books
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491 DAYS
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Ohio University Press 2014
As a prison diary, this book by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of South Africa stands right up there at the top of the genre worldwide. As a collection of private letters sent to and from the author while she was in prison decades ago, this book is a priceless treasure of recent history as well.

That said, 491 Days is not an easy book to get through — both for the author herself, as she has attested, and the general reader. The letters chronicle Madikizela-Mandela’s time in prison, most of it in solitary confinement during 1969-70, a time of particularly brutal government repression in South Africa. Her crime? She was accused of fostering terrorism against the South African state.

The fact that Madikizela-Mandela was the wife at the time of Nelson Mandela made her a prime target of the country’s police and spy agencies. She was tortured and physically abused while in prison, something that her more famous husband never had to go through in his own prison experiences, and it embittered and radicalized her permanently.

In the pages of 491 Days, we find a woman of royal African lineage who is proudly defiant in prison and determined not to be psychologically broken by her white captors, only to watch her fall apart bit by bit, as any human being would under such inhumane conditions. At one point, she contemplates suicide in prison as a way to offer herself up for the cause of freedom in her country and to bring the world’s attention to the brutal realities of apartheid in South Africa.

The letters exchanged between Nelson and Winnie Mandela at a time when both were locked up behind bars is perhaps the most distressing yet most deeply touching part of the book. They had two daughters at the time, and the couple had no way of knowing who was watching after their children back then or even where their children were living (relatives and friends were looking after the kids, it turned out).

The bonds of love between the two imprisoned Mandelas is strong, though, and in their prison correspondence they exchange letters of such deep affection that it must surely have shamed their jailers.

“We were hardly a year together when history deprived me of you,” Winnie Mandela writes to husband Nelson in February 1970. “I was forced to mature on my own. Your formidable shadow which eclipsed me left me naked and exposed to the bitter world of a young ‘political widow’. I said, ‘I Do’ for better or worse. In marrying you I was marrying the struggle of my people.”

Winnie Mandela was eventually released in September 1970 after 491 days behind prison walls. It would be another 20 years before Nelson Mandela himself would be released in 1990 after 27 years in human captivity, eventually becoming the first president of a free and democratic South Africa.

The prison diary and private letters that make up 491 Days were discovered in recent years among the long-lost possessions of Madikizela-Mandela’s former attorney, then rushed into print. And not a moment too soon, since the last time a book was published under Winnie Mandela’s name was way back in 1985 with Part of My Soul Went with Him. 491 Days also gets its title, at least indirectly, from another classic work of prison writings in South Africa: 117 Days, published in 1965 by South African activist and scholar Ruth First. (First was later assassinated by a letter bomb sent by the South African government security police.)

This book by Winnie Mandela was published in early 2014, just a few months after Nelson Mandela had died, so he never got a chance to read it in his lifetime. Nevertheless, the release of the book did help secure even more firmly Winnie Mandela’s high place in the history of South Africa and its liberation struggle, and elicited renewed respect from various quarters for the ordeals and sacrifices she had made so many decades before.

Just four years after her book release, in April 2018, Winnie Mandela too passed on. To the apartheid jailers of her time, Winnie Mandela had been treated merely as prisoner #1323/69. To South Africans today, she is regarded as a former freedom fighter and the first Mother of the Nation. To family and friends, she was simply known and loved as “Mama” or “Big Mama”.

To many others around the world (myself included), Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a heroine in the truest sense of that overused word, and her book 491 Days tells in its own way the story of one woman, of her struggling people and of a nation in the making. It is destined to be a classic, and one well worth reading again from cover to cover as the years go by.
音楽 music
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TRANSPARENT WATER
Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita
2017
Omar Sosa has staked out a place in today’s jazz music scene as an adventurous, flexible and prolific pianist and composer, who crosses musical genres at will and succeeds at all of them. It is no exaggeration to say that he is a creative genius, with an improvisatory style and sound all his own that draw from the rich musical roots of his native Cuba.

In his latest studio recording, Transparent Water, Sosa teams up with Seckou Keita, a maestro on the kora harp who hails from Senegal. The result is yet another eclectic Sosa outing that transcends boundaries and musical tastes — and may well be Sosa’s best effort yet.

This CD stands out from Sosa’s other past works in that it is more on the ambient, mellow side than other recordings of his, both studio and live, which can be rollicking, roof-raising affairs in the true Afro-Cuban tradition. This time, though, Sosa slows down the pace a bit and plays more introspectively and organically with musicians from other cultures. Call it Afro-Cuban unplugged.

At the heart of all of Sosa’s music is Africa, and the rhythms and styles of Afro-Cuban music are the solid rock from which he jumps off and explores other musical territories and traditions. The pairing up of Sosa and Keita here, in that sense, is as natural a blending of musical forces as the sun and the wind would be to nature. They move well together.

A few of the tracks, such as “Dary” and “In the Forest”, feature just Sosa and Keita, backed up by Sosa’s longtime collaborator Gustavo Ovalles, a percussionist from Venezuela who draws on Afro-Venezuelan rhythms. The trio listen and respond to each other right in the moment.

On other tracks, Sosa seems to be taking a page out of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s celebrated Silk Road Ensemble and its so-called “traditional world music” vibe. In fact, one of the musicians from that very same ensemble, Wu Tong of China, a master player of the sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and bawu (a Chinese free-reed aerophone) joins Sosa’s Transparent Water sessions here. [More on the Silk Road Ensemble in the film review that follows.]

There is a decidedly Asian flavor on some of these songs that complement the African rhythms and chanting laid down by Sosa and Keita, thanks to the guest musicians that Sosa enlisted for this recording from India, Korea and Japan (Mieko Miyazaki on the Japanese stringed koto). An acoustic ambience of Africa and Asia permeates throughout.

