Amal Alhaag picks Vera Hall with Another Man Done Gone
“Vera Hall was a prominent singer from the Depression-era South in the United States. She sang this specific recording of the work song Another Man Done Gone in the 1940s. The song feels like a haunting sonic memory that narrates the horrors of prison and chain gangs, which were full of Black people being arrested for minor misdemeanours or for merely being black. Hall lets us know that she doesn’t need to know the man to mourn him, she doesn’t need to know where he is gone for his suffering to be hers as well, so she will work his load. These blues feelings hit hard. I guess, listening as an act of being in your feelings…feelings that are embedded in the set of conditions, emotions, music and energy that are connecting with each other, building a song that encapsulates the current woes and traumas of being Black in America or Europe, or just the world for that matter.”
Antonia Alampi selected Se Otto ore son troppo poche by Mondine di Vercelli
“This is one of the many work songs attributed to the “Mondine”, female seasonal workers in the rice fields in the Po Valley (Northern Italy), mostly illiterate and yet politically influential thanks to their unionizing in the course of the XX century. In this particular song, whose title in English reads as “if eight hours are too little”, they encourage the masters to come do the work, because it is just by doing the work that they will understand why they need less hours of work. Because only by doing the work themselves they will understand the difference between working, commanding and giving orders. They are asking for no more than eight hours of work a day, and a regularisation of both their daily time of work and their salaries: something all the more resonating in the current discussions around seasonal so called “migrant” workers in the agricultural field. There is a whole tradition of songs developed by the Mondine that have been extremely influential in Italian musical history, and particularly for Italian partisan songs. Music and singing here plays a fundamental role because the Mondine were not able to write, all the while singing and protesting to push the Parliament to change the laws regarding (their) labour rights—, a pact that they wanted to see in writing. The written word is the space of the master, of the law, of the sacred book, a tool they didn’t have access to, but a tool whose power was so strong, it would determine their lives. It was the written form, they knew, by which their rights and their lives could be changed. What we would add here is that it is instead thanks to their songs, that we will never be able to forget them.”
Aude Mgba’s pick: André Marie Tala’s ‘Je vais à Yaoundé’
“Yaoundé is the capital of Cameroon. The song talks about massive displacement of populations from rural to large urban centers in search of employment and well-being. As more and more people leave, extractive economies come in, leaving the countryside vulnerable to all kinds of things like deforestation and occupation of lands by big foreign companies. Simultaneously, the agricultural production in the villages decreases (while starvation increases), as mostly young people are the ones leaving. It creates a ripple effect: the incapacity of rural zones to supply the cities with food and other goods makes the cost of urban living high. Meanwhile, there are increasing numbers of youth unemployed, which is fueled by the young arrivees from rural areas.”
Vincent van Velsen selected Jawat’s Zwarte Koffie and Fresku’s Twijfel
“Extra strong black coffee and worn clothes: during the early days of their career the members of the seminal hiphop formation Opgezwolle were cleaning offices to make ends meet. During this solitary job they were provided with the mindspace and time to write their lyrics and listen to their own and others music for rehearsal and inspiration. In Zwarte Koffie (Black Coffee) Sticks references his former money job: “dat ik nog steeds af en toe vloeren reinig voor m'n werk” (that every now and then, my job still is still cleaning floors). Rico and Jawat talk about hard work, sweat, toiling, rolling up their sleeves and sometimes being at their wits end. Similar to Jawat’s Zwarte Koffie, Fresku talks about his money job in a factory making belts. He lays bare his doubts (twijfel) and describes what he keeps close to his chest. The struggle makes him doubt himself, his life and ambitions, whilst trying to “make it”, and make his ambitions overlap with simply making ends meet.”
Zippora Elders selected Toma Hasa Nusa by Suzanne Rastovac and Yopi Abraham
“A relatively recent song about the Moluccan struggle, which originated in the Moluccan neighbourhoods in the Netherlands, with lyrics written by Mata. This rendition is performed by musicians Yopi Abraham on guitar and tifa and Suzanne Rastovac on vocals. Suzanne, who is Croatian-Dutch, mentioned the following about the song: “To me it's about never owning anything or anyone”. What gives me chills in the many versions that exist of this song is the tifa drum and the sentence “toma maju sama-sama” which roughly translates to: “we keep on paddling forward together”. Moluccans, island people, live with and around the rhythm of the waters - and although having been brought up in the Netherlands, co-living with water as your home, instead of something to keep at bay, feels very familiar to me as well.”
