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From Congo to Cuba and back again

The old market

By Simon Lee

Last week, I was ensconced on the 15th floor of the Tour Centreville Hotel on Montreal’s boulevard Rene-Levesque.

The view of the city’s skyline would have been breathtaking, if I’d have had half-a-chance to inhale, but I was too busy to really notice it until my last night, when a pink sunset refocused me.

I was in Mooseland on a musical mission and a reunion with the good folks who run Montreal’s African Nights Festival.

I also was pursuing my explorations of the Creole Confederacy, an imaginary meta archipelago, partly inspired by Cuban cultural theorist Antonio Benito-Roja, liberal infusions of Havana Club rum and the rhythms I’ve been riding from the Congo to Cuba this past decade.
Horse drawn carriage
Amphibious bus

My Creole Confederacy operates along theoretical lines proposed by the brightest man left alive in the Caribbean-Martiniquan Edouard Glissant.

Thinking has always posed major problems for any kind of man or womankind, or unkind, for that matter.

Gratifying our physical or spiritual desires seems to fill most of the available spaces in lives, long, short, brutish or indifferent.

The energy invested and expended on these desires leaves little time for the uncomfortable and usually unfamiliar exercise of independent thought, while the legacy of the plantation and its attendant psychopathology show no signs of loosening their grip.

In fact, thinking is pretty much obsolete in the post-modern world, having been replaced by a culture of lies, spin and virtual reality.

Which is why I prefer to ride the rhythms and explore Glissant’s rhizomes, those horizontal, rather than vertical roots, which jump high, lie low, drunk or sober, continue to intermingle and crossbreed throughout the Creole Confederacy.

If you’d like a map of this metaphysical region, I suggest you consult the great cartographer and surveyor, Wilson.

Don’t give me a migraine, Harris. If this sounds too daunting, we can go geographic and start in Brazil, work our way up through the Amazon, via the Guyanas and Venezuela, swing out into the islands, and then back into Central America.

With the major political poles of Chavez in the south and Castro in the north, the Creole Confederacy probably has a population of nearly 300 million (remember Brazil alone counts for 190 million).

It’s my contention that such a bloc, once confederated, would constitute a serious contender on the world stage, certainly economically and most definitely culturally.

Isn’t it possible that extending ourselves beyond the shores of our own little islands, and joining what Benito-Roja describes as the meta archipelago of repeating islands, we’d create a more expansive mental landscape, far beyond the petty constraints of small island politics and concerns, which would allow for a true emancipation of the mind.

We’d no longer be tied to the umbilical cord of dependence on the West, whether economic, ideological, technological or cultural.

There’s nothing new in this confederacy idea. Simon Bolivar fought for it over 200 years ago; Toussaint L’Ouverture, Louis Delgres, Jose Marti and thousands of nameless slaves died for it.

With Emancipation Day in sight, and mental slavery embraced by most politicians between Cayenne and Cuzco, I’m just offering a different rhythm and style and the possibility of revisioning the region outside the stale parameters of stultifying western discourse and commerce.

But before disappearing in a maze of amazement and the labyrinth of lyrical mystification, let me return to the rhythms and the melodies they inspire.

Montreal’s African Nights Festival effectively extends the Creole Confederacy to its origins in Africa.

I’m not talking genetics here, as empirically we all originate in Africa, whether Azerbajani , Hakka or Hasidim.

To be musically specific, one of the many highlights of the festival was the concert by Congo-born, LA-raised Ricardo Lemvo and his band Makina Loka.

Quite apart from the fact that my good partner Ted Pouniah, manager of the Kola Club where this concert was staged gave me free run of the bar, it was feetically (sic) magnificent in a dancing kind of way to move to rhythms brought across the Atlantic by slaves bound for Cuba in the seventeenth century and which crystalised into Afro-Cuban son, which had then travelled back to Africa in the 1930s and 40s, to be reborn as Congolese rhumba that segued into soukous, which is now resurfacing in Creole music from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in Dominican bouyon and kadans and even in St Lucian soca.

That night I danced till dawn and had bed for breakfast.

And if this wasn’t enough, another night, I was treated to a kora recital by Malian griot Balla Tounkara, who’d bought along his wife and three-month-old son Boubacar with him.

Balla played some traditional songs on the beautiful kora he’d made himself, before launching into an Otis Redding number and some more R&B, which sounded so different on his unique 23-string instrument.

I’m thinking of a course in kora playing at UTT.

Just to top this off, lemme tell you, one evening, riding the elevator from the 15th to ground zero, I was joined by James Brown’s sister, who is just as big in every sense as her better-known bro.

I didn’t really get what the fuss was all about until the final concert of the festival, when I saw her roll onstage and shake down the huge open air crowd with a version of Get on Down Like a Sex Machine.

Wey pappi! Who needs Viagara or bois bande when it have James Brown’s sister?

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