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The Supreme Price Honors the Struggles of Nigerian Women

Hafsat Abiola was a student at Harvard when she learned that her father, Nigerian President-elect M.K.O. Abiola, was in prison. Moshood was a Muslim who had managed to appeal to his country’s Christian majority and, in 1996, to win Nigeria’s most fair and democratic presidential election in decades. A military coup soon after prevented M.K.O. from taking office.

While he was incarcerated, his wife, Kudirat, led Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement, and Hafsat became an international activist. In the new documentary The Supreme Price, director Joanna Lipper watches Hafsat and her siblings grapple with their parents’ legacy, with what it means to be Nigerian and what it would take to make their country a fair and democratic place.

No hashtag activist, Lipper does an excellent job of using her film as a vehicle for the voices and concerns of Nigerians, and especially of Nigerian women, who are traditionally expected to stay at home while men operate in the public sphere.

But Lipper does not limit her camera to political struggles. In one of the loveliest moments in this lean, lucid film, car headlights slice through crowds at night, illuminating a long arm, a length of cloth. In another, Hafsat’s brother reflects on the mosque where four generations of his family have prayed, and Lipper captures the shadows of the men’s bowed bodies. Late in the film, Hafsat makes the hard choice to leave her family in placid Belgium and return to work in Nigeria, stating that “any society that is silencing its women has no future.” Hafsat Abiola knows how rare is her chance to speak, so with keen intelligence she does, and it’s compelling.

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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

Led by singer-songwriter Reuben Koroma, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have evolved into road-seasoned ambassadors of peace through music since coming together in a Guinean refugee camp toward the end of their homeland’s decade-long civil war. They blend Guinea-Bissau’s zouk-influenced gumbe rhythm, palm-wine guitars, gentle folk melodies, Congolese soukous, the lilting baskeda drum sound reminiscent of Jamaica’s nyabinghi drummers, and reggae redemption songs. Also: Morning Sun & the Essentials.

Tue., Aug. 19, 8 p.m., 2014

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There are Many Reasons to See the Very Difficult Small Small Thing

During work on a documentary about foreign doctors at Liberia’s ramshackle John F. Kennedy Hospital, another story caught the attention of Small Small Thing writer-director Jessica Vale: a nine-year-old girl, emaciated and steeped in her own feces because of damage to her genitals and gastrointestinal system caused by a rape.

Vale is an efficient journalist, packing in facts and riveting interviews about the legacy of Liberia’s wars, the leftover brutality of its enlistment of child warriors, now grown to live their own fractured lives, and a portrait of Olivia and those who tried to care for her.

Olivia’s mother is trapped. In the bush, her family’s leader denies her daughter’s rape happened, yet she’s comfortable there. Life in Monrovia is daunting, despite the many people, including law enforcement and hospital workers, trying to help. Vale gives us the opportunity to meet the Liberian doctors, safehouse case workers, and others, mostly women, who manage to give Olivia reasons to eat, study, and smile, despite their almost total lack of resources.

There are many reasons to see this very difficult film, not least to face the grim realities in Liberia, and to wonder what more could be done to save lives and preserve the human spirit when it is so clearly yearning to burn bright given any small small chance.

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Big Men Reveals How the World of Oil Actually Turns

Here’s the rare current-affairs documentary that doesn’t just show us something gone wrong in some part of our world. Rachel Boynton’s first-rate Big Men instead peels the skin off the world itself, revealing the gears as they grind away, casting familiar doc scenarios in shades of illuminating gray: The heroes and villains in global business aren’t always easy to suss out, but it’s never hard to spot the victims.

Her topic is one that you might think you already have the gist of: the effects of international oil companies on the African countries whose resources they suck. But Big Men is no simple screed against tick-like profiteers growing fat on malnourished hosts, which is fine — you either know that story already or you’ve chosen to live in denial of it, and no new doc is going to change your thinking.