Aude Mgba picks ‘Question de temps’ by Abanda Aviateur
“Abanda Aviateur was one of the best storytellers of his generation. Question de temps is a very important song, the first part of a story about experiences of being a victim of corrupt police officers. The story is a conversation with invisible listeners, an invocation to be listened to where he plays an actor who's his own judge and lawyer at the same time. Time is a key element and together with language create important chapters and give different vibrations to the story. He creates new words and new meaning to existing words.”
Aude Mgba picks ‘Les journalistes en danger’ from Alpha Blondy
“Alpha Blondy starts the song with a famous French folk song that is usually taught to beginners learning an instrument and sung to kids: “Au clair de la lune”. It then continues to speak about democracy of the “strongest” (leaders of the world) misusing their power during their regime. Being a leader is supposed to be a job of responsibility, of solidarity, by creating space and places for people to be able to express themselves without fear of losing their job or their freedom one day. This, however, is a mourning song: a homage to all the journalists who are killed or imprisoned while doing their job under regimes that present themselves as democracies.”
Amal Alhaag contributes Saado Ali Warsame’s Tahriib
“Somali poet, activist, singer and politician Saado Ali Warsame is either in your heart or mind. Her lyrics narrated the country’s turmoil histories until she was murdered in 2014. In life or death, her music embodies relevant demands for social justice and peace, but also personifies her willful spirit that refused to dance to the tunes of Siad Barre’s government in the ‘80s. In her refusal to accept the ongoing traumas and silences around Tahriib (Somali slang for the long and dangerous journey to Europe), Warsame asks us what does solidarity look like when so many of us are perishing from hunger, drought and diseases? It is this question that agonizes Diaspora babies like me, who Warsame showers with love, while scolding them to not be agents of neocolonialism.”
Vincent van Velsen chose Banana Boat Song by Kid Dynamite and by Harry Belafonte
“Both Harry Belafonte and Kid Dynamite sing about the hard, nocturnal work that comes with exporting the fruits of the colonial labour to the Metropole.”
Amal Alhaag’s pick: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Two Sides Of Silence
“Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry documents the local conditions of Black working-class life in Brixton, London, Britain of the ‘70s and ‘80s. His music is the soundtrack of a remarkable period where the children of the Windrush generation of Caribbean and African migrants reshaped the face of the British society, labour force and culture. In Two Sides of Silence, an experimental and sonic poem, Johnson expresses the postcolonial double-bind: the act of being present and absent which point towards the global struggle for freedom in what Saidiya Hartman calls the ‘Afterlife’.”
Antonia Alampi’s pick: Miho Wada with Political Lullaby
“This choice is not necessarily directly related to Miho Wada, a brilliant jazz musician whose entire album “Oblong 20.5” containing this song is worth listening to, but to something the title of this song mixed with recent readings has inspired. Or, to paraphrase Kodwo Eshun in the conversation that is part of sonsbeek’s ‘Wherefore this busy labor without rest’‚— this brief reflection is something this song has found in me, and I followed the song, blindly listening. Now imagine: it´s the end of Troy. The city is on fire and Greek fighters after having killed every Trojan male and every pregnant woman they could find, are now sacking, drinking, chanting, gang raping, and selecting the noblewomen to divide as prizes between the heroes. This is no news, it is part of a long tradition and an innate aspect of warfare. The singing, the playing, the composed poetry by the winners is what gave form to their own mythology and history. Homer, we know, might have been the first to have given written form to what had existed as an ancient preceding oral tradition. But there were more sounds to be heard than the songs of the winners, tunes that were not as loud nor as noticeable. These were lullabies sung to children born out of war-winning fathers and enslaved mothers: Trojan lullabies sang to Greek babies. It is in this moment of listening that Briseis, Achilles´ bed-slave and a central yet briefly described character whose contentedness between Achilles and Agamennon will lie at the heart and incipit of Homer's Iliad, suddenly realizes something so powerful it will change the course of her will/thought/future/destiny: “We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They'll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We'll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too”. And here, we may think now, is where the political begins.”
Vincent van Velsen contributes three songs by Lieve Hugo: Oeng Booi, Srefidensi and Okrosoepoe
“In Oeng Booi, Surinamese singer Lieve Hugo asks if the “guys can handle a job” and “can deal with life”? They answer him in classic rebuttal style. Lieve Hugo is also known as the King of Kaseko and one of Surinamese most famous and beloved singers. He became an icon for the country's Independence from the Netherlands and made the unofficial anthem Srefidensi – which roughly translates into Independence or Self Determination – that he would have performed at the independence ceremony on November 25th 1975, had he not passed away 10 days prior.
