African cinema beyond the musical

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The musical as a genre is practically unheard of in African cinema. Yet music and dance are omnipresent…

The musicals made in Egypt and Asia form a genre that is always highly popular with audiences in Africa. Yet the continent’s filmmakers seem practically to ignore this art form, which has fed their own imaginations. What with the Egyptian musicals, Asian adventure films, and American productions, little place is left on Africa’s screens for its local tales. However, even if African productions still face the same distribution difficulties on the continent, their singularity has developed and become more polished since Independence. It a priori seems paradoxical, therefore, that Africa’s directors only rarely go down the musical route in cultures that are impregnated with music, song, dance, humour… It is as if African film need not venture into a style that is already highly present on its screens. By circumventing it, maybe the filmmakers avoid pitting themselves against the Egyptian or Indian films’obvious mastery.
But this reserve does not suffice to explain the almost complete absence of musicals in African cinema. Unless, that is, the continent’s films are sufficiently impregnated with the « musical » to convey it without taking on its trappings. For the musical lies in the daily life captured by even the most serious African directors. Their environment is impregnated with sounds, music, songs which often serve to construct the film and guide the narrative without necessarily taking on the codified form of the musical. Most of the time, the musical or sung parts of the film do not in fact stand out from the rest of the film itself, but are embedded in its development as they generate it. They constitute its basis, thereby constructing the film’s very corpus. Here, then, recourse to the musical is transcended by the essence of a cinematographic practice that is rooted in Africa’s cultures.
Griot narrators
Music accompanies the hero’s interior monologue as early as Ousmane Sembene’s Borom Sarret, the first film made in Africa by a local filmmaker in 1963. The cart-driver’s voice-over accompanies the tales of his journey around Dakar, commenting on the different incidents or instigating them. Speech already modulates across the score that gives the film its meaning. It is its narrative thread. The image serves as an axe for the sounds and rhythms in a constructive exchange.
The interlocking strands that structure the action mark the different episodes of Senegalese Ababacar Samb Makharam’s Jom, 1981. The words of the griot in Djeli, conte d’aujourd’hui by the Ivoirian Fadika Kramo Lancine, 1981, engender the film’s images, flash backs, and returns to the present. The action in Taafe Fanga (Skirt Power) by the Malian Adama Drabo, 1997, takes off when the griot brings out his instrument and begins to speak, opening the images up to the imagination. The body of the fiction is thus a fable in which the women don the men’s clothing and take over power. The screenplay marries the discourse of another griot in Keita, l’Héritage du griot by the Burkinabè Dani Kouyaté, 1995. The storyteller creates the filmic time as he narrates the tales of the past and relates them to the present in Guimba, by the Malian Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, 1995. The entire film is also carried by the words of the storyteller when the Malian Souleymane Cissé orchestrates the ambulations of Waati (1995) across different African countries. The fiction opens with the voice of a storyteller, taking it into the realm of universal legend, before the film finishes in a verbal confrontation between two characters, set in the unstable climate of South Africa of the time.
Musicals proper
Auteur film as found in Africa is often serious. It was first of all essential to speak, denounce, and explain before telling stories, letting oneself be carried away by music and dance. Then the time came for entertainment. But comedies were rare in the early days of African film, emancipated after Independence. It is telling that one of the most famous African musicals, La vie est belle (Life is Rosy) by Mweze Ngangura and Benoît Lamy, 1987, is a Belgian co-production. This laid-back fiction was the fruit of a collaboration between the Zairian Mweze Ngangura, who lives in Brussels, and the Belgian Benoît Lamy. But it was above all a good marketing ploy for Papa Wemba and his songs. The Zairian singer plays the role of an unlikely young man who makes it thanks to and with music, buoyed up by his stubborn optimism. The scenes are wooden, the songs introduced by a predictable story line, but the final outcome is spot-on. Yet, the co-director Mweze Ngangura might be considered more authentic when he films and records the tales of Brussels’multicultural musicians in his documentary Changa-Changa, rhythms en noir et blanc, 1991.
