return to the ancestral source of their creation.  While hip-hop culture evolved out of the cultural and socio-economic milieux of mid-1970's South Bronx, the cultural practices ingrained in the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American values that spawned urban hip-hop culture all trace their lineage back to Africa.  Abramz is acutely aware of that lineage and encourages those he teaches to incorporate their traditional African dances into their b-boy moves.

Hip-hop artists such as Mos Def,, and K'Naan all comment on the relationship hip-hop has to African culture.  Born and raised in Somalia, K'Naan has the most personal insight on the subject matter.  He comments in the film, "The songs have a universal feeling of struggle, and hope and overcoming the odds.  These are the stories that humanity is made of and for that reason it connects wherever the music is heard."

Nabil Elderkin commented on hip-hop coming full-circle, returning to the source, "I thought it was really beautiful, that's one of the things that inspired me the most about this project, it was seeing something I'm involved with my work in photography and music videos, seeing this music and artform come full circle seeing the place where the beat originated.  As K'Naan said in the film, there's poets who have been using drum beats and speaking poetry for thousands of years. I'm sure it was all over Africa, I'm sure the beat has been going on for thousands and thousands of years and somebody was saying something to that beat."

Abramz confirmed Nabil's supposition, "Before I even heard about the word rap, the thing is, people in Uganda had been rapping before we even knew it was the word rap.  It was something traditional, it wasn't even urban, it was traditional culture.  There were rhymes that people used to recite for the king, and also people in the community, but usually in big ceremonies.  They called it ebieontonte.  Even the grandparents of our grandparents used to do that.  So rap has been around for generations, it's not something that's really new."

Breakdance Project Uganda is currently undertaking a fund-raising effort to build their own community center in Kampala.  Crazy Legs and Red Bull are committed to helping BPU raise the necessary funds to build a community center where they can not only teach breakdancing to more kids but also teach kids to use computers, conduct visual art seminars, and lead various other community-building activities.  Crazy Legs commented on the process, "Red Bull is doing a great thing.  At the end of the day we got involved in something that we realized was much bigger than we expected.  And once you become aware, then it's about action.  There are many people that are aware, but the awareness without action is useless.  Red Bull has made sure that although it's become a different kind of project, they decided to be involved with helping them to establish a website, establish a way to get donations, helping them to get NGO status and things like that.  We didn't just go in there document and leave and say hey we did this great film.  We documented, we left, and we stayed involved, and I think that relationship is still going to be there at least on my part."

Bouncing Cats is currently touring, screening in different cities and film festivals.  To find out about upcoming screenings, donate to Breakdance Project Uganda, or find out more about the project, go to  This is a powerful film with a story that needs to be told.  Go to to get involved.

Love and Death, the New Album from Ghanaian Legend Ebo Taylor (Huffington Post)

Ebo Taylor is one of the funkiest people to ever walk the earth. Love and Death, his first internationally released studio album out October 24th on Strut Records, is a continuation of Taylor's already legendary legacy as a composer and performer of African music.

Starting in the late 1950's, Taylor was an extremely influential figure in the Ghanian music scene. He composed, arranged and performed in several leading highlife bands such as the Stargazers and Broadway Dance Band. He traveled to London with his own ensemble in 1962, The Black Star Highlife Band sponsored by the Ghanaian High Commission. It was in London that he collaborated and experimented with other African musicians such as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, "I knew Fela very well. He was my friend. He would say, 'Taylor why don't you play your own thing? You always play jazz, jazz is for the Americans' So we all started doing our own thing. He started the afrobeat movement in Nigeria and was very successful."

Upon returning to Ghana, Taylor further cemented himself in the Accra music scene working as an in-house producer for the major record labels of the time such as Essiebons and Gapophone. He wrote for and recorded with other burgeoning stars like C.K. Mann and Pat Thomas. As his career continued to unfold, Taylor recorded several solo projects creating his own new sound. He melded elements of traditional Ghanaian music with afrobeat, jazz and funk and recorded some of the most highly regarded Ghanian funk music of the era.