In the movie Wan Pipel (Pim de la Parra, 1976) – that translates to One People or One Nation – the Lieve Hugo song Okrosoepoe (okra soup) is featured as a soundtrack to an emblematic scene in which the main protagonist has left The Netherlands to attend his mother's funeral in his home country of Suriname. Right after his arrival, he heads to the main market of capital Paramaribo to (re)connect with the country and refresh himself with all the nourishments it has to offer, while Lieve Hugo sings how the guys like the different dishes [dattie de jongens lobbi]. Wan Pipel was co-commissioned by the Surinamese government together with the Dutch government, and released one year after the independence. It is considered a gift to the new nation and a statement on how the different ethnicities of the country are now joined in one nation – instead of segregated within a colony. The film metaphorically narrates a colonial love affair that cannot continue. Along with the main character we discover and revalue Suriname and all its natural and cultural splendour. Throughout, Wan Pipel addresses the history of slavery and subsequent contract labour as a shared foundation between the different inhabitants. Hence, the film moves beyond the bounds of colonial divide and conquer politics towards a coming to terms with differences; and a binding of all into a novel independent nation. Or in the words of Lieve Hugo: “Wi na Wi, Wi na (wan) Famiri man” (We are us, we are (one) family).”
Vincent van Velsen contributes Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang, New Slaves by Kanye West and Slave Mill by Damian Marley
In the final years under Jim Crow law and several years prior to his ushering A Change is gonna Come (1965), Sam Cooke encountered a chain gang of prisoners on the road. He translated this experience into a tune that resembles, as much as describes, the sounds that accompany these forced labourers. Both an anthem and ode to their hard work, the song reminds of plantation chants and refers to the blues. When Cooke wrote Chain Gang (1960), the prison system of the United States was designed as a means to continue segregation, slave and free labour. And still today the penal system and law enforcement of the US is dominated by private companies (and their lobby) that benefit from the imprisonment of a disproportionate number of black people, and the profit from their forced labour. This is also pointed out by Kanye West in his New Slaves, stating: “Meanwhile the DEA, Teamed up with the CCA, They tryna lock n-s up, They tryna make new slaves, See that's that privately owned prisons, Get your piece today". In the same vein, Damian Marley addresses the essence of the workings of the system that has not changed much post-abolition in Slave Mill. While prosperity, equality and better living conditions for the people are tirelessly presented as a bright future, reality has proven itself not to be much different than a perpetuation of Babylon: “Working for a dollar bill; Walking home, a child gets killed; Police free to shoot at will; Nine to five you know the drill; Come run it over till it spills; Take until they've had their fill; Sad to see the old slave mill; Is grinding slow, but grinding still.”
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung’s pick: Hugh Masekela’s Stimela
In 2009, at age 70, Hugh Masekela delivered one of his most intense and stunning performances in Lugano. Not only because of the way he pumped up his audience and made them lose their cool; not only because of his capacity to capture, spellbound and then release his audience into moments and spheres of ecstasy; not only because of the sheer Kraft and majesty with which Masekela carried himself in this particular performance; not only because of his fierce and sharp humour, but because of the way he traced the arc between the past and the present with his piece “Stimela (the coal train)” and through the forever contemporary issue of labour, its conditions and rights. As he sweated profusely from his performance he situates Stimela by dedicating it to all those people we see on TV, always running and falling and hiding and screaming and dying from wars. He laments about the loss of urgency and agency in humanity today, a humanity that stares at all the ills of the world, but seems to shake its head and continue with business as usual. As he dedicates the song to the people of Dafur, Somalia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and more, and he fights the sweat that pushes into and out of his eyes, he kicks into that very phenomenal geographical charting of exploitation in the name of labour. Stimela is an anthem of indignation against the collapsing of distances facilitated by the capitalist regimes as the coal trains schlep people from Namibia and Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique, Lesotho, from Botswana, from Zwaziland, and “all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa to come and work on contract in the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg and its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day for almost no pay.”
Stimela is particular, especially because it captures the plight of the labourers as they leave their homes, as they leave others behind, as they delve into the belly of the earth to dig out treasures from which they won’t even get crumbs. And these all are captured through and in an incredible sonic scape. As Masekela embodies the train and produces the screeching sounds of the train on its rails, the pumping of the train brakes, the horn of the trains, the listening is carried on on that journey in the coal train. The journey continues as he makes a sonic portrait of the labourers dishing “that mish mesh mush food Into their iron plates with the iron shank” and takes you into “their stinking, funky, filthy, Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.”