Even in southern Africa, musicals are an exception. One of the most striking is undoubtedly Michael Raeburn’s Jit, shot in Zimbabwe in 1990. Symptomatically, it is the doing of a filmmaker born in Egypt and who grew up in the country under colonial rule. Raeburn had already made his mark with his satirical Rhodesia Countdown in1969. With Jit, he disconcerts, entertains, and is a hit, stringing together short musical scenes that are like pop videos. The film is not really a musical, but rather an ensemble of situations irrigated with songs. The hero sets about finding his betrothed’s dowry, spurred on by the father’s growing demands. Zimbabwe is decorated with bright colours, brightening up and heightening reality to the sound of lively rhythms.
For Africa’s filmmakers, the Nineties resonated with a certain euphoria. Their mastery was confirmed, and they were stimulated by Western funding. They were able to grant themselves the luxury of entertaining as they tried new, more light-hearted subjects with more update forms. This was the period when the Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo wandered around Douala with his camera, shooting Quartier Mozart in 1992. Its youngsters, caught in sharp images, change skins, soul search and triumph over their daily problems. The less-polished story is woven out of little scenes in which the lose banter is augmented by Philip Nikwe’s music. The energetic style is reinforced by filmmaker’s previous experiences, having directed video clips in France.
A few years earlier, Ola Balogun from Nigeria broadened the impact of his militant filmmaking with Ajani Ogun, 1975. In it, Duro Lapido’s songs and music serve as a backdrop for the confrontation between a corrupt politician and a hunter determined to get back his goods and his fiancée. The filmmaker continued in the same vein with Musik Man, 1976. The musician Georges Anderson’s contribution is essential to the film’s narration of a restaurant employee cum musician’s social ascension.
Touching on the codified musical genre, these filmmakers propose an alternative to the American musicals and Far Eastern images that completely charmed them as youths. American producers set the musical trend in southern Africa with Nigel Noble’s Sarafina, 1995, based on a popular black theatre show. The South African musical and the black milieu and its elaboration are the central themes of the film. However, its direction was overseen by Whites to guarantee it a place on the international film market. In Zimbabwe, Isaac Mabhikwa accepted a commission to make More Time in 1992. The film campaigns for Aids awareness with a strong musical presence, signed by Keith Farquharson. The fiction – close to the TV drama aesthetic – is effective at getting the message over to young people. It is a far cry from a musical, however, as, once again, the songs, which are external to the action, simply accompany or highlight it, the actors not being the singers.
Africa’s directors thus seem to content themselves with verging on the musical whilst trying other cinematographic languages. Yet, the substance exists in African cultures to be able to explore the genre. The energy of the Abidjan Koteba ensemble springs to life in La vie platinée, by the Frenchman Claude Cadiou, 1987. The story focuses on the altogether harmless incidents the troupe face as they attempt to go to Paris to perform. The tale turns out successfully, but the film above all owes its tempo to the Koteba MC, Souleymane Koli, who wrote the screenplay and supervised the directing. The French director handles the technical side of the film efficiently. The end result is an optimistic comedy about the lights of success that plays on clichés in a rousing style. Certain French people are easily won over by African music, which motivates several films. Laurent Chevallier thus shot Djembefola in 1991, filming the percussionist Mamady Keita’s return to Guinea. His documentary gaze is constructed around the rhythms engendered by the Guinean’s percussion. They worked together again in 1998 in Mogobalu, in which the musician further develops his artistic relationship with his country. The images are derived from the rhythms and, above all, from the presence of the African artist in action before the camera.
A blend of realist and imaginary images
There are also many documentaries on musicians, singers, and dance, which flirt with the musical whilst nonetheless being distinguished from it. The Senegalese Abdou Fary Faye shot Ballets de la fôret sacrée de Casamance in 1970, a short film made with the national troupe in natural settings. Moussa Diakité worked the Republic of Guinea’s National Ballet into his feature film Naitou, L’Orpheline, 1982, adapted from a popular tale about the misfortunes of a young girl bullied by her stepmother. In Senegal, Cheikh Ngaïdo Ba made his mark with Xew Xew, la fête commence, 1983, a fiction about the star-crossed relationship of a girl from a wealthy family and a poor musician who becomes famous. The story is close to the renown gained by the members of Xalam International de Dakar who participate in the film, along with Seydina Insa Wade and the voices of Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keïta. Dance and rituals made the screen in the Central African Republic when Léonie Yangba Zowe shot a series of ethnographic short films in 1985. In Lengue, the songs and dances are seen to serve as a link between the Yacoba and the Chari Sango ethnic groups. The members of the traditional N’Zale group move like animals to interpret the traditional M’baka M’bokou dance which symbolises victory in Nzale. With Yangba Bolo, we discover a profane dance from the east of the country, derived from the dance celebrating the achievements of the basketball team of the time. The long shots of the dancers’bodies capture the messages expressed by their gestures. The postures of the ritual dancers and their choreographies constitute forms of discourse, which emanate from these singular films.