As African funk music from the 1970's has become increasingly in demand over the last 5-10 years, Ebo Taylor's music has seen a resurgence in popularity appearing on compilations from Soundway Records and Analog Africa. His music has been sampled by contemporary hip-hop producers both in Africa and The United States. Taylor has always had an innate sense of how to emphasize certain Western elements in his music such as the wah-wah guitar pedal and JB's influenced horn lines to compliment the more pronounced African elements such as traditional African percussion and Ghanian lyrics. Similar to Fela's afrobeat, his music was extremely funky while at the same time carrying a strong African persona.

Recorded with Berlin-based collective Afrobeat Academy, Love and Death is a conscious effort on the part of Taylor to advance the afrobeat movement, "For the new album, I wanted to advance the cause of Afrobeat music. Fela started it and we shouldn’t just abandon it. We should push it so it is a standard form of music.“ Taylor accomplishes his goal and then some. Love and Death is an incredibly fluid album composed of eight tracks that attack from the first note and don't let up throughout. Tracks like african woman, victory, and mizin are all aggressive uptempo songs that use interlocking guitars parts, punchy horn lines, hard-driving drums and percussion to push the song forward.

Taylor's voice reveals the character and history of a 74-year old man. You can hear the experience and age as it cuts through the aggressive afrobeat soundscape. It's amazing to think that in a career filled with as much amazing music and as many prominent collaborations as Taylor's, Love and Death will be his first internationally distributed album.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Interview with Tony Allen (

Tony Allen is a legendary musical icon. He was the drummer of Afrika 70 and influential co-creator of afrobeat music with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He is currently on tour promoting his latest album, Secret Agent, out April 13, 2010 on Nonesuch Records. I had the distinct honor of speaking with Tony a couple weeks ago before he set out:

Marc Gabriel Amigone: My first question is you’re about to embark on a N. American Tour, are there any dates about which you’re particularly excited?

Tony Allen: No, not really.

MGA: So you’re excited about the whole tour?

Tony Allen: I’ll be coming to NY, and Toronto, and then I go back through the states and do the rest of my shows in the states.

MGA: I heard you’re going to be on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots and ?uestlove?

Tony Allen: Yes, in New York.

MGA: Do you have a relationship with ?uestlove or the Roots? Have you played with them before?

Tony Allen: I’ve never played with them before, but I’ve seen them play. You know,` so now we’re going to be working on the same program.

MGA: And you like The Roots?

Tony Allen: Oh yes, ?uestlove is a drummer himself too, so…

MGA: Right. So on your new album, Secret Agent, I’ve been listening to it a lot recently. How would you describe the direction you’re taking your music on your new album?

Tony Allen: Direction? It’s afrobeat I’m playing, you know? And I like different styles of afrobeat. It just comes from evolution.

MGA: Cool. So throughout your career, I’ve heard a lot of your albums, you’ve been doing it for a long time. You’ve always demonstrated openness to new ideas, new sounds and instruments. For instance on Secret Agent you feature an accordion, which is not traditionally seen as an “afrobeat instrument” per se. Could you describe you the way that new sounds inspire you and the process by which you incorporate them into your music?

Tony Allen: Well, you know, it’s music. It’s not the instrument, the instrument doesn’t play itself anyway, you know? The point is the music of the instrument, whichever instrument I put in my music. It’s the sound, it’s soundwise, you know? It’s not a question of which instrument I use, it’s what I compose.

MGA: So if a sound catches your ear, it doesn’t matter what it is, you just want to put it into your music.

Tony Allen: Exactly.

MGA: Cool. So how would you describe how your music has developed and evolved from your first solo album, NEPA, to now, with Secret Agent.

Tony Allen: Ah, I will not try to explain it, I’ve done enough explaining. I’ve done NEPA, I’ve done Afrobeat Express, I’ve done Black Voices, I’ve done Psycho on The Bus, I’ve done Homecooking, Lagos No Shaking, and this one. Every one has its direction, but its still afrobeat.

MGA: One of the most famous quotes that’s most often associated with your name is from Fela Kuti, who said, ‘Without Tony Allen, there would be no afrobeat.’ Could you elaborate on that a bit, and explain how you contributed to afrobeat’s creation?

Tony Allen: Well, that is something that people are not supposed to be saying that, people that have been watching me, people that spoke with me. I’m just doing my job. I’m doing my job, and I’m creating. I like to be creating all the time because I can’t just keep playing the same shit all the time, you know? I have to create something else, whether people are going to take it or not, I’m just going to be moving forward, you know? That’s all.