Omar Sosa is a very spiritual person, drawing deeply on the Santería religion of his native Cuba, and most of his past musical works have some underlying sacred connection to them. This recording is no exception. There is a spiritual feel to all the tracks on Transparent Water, even those that are not explicitly so.

Whatever genre Sosa delves into, he inevitably succeeds at bringing out the true spirit of the music and infusing it with a whole lot of Afro-Cuban soul — yet remaining original and defining his own style. In this way, he stands apart from many other jazz musicians of today, who do little more than mimic the jazz masters of the past. If you haven’t heard much about Sosa and his work, now is the time to find out. Your musical horizons and tastes are sure to be rocked by this musical force of nature.

A good place to start is Sosa’s YouTube page, which offers up many clips of his live performances, including live versions of songs on this CD. Check it out. The same goes for Seckou Keita’s YouTube page as well.

From beginning to end, Transparent Water by Omar Sosa flows like a mighty but gentle ocean current that picks up listeners along with way and carries them around the globe. Mother Africa is the source of Sosa’s own musical journey, and in listening to this CD, it becomes ours too.
映画 film
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THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
Morgan Neville, director
2015 95 min.
The seeds of what would become musician Yo-Yo Ma’s paean to global harmony and collaboration through the arts were planted not in the grand halls of classical European music in the West, where he had been performing since childhood to high acclaim, but rather in the barren bush country of southern Africa, ancient tribal home of the indigenous San (or Bushman) people.

Seeking inspiration, Ma had visited the isolated region in the early 1990s and witnessed firsthand how music was a vital part of the social fabric and spiritual upliftment of the African people there. Deeply moved, he asked his local San hosts why they held such music-filled trance-dancing rituals and healing ceremonies, and their reply was: “Because it gives us meaning”.

To that moment in Africa, as Ma relates in this documentary film, the inspiration for his Silk Road Ensemble project can be traced back. It would take another decade or so for the ensemble to grow into the global grouping of accomplished professional musicians that it is today, but once Ma formed the ensemble in 2000 as an experimental project, it quickly took the international world of music by storm. And it still is.

This documentary film is the story behind the Silk Road Ensemble and its creator/facilitator, Yo-Yo Ma, a renowned cellist and composer whose family roots are in China. It is a superb example of cinematic storytelling at its best — and one with few equals in recent years, in this writer’s humble opinion.

From the opening scenes of the ensemble busking on a waterfront street in Istanbul, Turkey onward, The Music of Strangers undertakes in visual form what the Silk Road Ensemble does aurally for audiences everywhere: It reminds us of our common, shared humanity and just how precious each culture is to the whole human family — something we all need to be reminded of now more than ever.

As a concert-tour road movie, the film follows the Silk Road Ensemble from country to country in live performance, on small stages and in big concert venues alike. As a travelogue, the film takes us on a journey to countries and cultures we would otherwise not know, be it crowded inner cities or peaceful rural areas or even a United Nations-run refugee camp.

And along the way, we are treated in the film to interviews with several of the 20 or so regular members of the Silk Road Ensemble who make all the great music. We get to know the personal hardships they have endured to get to where they are today — the stories of Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian master of the kamancheh stringed-bow instrument, and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh of Syria are especially moving — as well as their joys and passions.

Cristina Pato, a gaita Celtic bagpipe player from Galicia, Spain is probably the most energetic personality within the ensemble, and her thoughts about culture as a critical link between the past and future in our lives are inspiring. She is one of my favorites in the film.

All the members of the ensemble, in fact, are classically trained musicians in their respective countries, and as such, they serve as eloquent ambassadors for the power of culture and culture-sharing in superseding political and economic boundaries. These musicians come across as modern-day philosophers who could give the old-timers like Plato and Socrates a real run for their money.

This is actually U.S. director Morgan Neville’s second film about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the first being the tour de force Live from Tanglewood, released a few years ago. It was clear there was much more to the story of the Silk Road Ensemble that needed to be told, however, and so he continued telling that tale with The Music of Strangers. The cinematography of this new film is top-class, the editing is tight yet touchingly done, and the sound quality cannot be beat. All around, it is a winner.

There is also a companion CD to this new film, titled Sing Me Home, which has gotten a lot of attention. But that CD, with its over-emphasis on American popular music — and the fact that none of the songs on that disc appear in the movie — did not move me nearly as much as the film did. It would have been much better if the CD were released as an original soundtrack, featuring the same live performances and studio jam sessions that we see in the film.

Beyond that, the Silk Road Ensemble is best experienced not on CD or DVD, but rather live, in person. During their 2014 tour of Japan, I went with my son to see their show at one of the major symphony halls here, not wanting to miss the rare chance of catching the ensemble live. It was an unforgettable performance, to be sure, but also the most expensive concert I’ve ever been to, and I’m not sure I would dish out that kind of money again anytime soon to attend a live show, no matter how good it was.

But I would most certainly watch this documentary film, The Music of Strangers, over and over again, and plan to do so as time goes on. There are many lessons to be learned and many messages to be internalized through this kind of cinematic storytelling, and the power of culture to unite and break down barriers is certainly at the top of that list.

“What’s the purpose?” Yo-Yo Ma says, as the film comes to a close. “Everything I’ve learned about performing, about music, about what happens between the notes — that’s about making sure that culture matters.”

Culture matters. Yes, yes, and yes again. Culture does matter supremely, and if we are wise we will take that time-honored truth to heart. Thankfully, there are enough modern-day troubadours out there, like Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble colleagues, who are making sure we receive that uplifting, empowering message loud and clear, wherever in the world we may be.