Stimela is a compelling narrative of the history of workers’ fates, of the darkest underbellies of the capitalist systems, of oppression and loss, but also of the disenfranchisement of some parts of the world that have led to the privileges of the so-called social states of the self-proclaimed “first world.”
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung selected Prince Nico Mbarga’s Music Line
In his rather short life, Prince Nico released over 17 albums. Amongst his most active years was 1976, in which he released three albums. One of which is Prince Nico Mbarga & Rocafil Jazz. In my opinion, the most striking song on this album, which became another anthem, is Music Line. One of the most striking aspects in Prince Nico Mbarga’s music is that some were in-depth social studies, and political works without wanting to be political. One of the many postcolonial predicaments is the relegation of professions in arts and culture (especially if it's ours), and the embracing of all those jobs considered by the coloniser as honourable, and especially if they translate into both status and the neoliberal capitalist economic agenda. In other words, every parent wants to have a lawyer, medical doctor, engineer in the family. In the song Music Line, Prince Nico makes an argument, sometimes with bitter humour, for the profession of a musician. It’s an autobiographical story of the young Prince Nico telling his father he wants to be a musician. His father responds that musicians don’t make money, musicians don’t marry, musicians squander money on women. But Prince Nico rebels against his father, becomes a musician and after a few months sends his parents a chunk of money. After a year, he tells his father he wants to marry a “fine fine” girl. Six months later, he goes to his parents with a second woman he wants to marry, and when his father says “na wa oo,” Prince Nico responds “no bi wa, Na wa wa wa!” And on and on he goes about his cars, success etc. The moral of the story being exactly what you just thought and as he says himself in the song:
“So ladies and gentlemen, this life is what you make of it/ As you make your bed so shall you lie on it.” And pledges on people to allow him to play music because “after all, music is business.”
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung contributes Nina Simone’s Work Song
It might not be a very straight line, but there are several connections between the plantation systems and the prison enterprise, in terms of the violences of deprivations of all kinds of freedoms, dispossessions of all kinds of wealths and rights, as well as the racial regimes that frame both the plantation and the prison enterprises and the “free” or “almost free” labour involved. As Katherine McKittrick put it in “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place” (Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 12, No. 8, December 2011):
“The logical extension of the plantation and acts of racial violence, as well as urbicide, is the prison industrial complex. A rapidly expanding, taken for granted, and familiar institution, contemporary prisons mimic, but do not twin, the plantation. Indeed, practices such as racial punishment, the criminalization of non-white bodies, and the legal codification of servitude can be found across the differential space-times of plantations and prisons.”
Nina Simone’s Work Song seems to me like a circle of this complex. A complex that is meant to keep one — especially black and brown bodies — under a state of emergency, of ever wanting, of unaffordability. And it doesn’t matter how much you work, and how many rocks you break or where you break the rocks — be it on the plantation or in the prison — you will still have a long way to go. In the midst of the protests against the murder of George Floyd, against racial injustices not only in America but in the rest of the world, one thing some people have cared to point out is that some people have been looting during the protests. The president of the USA went as far as quoting a fascist statement that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” What they have forgotten to ask is, why on earth would people — predominantly black and brown — in one of the richest countries in the world have to live on less than minimum income, live on the streets, live in abject poverty, and even if some of them work two or three jobs, they won't be able to afford the basics. What they don’t seem to want to ask is: why is it that it is mostly black folks in America that have been massively affected by the COVID-19 crises? Especially as these people have been historically disenfranchised and kept in that circle of deprivation. That circle in Nina Simone’s Work Song is a circle that keeps you in that space where you have committed a crime, as she sings a “crime of being hungry and poor”. If you keep a person hungry and poor, you will force the person to rob, then imprison the person to take them out of circulation, deprive them of their basic rights and have them “Working and working/ But I still got so terribly far to go.”
When Nina Simone sings of wanting to break this chain and run, it seems to me she is singing about the breaking of this circle that keeps people in different forms of slaving labour. As time passes, so too do the forms of labour adapt themselves and the common thread seems to be the wish to exploit. There is a continuity that is expressed: “Been workin' and slavin’/ An' workin' and workin’/ But I still got so terribly far to go.” The endless chain of the exploitation of bodies, and extraction of and from certain bodies by keeping them forever working.