Big Men is a richly detailed portrait of a small American oil company’s quest to begin drilling a deepwater oil field off the coast of Ghana. It’s also a richly detailed portrait of Ghana’s attempts to lure foreign financiers to help exploit the find — and, after elections install a new populist president running on an anti-corruption platform, of Ghana’s determination not to see oil become another gold or cocoa, resources the world has long wrung from the country without its people seeing much benefit.

“Developing nations can’t get greedy,” says Jim Musselman, CEO of the Texas-based Kosmos Energy, as he explains why Kosmos won a hugely favorable deal with the government of Ghana. As he sees it, Kosmos, being the first company in, should see greater rewards than the industry standard — it’s a start-up taking risks. To his credit, that’s the most alarming thing that comes out of his mouth in the movie, despite the impressive access Boynton seems to have been given to Kosmos and its management. He also bristles, hilariously, when a Norwegian tells the Ghanians at a conference that they must aggressively tax whatever foreign company extracts the oil; afterward, he smilingly presses his government contacts. Surely they would only do that to the next company, right?

A banner outside that conference proclaims “Oil — A Blessing, Not a Curse.” Telling the extraordinary (yet entirely ordinary) tale of disparate parties attempting to secure that blessing for themselves, Boynton scores interviews with kings and presidents, with venture capitalists and gun-toting rebels in the delta region of Niger, a country that serves as nearby Ghana’s great cautionary example. In the 50 years of Nigeria’s oil boom, some $400 billion have been stolen by corrupt officials. In bracing, upsetting scenes, the masked rebels complain to Boynton that everyone gets rich but them, that the delta is kept in wretched poverty as a matter of practicality — people who are scrambling for the next meal aren’t likely to be concerned with which party is highjacking the pipeline.

These militants fire their guns in the air and climb into boats to attack oil infrastructure in a region that suffers from no shortage of spillages and collateral devastation. Late in the film, one admits that the vandalism isn’t always principled: A contractor from Shell, he claims, has promised that if there’s enough damage done — and, presumably, environmental disaster — that young man could score work on a cleanup crew. The implications sting. From Wall Street to Africa, personal gain triumphs over any idea of the greater good. (Boynton’s one misstep: cutting from broke Nigerians arguing about oil to red-black wasps swarming about on a pump.)

There’s hope that Ghana might be different. Boynton interviews many officials in the new government, then led by now-deceased president John Atta Mills, who speak passionately about preserving Ghana’s wealth for Ghana. “You can live in relative comfort,” Mills promises a crowd in the run-up to the election. That means, of course, getting “greedy,” as Musselman would have it — “They’re just as crooked as they can be,” he says of Mills’s administration — but not getting as greedy as almost everyone else in the world has. Will Ghana succeed? This film, a great one, demands a follow-up.

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HEAT WAVE

The year’s most exciting West African music comes from Niger, the largest regioin in the nation. Based in the capital city of Niamey, Tal National, making its New York 
debut in a stripped-down sextet configuration, was formed in 2000 by guitarist Hamadal “Almeida” Moumine, who still performs with the band when not engaged in his duties as teacher and municipal judge. A speed rush of contrapuntal guitar lines, hard beats, and chattering mbalax-flavored talking drums, Tal National’s music is a high-octane hybrid greater than the sum of its parts. Fans of Janka Nabay’s Sierra Leonean Bubu sound will notice similarities, too. Kaani, the group’s third album and first export, is a raw, energetic concoction bearing the traces of the dilapidated conditions in which it was recorded.

Sun., Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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AN EXPLOSION 
OF SOUND

What do you do when you’ve created one of the most incredible Latin dance parties in New York City? You create another one. That’s exactly what DJ Geko Jones of Que Bajo is doing with his new party, Africa Latina, at the Brooklyn Taphouse. “I’ve been playing more and more African sounds at Que Bajo, and I realized that I’ve collected enough to do a solid night out here,” he says. Jones enlisted the help of longtime friend Chief Boima, a Sierra Leonean-American electronic musician and DJ, to be his partner in crime on the decks. The two shell out Azonto, Afrobeats, Kwaito, Kizomba, Kuduro, hip-hop, Funana, Semba, and much more. Looking forward to getting on the dance floor, guys!