MGA: What musicians or musical styles were you and Fela listening to when you were coming of age in Nigeria?

Tony Allen: I was playing my music before I met Fela, you know? There is a lot of music in the country, all different types of music. Jazz, waltz, two-step, tango, whatever, highlife, before I met Fela. Then when I met Fela, he said ‘ok, stop playing all those other styles’ and dictating.

MGA: Right, and do your own thing.

Tony Allen: Right.

MGA: So who are you listening to right now that’s inspiring, what are you listening to these days that you find interesting?

Tony Allen: Right now, I’m working with my band, I just finished our latest album, and now we’re taking things on the road, so that’s what I’m concentrating on now.

MGA: Cool, so what other bands or musicians within the genre of afrobeat do you find interesting or inspiring?

Tony Allen: Ah well, there’s a lot of them. Everybody’s doing their own style, so as long as they have the afrobeat, it’s cool. I don’t want to commit myself for anything. They’re all good.

MGA: You don’t want to single anybody out since there’s so many out there?

Tony Allen: No, I don’t.

MGA: What is your take on the Antibals-Bill T. Jones FELA! Production currently running on Broadway in New York?

Tony Allen: It’s afrobeat, so it’s cool. I’ve said before I would not comment.

MGA: Have you noticed any increased interest from the mainstream culture due to the popularity of the play?

Tony Allen: No.

MGA: Really, you haven’t noticed any increased interest?

Tony Allen: Well, when I said I wouldn’t comment, it means that… well you know there’s positive side of things. I can’t analyze everything, but it’s very good to expose afrobeat to people that never know what afrobeat is.

MGA: Word.

Tony Allen: I know there’s a positive side of things there, and I just hope it expresses enough to make more spring up.

MGA: Right, right. So in what direction do you see afrobeat evolving as more and more musicians take up afrobeat? Do you think the electronic side of things will take the lead with artists like Wunmi is going to grow, or do you think on the instrumental side of things?

Tony Allen: Well, it’s ok, I just know that afrobeat is music that has to be played by human beings together. I’ve experimented with electronics in my music but not taking out the drums that’s supposed to be played with it, so it depends on what everybody likes, you know? That’s why I don’t like to criticize what everybody’s else is playing. I just know what I’m playing.

MGA: Are there any goals or things you’d like to accomplish by the end of your career?

Tony Allen: The point is I look forward, I look forward. I never preview nothing, with my music. The day I decide, the day is there. If I decide I like something then I do it. There is a song on Secret Agent called Celebration.

MGA: Right, Celebrate Your Life, that’s a great song.

Tony Allen: Celebrate means celebrate everything, not just Christmas, or marriage, or anything it means celebrate all the time. Why should we not celebrate every day? Every day. You see, because every time you can go to sleep and wake up the next day, that’s something to celebrate. Because whatever you do is whatever you do. Simple as that.

MGA: Yea man, I agree 100%.

Tony Allen: Haha, you agree 100%?

MGA: Absolutely. I agree, I think every day should be a celebration.

Tony Allen: Absolutely, that’s the way I look at my life.

MGA: One last question. Your album Psycho On The Bus, I’ve always thought of as the quintessential afro-dub album. Were there any particular dub artists that inspired you to make that album?

Tony Allen: No it was a collaboration. It’s music. It’s afrobeat with a certain production style. You know, I have other things to think about.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Salif Keita Celebrates Diversity and Preaches Tolerance on La Différence (Huffington Post)

"I'm a black man, my skin is white and I like it, it's my difference. I'm a white man, my blood is black, I love that, it's the difference that's beautiful." Those are the words of Salif Keita, taken from La Différence, the title track off his new album out June, 8 2010 on Emarcy Records. Known the world over as "The Golden Voice of Africa", Salif Keita is an icon of the international music industry, famous for his incredible voice and even more so for his incredible story.

Salif Keita was born August 25, 1949 in Djoliba, Mali, an albino. His skin is a deep white in a land of scorching sun. In his native Mali, as in many cultures in Africa, albinos are believed to be a curse. Keita was disowned by his father and ostracized by the rest of society. His mother had to hide him from murderous gangs out to kill him for his body parts to be sold on the black market and used in spiritual practices.

