Monday 7th May 2018
It is difficult to write about an existing cultural phenomenon as if it were brand new. On the one hand it renders the author clueless, prompting questions of relevance, identity and appropriation. Who is this person and why is s/he writing on this subject? Doesn’t s/he know that it (cultural phenomenon) has been going on for ages? On the other hand, the writing might arouse suspicions of opportunism and bandwagon-jumping. Why address this subject now?
Certainly, Afro-London should not be an alien or new concept, especially in a city as cosmopolitan as the British capital. Afro-London’s dark, urban skin has been anointed over the years with layers upon layers of African diaspora-led cultural initiatives: from dance to fashion, we have everything covered.
There also exists an underbelly. A world that is separated from the yearly, well-attended and -intended, African-themed festival many institutions favour these days. This world does not dwell by the banks of the Thames, on the Southbank, or within the walls of the V&A. This world occupies a different — perhaps, even higher — plane. One that is found in cramped exhibition spaces, or improvised performing halls. It is a bare world, proud in its nakedness. Outside, London carries on. Step inside this other frame, though, and you will come across a beautiful and unbroken realm.
All these thoughts were on my mind recently as I attended a couple of African-flavoured events over the Bank Holiday weekend. The first one was the Afro-Brazilian movement and music experience Bambas Festival at Core Clapton, in Hackney. Organised by Abieié’s Irineu Nogueira, both Saturday and Sunday sessions boasted the sort of dance experts, musicians and knowledgeable audience you would normally see at big, heavily-sponsored events in better-known venues.
Of particular interest to me was the maculele workshop led by Ponciano Almeida. This warrior dance, whose origins still cause much debate (does it come from Africa or from indigenous Brazil?), brings different elements together such as hypnotic-sounding drums, whirlwind movements and clashing sticks. Ponciano also turned out to be a rather charismatic and charming teacher, features that were much welcomed by everyone in the room as the workshop was physically demanding, full of energy and expressive movements.
The second event of my Afro-London-filled Bank Holiday weekend happened tonight. I have been going to the Afro-Cuban Music Night, organised by the outstanding musicians Vicky Jassey and Dave Pattman, on and off since its inception and inclusion in London’s alternative Time-Out-like guide to left-of-field gigs a few years ago. Now, in its current home at the VDF Bar on Stoke Newington Road, the ACMN continues to go from strength to strength. Still keeping its informal style, the gathering brings musicians, dancers and lovers of Afro-Cuban culture together for a few hours every first Monday night of the month. The success of the Afro-Cuban Music Night complements Afro-London’s very own success: ACMN is the continuation of that rich vein running through our cultural, historical and personal need as a Diaspora to make something out of whatever is available at our disposal in order to tell our stories. In ACMN’s case, it is chiefly a warm and welcoming platform on which to share the songs, dances and rhythms of Afro-Cuban traditions, from orishas to rumba in a basement-cum-bar.
What this translates as is a spiritually-enriching session with a like-minded and respectful audience who joins in the singing, dancing or percussion-playing. Hands get chapped, limbs get tired and voices grow hoarse but in the end there is a deep sense of satisfaction.
Herein then lies another one of Afro-London’s common traits. Both the Bambas Festival and the Afro-Cuban Music Night had only leading players. There were no stand-ins or walk-on parts. The 50-plus students who took part in the dance workshops in Core Clapton’s sun-kissed Old Parish Hall on Saturday and Sunday had as much as an active role to play as the musicians who provided the myriad, cadence-rich rhythms. The crowd joining in the call-and-response in the penumbra-filled VDF tonight deserve as much praise as the musicians who took turns on the batá drums and congas. Afro-London has no hierarchy. It does not depend on casual passers-by, lured by the promise of over-priced lattes or warm, picturesque afternoons by the river. Afro-London is not part of the experience. It is the experience. To paraphrase Maya Angelou slightly, Afro-London is “puttin’ down that do-rag/tighten’ up its ‘fro/wrappin’ up in Blackness/doesn’t it shine and glow?”
I discovered a new phenomenon this weekend. Although, “discover” is the wrong word. How can you discover something it already exists? Afro-London is alive and kicking. Its stories carry on.