Sat., Sept. 21, 2 p.m., 2013

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How Mother of George’s Portrait of Dislocation Got Painted

African–born filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George takes place in Brooklyn, but it might as well be set on another continent—or even planet. The story of a Nigerian couple trying to conceive a baby in New York, this visually evocative feature appropriates the intricately patterned textiles, blue and gold colors, and elaborate customs of their traditional Nigerian culture, all in a way that mirrors the characters’ sense of dislocation. “We wanted a little sci-fi feel,” says director of photography Bradford Young, who won the best cinematography prize at Sundance for his work on both Mother of George and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

“I wanted to show a New York completely different from what you usually see,” says Dosunmu, an émigré himself, who moved to the city from Nigeria 18 years ago. “What I really love about it is that many immigrants have their own oases in this metropolis. When you walk down certain streets in Queens or Brooklyn, you could be in Kingston or Dakar.”

Mother of George goes a step further. The film observes devoted wife Adenike (Danai Gurira) in detailed close-ups and lit by ominous fluorescent lights, while her urban background melts away behind her in a dark impressionist blur. As she ventures out across Brooklyn, seeking fertility help from in-laws, friends, medicine men, and doctors, the landscape is a strange, sometimes otherworldly mix of the mythic and postmodern.

Reflecting both a sense of claustrophobia and “the dilemmas of displacement,” explains Dosunmu, the camera follows Adenike in this way in order to make “the audience feel just like her,” he says. “We want to see more, but we can’t, and that’s how she feels: She wants more clarity, but she doesn’t have the solution.”

Bradford Young, who also shot Dosunmu’s Restless City, another film about the African immigrant experience, puts it this way: “New York is an intense city. People are fighting not to be marginalized. And for those who come in from another country—or I came here from the South—our life is trying to be seen,” he says. “And that’s why we shot with such a shallow depth of field. Because this is what Mother of George is really about: See these people that you see every day that you never pay attention to? Forget all that stuff around them: We’re actually going to pluck that person out—the man who sells those nuts on Broadway—and make you see who they are and what they’re about.

“That’s a lot to take on with a lens,” Young continues. “To elevate someone’s concept of another human being by making that focus so resolved that you have to see them.”

Mother of George also employs an impressive color palette. Not only are fabrics, lights, and pieces of the set colored shades of blue—a blue wall, for instance, figures prominently in one pivotal scene—but in post-production, the filmmakers dialed up the indigo. Dosunmu says the colors are derived from African deities. Blue, he says, “is about Yemoja, the god of fertility.”

For Young, indigo has other resonances. “Indigo is such an African thing, because it’s in a lot of our textiles, and a lot of the early plantations in South Carolina were indigo plantations, so our relationship to that material is so intimate and so personal, with ties to Africa and America, and America back to Africa,” he says. “It’s really a pan-African color.”

Crafting such an intensely visual film wasn’t just a result of Dosunmu’s photography background—he’s shot fashion spreads for Fader Magazine, among others—but part of grander ambitions.

For one, he hopes to recreate the type of oral storytelling tradition from his homeland through cinematic means. “When I sit down to hear a story from my grandmother, it’s broken down into a song, a poem, a dance—and I wanted to find a way to have my narratives do that,” he says. Though Mother of George flows sensuously, like a dream, rather than feeling fragmented, there are scenes of dance, music, and beautifully poetic images interspersed throughout, which he hopes replicates the feel of a tale told by an African griot.

Dosunmu also wants to make films that are universal. “I try to work everything out visually at first, because I want my movies to be seen in any part of the world,” he says. “I don’t want to lose anything in translation.”

 

 

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Bombino

There are few better ways to spend a lunch break in Brooklyn than watching Nigerian blues-rock musician Bombino perform his whirling, beguiling guitar epics. Part of BAM’s r&b Festival at MetroTech, Bombino plays rhythms and blues that sound equally familiar and foreign, and it’s that special sort of duality that caught the ear of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who decided to produce Bombino’s latest album, Nomad. But what makes a Bombino concert great, aside from his expert guitar playing, is how his and his bandmates’ Tuareg robes sway with the music.