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung’s pick: Driva Man by Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach
Driva’ Man begins with a rattle and a whip of the drum. It is impossible not to think of the skin of that drum as the skin of the human, the worker, the enslaved men and women whose skins bore scars from the whips of their overseers, and as the physical wounds healed in one generation, the psychological wounds are carried from generation to another. To paraphrase Babatunde Olatunji, who was also part of Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” a drum must be a living being since it, in essence, is made of the skin of an animal and the trunk of a tree. So, as Max Roach whips on, Abbey Lincoln sings, in her very determined and urgent voice, of the “driva man” — the embodiment of the white plantation owner and overseer who will walk around in his khaki or linen suit sheltering himself from the sun with his hat, and armed with a whip. Doing nothing but “overseeing,” he would scream at those working and curse them for being lazy, while whipping and brutalising. The “driva man” is as much a brutal overseer of work, as much as a rapist and sexual molester. As Abbey Lincoln sings “Driva man he made a life/ But the Mamie ain't his wife.” The “driva man” misused his position of power as he transformed himself into savage, dehumanising himself in the process of dehumanising the one he has forced into enslavement: “Driva man's the kind of boss/ Ride a man and lead a horse/ When his cat 'o nine tails fly/ You’d be happy just to die/ Ain’t but two things on your mind/ Driva man and quittin' time/ Runaway and you'll be found/ By his big old red bone hound/ Pater oller bring ya back/ Make ya sorry that you black.”
It is interesting to see how the characteristics of the “driva man” have informed the police system. How the police, instead of caring for the people, engages of varying brutal acts of containment and molestation that sometimes lead to the deprivation of breath, as in the cases of Eric Garner or George Floyd in the USA, or Samuel Wazizi in Cameroon — to name but a very few. It is said that, sometimes the “driva man” was recruited from the lower ends of society. A job also favoured by poor white folks who saw this as an opportunity to pass on their frustrations in life through their whips on the bodies of black people. Just like the police system, today, which is in many cases filled with social failures, the frustrations of their failures seem to be manifesting in their racist violences on black and brown people. Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone responds to Abbey Lincoln’s deep and powerful singing and one can see in our mind’s eyes the people ploughing and picking under the sun, but still the “Driva man'll start to swing/ Ain’t but two things on your mind/ Driva man and quittin' time/ Get to work and root that stump/Driva man'll make ya jump/ Keep a movin' with that plow.”
Toto Necessite // Si J'etais President //
Despite being the first black nation to fight and gain its independence with the Haitian revolution (Revolisyon ayisyen) against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804, led amongst others by Toussaint Louverture, Haiti has seen its fair share of problems. Some caused by the draconian economic “punishment” laid by the colonialists on the Haitian nation for daring to be independent, others caused by natural disasters, and more often than not due to terribly corrupt politicians who came to power and, instead of being servants of the people, became dictators. Haiti, like many other colonised places, has had a leadership problem.
What does it mean to lead, to preside, to guide, to direct your people? In 1986, General Henri Namphy (1932 – 2018) took power as Haiti’s interim president, leading the National Council of Government made up of civilians and military members with the aim of setting up an election and democratic changes. The country prepared for the election which was set up for November 1987 but later cancelled because some three dozen voters were massacred. This threw Haiti into a bigger political mess that led to a fraudulent election of Manigat in 1988, a coup d'etat by Namphy to overthrow Manigat and another coup d’etat by general Avril to overthrow Namphy. In the middle of this, in 1987, Toto Necessite wrote a song with the title Si J'etais President.
He commences the song by singing that all madness is madness. Power madness is madness, he stresses. One can say, Haiti was experiencing a state of political madness. He sings of the estimated 200 people that have ambitions to become president, he would put himself at the service of and to work for his people if he were president. He would open schools and hospitals everywhere, he would be sympathetic and set up a proper democracy, he sings. He says if he were magistrate of the state, he would use all means at his disposal to keep a clean country and be open to criticism. If he were the minister of the republic, he would set up a round table for all senators to discuss the problems of the country. Toto Nécessité implements, consciously, the notions of president as someone who presides and governs, a magistrate for someone who directs by serving, and a minister for someone who serves under the authority of the people. If he were president, he would open the borders for people to come in and do business with the people of Haiti, he would put his government at the service of his people and not themselves.
In what sounds like a presidential campaign when he sings that everyone should support him, Toto Nécessité actually is calling on all the candidates to remember why they are vying for the position of president. He is reminding them of the responsibility they will have on their shoulders. He sings of justice and security for his people and visitors, he sings of giving people electricity and water and peace. He sings about the fact that being president, being a leader, is a job. He would put all religious groups together under the rule of law. He stresses on the importance of education in the well being of the people. He calls on people to vote, to vote for him. In listening to this beautiful man sing this beautiful song, one can’t help but think of this song as a piece of political literature and philosophy. Every student of administration, every aspiring politician, everyone who wants to become a servant of the people needs to internalise this song. Being a leader is a job.