From the moment David Brandreth met me at the Calgary airport and stuck out a meaty friendly hand, I knew I was in for a week of fun.
I had been contracted as early as March to perform at a week-long festival of African music, literature, film and visual arts held annually in Calgary which is one of the two major cities in the Alberta province of Canada, a sprawling and rapidly growing city of about 900,000 which has oil as the vehicle of its economy. A Calgary summer is one full of festivals, concerts, culture activities, lots of colour, variety and excitement. It was in this mix that the Afrikadey! Festival was born eleven years ago.
Initially just a music jamboree, it has broadened its scope over the years to include other aspects of African arts. Over the years, support and sponsorship has gradually increased well enough to ensure that big and well-established acts are always on the bill. Unlike many other festivals of its type and remarkably too, Afrikadey! has never suffered a missed year or a delay in its programming. It has always gone on and as scheduled every year – a testament to the devotion , dedication and perseverance of the organisers, the African Festival and Presentation Society of Calgary personified by the festival director for many years, Nigerian Tunde Dawodu and the many white and black Canadians who volunteer each year to make things run smoothly.
On the schedule for Afrikadey! 2002 were a literary symposium, an art exhibition called Colours of Ethiopia, community outreach programmes, an African art and craft market and the usual grand finale, a music concert with big name performers on the last day. Here, have a peep into my Afrikadey! 2002 diary…
Sunday, August 11
Here we go, culture icon bound for new conquests. I hoist my bags and guitar after a near sleepless night of anticipation and ride an early morning taxi to the Toronto Pearson Airport. True to recent news, the pre-boarding search is more thorough. Since the September 11, 2001 disaster in the United States, security has become tighter at all North American airports. To while away the time, I switch into my ‘potential terrorist’ mode thinking if I had a gun or a bomb where would I hide it. That morbid day-dream gets me through the two-hour delay prior to take off. Two hours of every imaginable excuse from the airline. Ok, this is Canada and they do suffer flight delays too, thanks!
What I remember about the four-hour flight? Maybe ‘Superman’ playing on the tiny, poor excuse for a TV in front of me. If I was a film critic, I’d give this Hollywood release one out of ten.
I am received at the Calgary airport by grinning, charming, dressed-down David and later Tunde Dawodu, the festival director who rushed up and down trying to find “the other poet”, Afua Cooper, a Jamaican-Canadian poet who is on the bill with me. No luck. Afua did not make it and I am Afrikadey!’s sole poet for the festival (Dawodu worries that this may be a bad omen, for we poets are supposed to open the festival in a few hours.)
David drives me to the office of the festival in downtown Calgary where Dawodu officially welcomes and takes me to meet another artiste Kwasi Iruoje, a master drummer who is scheduled to perform solo on his palongo, djembe, bembe and gangan drums at several venues throughout the festival week. We will be working together for the community outreach programme for kids starting on Monday through to Friday and Dawodu feels we should get comfortable with each other. We share a few jokes, then go to the basement of Kwasi’s living quarters to rehearse a few of my songs and poems.
A few hours later, hungry and still hot and sticky from my flight, I am rushed to the venue of the opening event of Afrikadey! 2002 labelled ‘African Voices Literary Symposium’. Kwasi is on the bill too. We have to get through effectively to the about one hundred poetry and arts enthusiasts gathered inside the Glenbow Museum Hall.
It is a mixed crowd made of mainly middle-aged white people. I feel comfortable as I do my sound check with my favourite composition,”Owuro lojo”, a very apt song to declare the festival open. From the resulting thunderous applause I know it will be our day. I waste no time in plunging straight into my poetry, five pieces all in a row, and this beautiful audience just laps it all up.
I take a rest and Kwasi’s explosive and passionate drumming takes over. Moving from one drum to another or just playing several in a combination, he is a delight to behold. He electrifies the hall and gets the audience ready to dance by the end of his last number. It is a strange sight – one man working on several drums and all these people losing themselves in the raw, naked rhythm and dancing with no care in the world. It is a sight I am to encounter throughout the week whenever and wherever Kwasi plays.
At the request of the audience, I come again and perform one more poem, then Kwasi and I close the show together with one of my new (and lengthier) pieces. It works perfectly and we take our deserved bows.
This opening show will eventually rank as one of the highpoints of this year’s festival and coming right at the beginning, it raises hopes of a great week ahead. Tunde Dawodu is oozing excitement and appreciation, “You guys did a terrific job out there. I had expected something great but not…not this fantastic!”
He is not alone. Everyone takes a chance to shake our hands and comments flow…
“You’re so well-grounded, so spiritually sound.”
“Your view of the world and human existence and relationship is refreshing…”
“Your English is so good…how long have you been in Canada? You must have schooled here.”
No ma’am, I came to Canada only last year and all the formal schooling I had was in Nigeria…
Yes ma’am, Africa is a continent like your America, made up of many countries. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, a land of diverse cultures where music and art is just a natural way of life.
A well-endowed black lady walks up to me and introduces herself as Genevieve Balogun.
“Are you Nigerian?”, I ask.
“Your husband is Nigerian”
“How do you know?”
“Your name ma’am, your last name”
Genevieve is a much decorated educationist who also produces a multicultural newsletter. She requests for a copy of the last piece I performed titled ‘Where rivers sing a song’ which deals with the religion of the Yorubas.
“I’d love to publish it in the next edition of our newsletter. We are a pretentious society in North America, we like to think we are open minded and cosmopolitan but we really have little tolerance for other religions especially the ones we don’t understand. I think by becoming more familiar with the beliefs of other people, we will come to appreciate that we are all the same…”
I am thankful that the lengthy poem I had painstakingly and painfully put together under the most harrowing and restrictive conditions could have had such a profound effect on the audience. A full hour after the close of the show, most of the audience is still hanging around asking questions or just taking pictures with Kwasi and I.
Much later, David drives up and introduces me to his lovely and friendly girlfriend Debbie. Together we go to a supposedly African restaurant. “It’s actually a Tanzanian joint,” explains Debbie. The only thing African about the place as I can see is the ‘Tusk’ beer imported from Kenya and the African barbequed chicken proudly and boldly promoted on the menu card. I was wise enough not to try it despite all the urging by my hosts.
It’s been a long day and as I get ready for bed late at night, my mind roves over it with a sense of achievement-in our own little way, Kwasi and I brought a taste of Africa to a room full of North Americans. I am more convinced today that one of the major ways to reverse the negative impression of Africa in Western minds is by showing the real Africa of beauty and love in our music and art.
Many African artists, in a hurry to satisfy the American stereotype of Africa and make a head way in the crowded North American market, sacrifice the real thing for the mediocrity of sensationalism that brings in the dollars quicker. African writers, poets and musicians must realize that we have a task to present a new Africa, the real Africa where good neighbourliness and the fear of God reigns. Where the rhetorics of African thinkers, philosophers and politics have failed, art will succeed. On this note, I submit to an overpowering wave of fatigue and drift off to sleep…