Tuesday, August 11, 2009


When she suggested it, I snarked and sneered to Anette that it might be a total sham. I made all the jokes that a seasoned (or cynical) culture industry operative should make. But of course, to prove that I'm a stand-up guy, I then agreed to it. So on Saturday, we took the kids to the Africa Days festival on the banks of the Blue Danube.

Several stages and about fifty small, turreted tents had been set up on a hot, dusty stretch of the Alte Donau, and once we got through the gate (admission: €5 before 5 pm), the first thing I saw was a table full of Obama t-shirts. These items were splashed with a picture of the Man and words he's probably never said, like "Love and Peace will triumph over Fear and Hatred." And the sweetness of that--both the shirts themselves and the possible motives of the people who were creating and selling them--this disarmed my suspicion and skepticism about Africa Days. For about thirty seconds.

It was actually a very nice event. I've always scorned white people with dreadlocks and college boys who proclaim their love of reggae music, even though all they've ever heard is Bob Marley's Greatest Hits. It's pretentious and fake and sometimes worse: some people do this sort of stuff as a way of performing "blackness," and I (still) think that's fucked up. [See: the Rolling Stones.] So as Adinah and V. and Anette and I watched the African styles fashion show, then drank mint tea at the Moroccan tent, and then watched a (great) performance by a dancing-singing-drumming troupe in tribal leopard-skin, I sneered and snarked a bit more.

So Anette let me have it.

'What's wrong with people expressing their love for a culture. Or a continent?' 'If people can't do this, then how can different people ever understand each other?' 'Why are you so suspicious?' 'If you feel this way about these white people, how will you ever be able to explain yourself to our daughter, Adinah?'

All good questions. And we were still discussing them the next night.

But when we left the Africa Days festival, a young all-white band, perhaps Austrian, was onstage, playing what sounded a lot like...ska music.

Okay, there is a real, historical connection between Jamaica and the Motherland, but Still. What the fuck was that band doing playing an African culture festival?

This is my beef: ignorance. If that band, or the event promoters, thought they should play that stage simply because they could do a passable imitation of a music style created by people with dark skin, they're idiots. That's like saying, 'I like black music.' Or 'I like Asian people.' Stoopid. Insidious.

After the festival, I thought my question for that band, and for some of the other (caucasian) people at the event, was 'What connects you to Africa?' Now I know that what I'm really asking is, 'What is my connection to Africa?' Because after all, there we were, at a festival called Africa Days. And as Anette later pointed out, this is our scene: an ersatz community of white Europeans who love African music, or to be more precise, a community of white people who love black people.

So. Is my connection to Africa more real because we've adopted one Ethiopian girl, and another who is half-Nigerian? Am I less pretentious, less guilty of fronting because I continue to listen to Deep Purple (quite frequently), instead of proclaiming my love for all things Ali Farka Toure? I don't know.

But there is a dignity in trying to be yourself, and no one else. Our last stop at the festival was a hair extensions booth. For another €5, a nice woman attached a single braid, interwoven with orange thread, to Adinah's hair. And Adinah was thrilled.

On the way out, she asked me, "Don't you want to get one too, Papa?"

"Naah," I said. "That's not my style."

Does it really need to be any more complicated than that?

1 comment:

Ed Ward said...

Well, okay, your connection to Africa is, although somewhat tenuous, real: you grew up in a country which once imported African slaves, and you grew up over a century after those Africans were let loose to their own destinies within the larger culture. Not many of 'em went back to Africa, and as recently as 1965, I had a job with a gentleman from the South who combed the woods at the summer camp in whose kitchens we toiled looking for plants and roots. He had a name, but he preferred to be known as Dr. Buzzard.

Their music has infected ours, and ours has infected the world. But I think you're right to keep your boundaries up some, in that there's more of a touch of racism in Germanic Afrophilia, in my experience. There's this "Oh, I wish I could be so freeeee!" vibe while they watch the drummers pounding away in a perfectly acceptable enactment of the stereotyped savage, but where are these Afrophiles when the soukous band comes to town? When I saw Sam Mangwana in Berlin, I was one of four white faces in the house: the promoter, Sam's road manager, and a woman I just saw out of the corner of my eye.

No, they're not all like that. But some are. Your instincts are correct. So is your suspicion of them.

Good work.