The Senegalese Jo Gaye Ramaka caught people’s attention with the 1986 short film La musique lyrique peul before further exploring the link between rainmakers’incantation rituals and dances in the feature film, Nitt… Ndoxx, 1988. Mid-way between an ethnographic gaze and visual poetry, the filmmaker thus produced both a lyrical work and a musical. In Portuguese-speaking Africa, Zézé Gamboa directed Mopopio in 1991.This musical documentary explores the expression of traditional rural and urban music in Angola by focusing on its musicians, before the filmmaker went to live in exile in Portugal. In Senegal, Mansour Sora Wade traces the career of the singer Ismaël Lô as he records his concerts and confidences in a documentary entitled Iso Lo, 1994. In Blues pour une diva, 1999, his compatriot Moussa Sene Absa more poetically weaves the story of Aminata Fall, who is trained in the art of the griot and the songs of Saint Louis. The songwriter-singers’voices and movements carry these films, which are documentary musicals. In Burkina Faso, Issiaka Konaté films a boy’s initiation into the art of making and playing the balafon in Yiri Kan, 1989. This short film is structured and has the rhythm of a feature, led and performed by the musician Mahama Konaté.
Breakaway cases in North Africa
To the north of the continent, people more often shoot images about song and dance traditions than musicals as such. Mille et unes danses orientales, the 1999 documentary by the Tunisian Moktar Ladjimi, retraces how religious rituals have developed into profane dances. These unfold on the screen, with the participation of stars such as Samia Gamal. Excerpts from major fiction films featuring Lebanese and Tunisian stars recall their determining role in the audience’s fascination for musicals. North Africa receives more Egyptian musicals than it produces. It is as if the cultural proximity, the quality and the impact of these models make it impossible for the filmmakers to compete. When the Tunisian woman director Moufida Tlatli filmed a female singer 1994, she loses her voice at the outset of the story, which, precisely, is called Les Silences du Palais. This situation recalls that in Nah’la by the Algerian Farouk Beloufa, 1974, set in the Lebanon. One of the heroines is a singer with no voice left, ridden with doubt and caught up in the problems of the Arab world of the time.
North Africa’s filmmakers are more concerned with the musical poetry of words, as can be seen in Leila ma raison by the Tunisian Taïeb Louichi, 1989. In the film, the hero, played by the Algerian songwriter Safi Boutella, is driven by an ideal for the absolute that he derives from Oriental literature. In Morocco, there is often even less music in fiction dramas. Izza Genini’s work is the exception with a series of documentary shorts, Maroc Corps et âmes, made between 1987 and 1993, about the meaning of ritual songs and dances. Here, the camera focuses on the movements of the artists and their signifying sounds.
Music accompanies the Algerian fictions by Merzak Allouache and his compatriots by integrating itself into the story, whilst not actually serving as its motor. The songs heard on the radio symbolise the dreams of Algeria’s day-to-day life depicted on the screen. Forays into the musical are rare. Only Mohamed Chouikh appears to articulate La Citadelle, 1988, around the love songs of a villager obsessed by a woman, and who is in fact played by the singer Khaled Barkhat. It was not until 1997 that Mahmoud Zemmouri brought together two raï stars – Khaled and Cheb Mami – in the rare musical 100% Arabica. The action is set in France and touches on the question of fundamentalism, using the stars’hit songs to spice up the social comedy and attract a wider audience.