It was his status as an outcast that ultimately led him to become a musician. After being denied admission to a teacher's college due to poor eyesight at the age of 18, he relocated to Bamako (Mali's capital) to sing on street corners and in local bars. This was no small feat considering that he shared the same last name, and royal lineage, as the great warrior-emperor Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mande Empire that stretched across West Africa beginning in the 13th century whose cultural practices and customs are still in place today.

Keita commented on how his exclusion from society led him to music, "I would've done something totally different [If I wasn't an albino]. For me it was a way to go against my lineage. It actually helped other people, noble people, to stand up and take up music as well. It could've been a double-exclusion, but I still did it."

In Mande culture, musicianship is reserved for a separate caste of society called Jeli (more commonly known by the French word Griot). Traditionally, Jeli status is passed down from generation to generation. The customs and methods of singing, playing instruments, and recanting historical anecdotes are handed down hereditarily. Jelis are patronized and commissioned by other segments of society, especially the noble elite. Keita went against centuries of tradition by emulating the Jeli practices with which he was intimately familiar due to being on the receiving end of their praises.

Keita's musical career began to take shape during his time in Bamako in the 1970's. He was recruited into the burgeoning Rail Band de Bamako, the group charged with contributing to the new national identity of Mali by updating traditional songs with modern instruments (they got their name from their residency at the restaurant attached to the train station in Bamako). The newly independent Republic of Guinea, Mali's neighbor to the south, had already begun to forge their cultural identity through the sounds of voices and electric guitars under the patronage of President Sékou Touré. Due to being landlocked and more insulated culturally, Mali lagged behind neighboring Senegal and Guinea in their formation of national cultures. With the help of Keita's soaring voice and The Rail Band's swinging grooves that changed in a big way.

Keita grew to be so immensely popular that when he left The Rail Band in 1973 to join Les Ambassadeurs, a rival dance band in Bamako, it was an incident of national significance (Mory Kanté, who went on to forge a hugely successful solo career, replaced Keita, and The Rail Band continued to thrive). Les Ambassadeurs set out to accomplish the same goal as The Rail Band: to merge the traditional sounds of Mande Culture with the modern sensibilities of urban Africa. Keita, and Les Ambassadeurs, relocated to Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1978 amid civil unrest and the arrest of their manager. It was in Abidjan that they recorded their most famous hit, Mandjou, a praise song to Guinean President Sékou Touré.

In the early 1980's, Keita began to perform on his own in Europe and eventually relocated to Paris to pursue a solo career. He continued to merge traditional African instruments and sounds with contemporary ones by collaborating with musicians from all corners of the globe and performing throughout Europe and North America. He went on to pioneer the "World Music" genre, a label Keita is quick to point out he did not choose while admitting it's contributed greatly to the success of his career, "Well in fact it's a label the music industry has created. It's not 'World Music,' it's African music. But the positive part is that it has helped African music to be known all over the world."

Keita is using his platform as an international music icon to draw attention to issues that matter most to him. He feels he has a responsibility to use his platform to speak out, "Once you are known and you have an audience, it becomes your duty to really speak out and be a spokesperson for other people who don't have that opportunity. It is a duty."

"The other concerns and issues that are occurring in Africa right now are desertification and degradation of nature," In addition to discrimination against albinos, Keita condemns degradation of the natural environment on his new album, "For instance, a lot of people earn their living by logging to the point where no forests are left on the continent. Pollution is also a big issue. Rivers are drying up. All these environmental issues are what I'd like to talk about."

Keita cannot hide the most prominent cause for which he stands. His white skin makes a statement by itself. His foundation, Salif Keita Pour les Albinos, provides care, assistance, and protection from the sun to albinos in addition to raising awareness about the issue. The lack of a functioning educational system in Mali, where the population is more than three-quarters illiterate, helps to explain the continued existence of inhumane beliefs and discriminatory practices against albinos.

"I feel that now is the time to stop atrocities and human sacrifices that are committed against albinos all over Africa. All over Africa, in Burundi, Tanzania, many regions of Africa, albino people are killed, sacrificed, their body parts are sold on the black market. It's really terrible, but now is the time to stop."