Thu., July 25, noon, 2013

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OLD SOULS

Led by singer-songwriter Reuben Koroma, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have evolved into road-seasoned ambassadors of peace through music since coming 
together—with the help of instruments donated by a Canadian relief agency—in 
a Guinean refugee camp toward the end of their homeland’s decade-long civil war. Where their 2006 debut album focused on life in the camp, the follow-up took a wider view of poverty and other third-world issues. The octet’s (Brooklyn-recorded) 2012 album, Radio Salone, was inspired by Sierra Leone’s creole culture and the influence of radio, resulting in a strong Afrocentric blend of Guinea-Bissau’s zouk-influenced gumbe rhythm, palm-wine guitars, gentle folk songs, Congolese soukous, the lilting baskeda drum sound reminiscent of Jamaica’s nyabinghi drummers, and reggae 
redemption songs.

Sun., June 2, 8 p.m., 2013

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What Can You Do About the Coming Cicada Invasion? Eat them! (With Recipes)

The common cicada, as it looks just before you eat it

Unless you’ve been hiding underground for the last few months, you probably already know that New York City is due for a cicada invasion. Indeed, the cicadas themselves have been concealed deep in the dirt as they’ve undergone their 17-year life cycle, and are only emerging for the purpose of having sex with other cicadas – which might make the coming infestation seem even more gross. Imagine a sky darkened with flying pests, splooging indiscriminantly from the skies. What can you do besides hiding in your apartment and waiting for the cicadas to leave? Eat them!

Go ahead! Make an insect pizza.

Many have noted that, in the food-challenged world of the future, insects may become a primary food source. Indeed, there are few bugs more meaty than cicadas. Taxonomically speaking, they’re classified as Tibicen linnei of the order Hemiptera. Also commonly known as locusts, they have lacy, transparent wings, an elongated proboscis, and bug-eyes on either side of their heads. Cicadas don’t sting, but they often mistake human limbs for tree limbs, and can land on you and start sucking, though they won’t do any real damage. Over 2,500 subspecies have been identified so far, and all are characterized by the loud buzzing sound they make, which can drive folks crazy.

If you want to really freak out, consider this quote from the Bible, Revelations Book 9:

Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces…

In West Africa, cicadas are sometimes known as “desert shrimp.”

Nothing better than sauteed locusts and guac on a taco

The Jerusalem Post informs us that locusts are the only bugs both kosher and halal: God wants you to eat them. It goes on to note that the best way to cook them is by boiling, after which they can be incorporated into any recipe you want, including cakes or stir-fries. Talking about the place of cicadas in Hebrew history, Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, a senior science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, notes: “Traditionally they were caught, or more accurately rounded up when they were stationary on the ground in the cool desert night. Those who are used to eating them think they taste really good.”

How to incorporate the flying nuisances into favorite recipes? Well, the easiest thing to do is put them on a pizza. First remove the wings and legs, which tend to get stuck in your teeth.

Here’s a recipe from Cambodia, quoted by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization:

“Take several dozen locust adults, preferably females, slit the abdomen lengthwise and stuff a peanut inside. Then lightly grill the locusts in a wok or hot frying pan, adding a little oil and salt to taste. Be careful not to overcook or burn them.”

A recipe for locust adobo originated in the Philippines:

“Slowly cook in soy sauce, vinegar, crushed garlic, bay leaf, and black peppercorns, and brown in the oven or pan-fry afterwards to get the desirable crisped edges. This dish originates from the northern region of the Philippines.”

And finally, here’s a recipe for cicadas from Mexico:

(1) Roast 40 locusts for 10 minutes at 180°, then remove the wings, legs and heads and toss with the juice of 1 lemon, 2 cloves of garlic and salt to taste. (2) Mash 2 avocados and spread on 6 tortillas. (3) Sprinkle with locust torsos and enjoy. Serves six.

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