Musician actors
African musicians are heroes on stage, but rarely play the same role in film. Wendo, père de la rumba zaïroise by Kwame Mambu Zinga, 1992, uses documentary to rehabilitate an artist famous since Independence. And fictions sometimes call on musicians for their names. Papa Wemba was called in for Ngangura Mweze and Benôit Lamy’s La Vie est Belle, 1987, with a role that was also a promo for him. On a more serious register, Salif Keïta was transformed into a mythical, almost mute figure in the Malian Cheikh Oumar Sissoko’s La Genèse, 1999. Called on for his albinos stature, he plays his own persona after one of his hits serves as the basis of a sarcastic, pop video type scene in Les Guérisseurs by the Ivoirian Sidiki Bakaba, 1988. Salif Keïta is more credible when he writes the music, as is clear in the Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissoko’s La vie sur terre, 1999, which is aired with his voice and music scores. The Senegalese Ismaël Lô is transformed into a politician in Moussa Sene Absa’s Tableau Ferraille, 1997, but he does not sing. His role is more personal in the Burkinabè Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Afrique mon Afrique, 1994, in which he plays the role of a singer who makes it in town.
A few years earlier, the famous South African singer Myriam Makeba proved herself to be a deeply tragic actress in Amok by the Moroccan Souheil Ben Barka, 1982, playing the role of a prostitute forced to survive in Soweto. Far from these nuances, the musician Zao performs as the hero and constitutes the narrative thread of David-Pierre Fila’s short Tala Tala, Congo, 1994. This appearance came after the music he composed for Le Dernier des Babingas, a documentary by the same director in 1991. Artists feature in these African films without their presence necessarily orienting the fictions towards the musical. It is as if their physical participation already symbolically recalls the predominance of an African musicality in its cinematographic images.
Alternative avenues
Music serves to enhance African tragedies, rather than its comedies. In Djibril Diop Mambety’s Hyenas, Senegal 1991, the music composed by the filmmaker’s brother, Wasis Diop, plays a key role. It literally makes the action reverberate as if in a vast classical theatre in which the choir of the Amazonians and the plaintive song of the hero are imposed, as he is struck down by the vengeance of the Old Woman he betrayed in the past. The Senegalese composer has also made his mark on other fiction films, such as Mansour Sora Wade’s short Picc Mi, 1992, which depicts the emotions of two boys from Dakar. The music directs and carries the film to the dream sequence whose finale is performed by Youssou N’dour and a choir of children. In TGV by Moussa Touré, 1997, Wasis Diop’s sharp notes dot the funnier episodes in an inter-city bus. However, these films are not musicals in the strict sense of the term.
The songs that resonate at the heart of the images sometimes recall the force of tradition, or vehicle the painful memory of a continent ravaged by slavery in the days of the slave trade. It is thus that the narrative of the Mauritanian Med Hondo’s West Indies, Les Nègres marrons de la liberté, 1975, is woven, the film approaching the musical to represent slavery. The songs and dances set in a slave caravel evoke slavery’s past and present, a system that is perpetuated by emigration to Europe after African independence. Later, the accents of gospel impregnate Lokua Kanza’s music, broadening the impact of the scenes in Adangaman by the Ivoirian Roger Gnoan M’Bala, 2000. This fiction raises the question of Black people’s responsibility in slavery through the figure of a ruthless and destructive black king who trades his subjects. The haloed notes of the gospel-like accents accompany and echo the film, outlining the ties with the black Diaspora in America in the final sequence that looks out to sea.
Tragedy supplants the musical. It is thus that the Senegalese Jo Gaye Ramaka reinvents the myth of Carmen in Karmen Gei, 2000. The film is a musical drama based on the figure of the heroine who fascinates and dominates her lovers right to the abyss of love. Prosper Mérimée’s short story and Bizet’s opera serve as the basis for evoking the destiny of a singular Black woman, directed with the help of George Duke, Spike Lee’s arranger, and the choreographer Karine Saporta, who previously choreographed a ballet on Carmen. Dakar becomes the scene in which the African music and dance of today blend to create cinema.
Black bodies in movement are the silhouettes of destiny, their voices drawing new scales from it. Flora Gomes of Guinea Bissau, known for the photographic melodies of Po di sangui, 1996, orchestrated by Pablo Cueco, adopts the genre, trying his hand at the musical in Nha Fala, 2001, which is marked by the complaints, the uncertainties, and the hopes of the black world. Filmmakers in Africa today seek other forms of expression, distinguishing themselves from the codes invented by Western directors since the very first glimmers of the Seventh Art. The continent’s musicals are the ferment of a production that is worth discovering. Africa has multiple voices which the cinema can bring to the screen: an enchantment that allows us to go beyond a genre composed in every image.

///Article N° : 5550


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