A Journey to Johannesburg and NOT Addis Ababa/ Chapter VI: Dance, Shop, Laryngitis.

A Jo’burg bridge at night

I was supposed to be on my way to Addis Ababa right now but a nasty bug came to inhabit my body yesterday and made me lose my voice and feel unwell. I do hate when that happens but it does occasionally and whining won’t help.

Beat, the Thulani Lodge manager, kindly booked me another day in my most pleasant little room and United Airlines was extremely helpful about changing my reservation. So, I have been in bed reading all day. It isn’t quite as much fun when you don’t feel well as when you’re just playing hooky for a few hours.

The nice folks that gave the Corpocracy its logo/symbol according to “Cloud Atlas”

About my reading…finished “Cloud Atlas” which EVERYONE should read. David Mitchell is easily one of the best writers of contemporary fiction around so take this ride with him through the history of the power and destructiveness of consumerism. If that sounds a bit dry it is definitely not; Mitchell shows off his flair for capturing diverse ages, locations and cultures in just the right literary voice; he is clever, funny, and smart. Don’t be afraid…you don’t know you’re reading a critique of where our culture of consumerism is taking us until you get into An Orison of Sonmi-451 about half way through the book—or at least I did not.  QUICK…READ IT…movie’s coming out this month.

Today I read a brand new Paul Theroux novel “The Lower River” about Malawi where he once lived as a Peace Corps volunteer. I haven’t read so many of his novels, not finding them as rewarding as his travel lit but this, like “Mosquito Coast” is a good if rather unsettling day’s read.

Just bought seven new books at my favorite neighborhood book shop…think I’ll begin blogging about books when I finish up this South African adventure.

Okay then…it is 6pm in Jo’burg, hot days, perfect evenings, breeze gently blows my curtains…I am having smoked beef flavored potato chips and banana milk for dinner.  I believe this will put the finishing touches on my road back to perfect health. (Not true, ate a few of those chips and they’re nasty and think I’ll stick to water until my bug leaves—but it is what I had in my room!)

Hakim & Panaibra

Africa Consortium, of which North Fourth Art Center has been part for several years, is interested in the next generation of U.S. and African artists getting to know each other, share ideas, make and/or support each other’s work together has put some funds toward the travel necessary to make this happen. Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque Poet, writer, theater guy, young people’s advocate has come along on this trip. Hakim is what it’s all about with his great curiosity, passion, and intelligence. He was everywhere on this trip, poking into the multi-cultural multi-disciplinary world that is Jo’burg and South Africa.

MORE DANCE.  Three pieces to talk about before I feel that my own tour of Danse l’Afrique danse is over. South African artist Sello Pesa’s Theatre Inhabitant is profound although you might not know that right away. A downtown somewhat shabby industrial street. Traffic going by. On one side a man dressed in a dark suit stands at a podium and reads what sounds like the City’s new cultural/downtown development plan. A small audience of well-dressed bureaucrats and their guests sits on folding chairs in front of him.

Nothing much seems to happen and then you begin to notice the small stuff, a street guy bangs his head on the cement wall blocking off a vacated building complex in great disrepair; then bodies roll into traffic, a drunk gets caught in a barrel and rolls frantically about, a hat lies in the street fallen from one of the vagrants/drunks; it’s run over repeatedly. Meanwhile the official drones on about the astonishing results of this new and latest city plan.

I particularly like this because I worked for about 10 years in the City of Albuquerque’s Cultural Affairs Department and there are a multitude of cultural plans lying about, mostly both unread and unimplemented, that were once announced in just such pompous tones.

Hakim and I took a morning trip to Rosebank Mall which has the best collection of good quality African crafts around. As we settled in for a leisurely lunch and the first cold beer had just been put in front of us, a sting operation went into action right next to our table. Since it was two sort of skin-heady looking white guys grabbing and holding down a black guy we, being children of the other most racist nation on earth, were immediately indignant, snapping pictures as fast as possible to catch the dirty deed as it went down. Turns out we jumped the gun a bit. We were told by several people there, black and white, that it was a sting operation and that the guy being ‘stung’ was indeed a bad actor, stealing and defrauding about the city with great aplomb—finally he was caught and I guess it was a good thing. Still…I only trust the cops (anywhere) a tiny bit more than the criminals so it’s hard to come to firm conclusions.

BACK TO DANCE. Friday night was the last really big night of the festival. It began with a performance, Les Sorciers by Aly Karembe (Mali) at the Dance Factory in Newtown where much of Jo’burg’s art action takes place, then we trekked (well, bussed really) out to Soweto Theater once again. What an evening! Three quite fine solos in a row, Fana Tshabalala (South Africa) and Gates of Hell; Bertrand Tchebe Saky (Senegal) and Demna and Jean-Michel Moukam Fonkam (Cameroon) and Une Fenetre. While they were all captivating, each in its own way, my favorite was Gates of Hell. Tshabalala is a magnificent dancer making it almost impossible to look away which is rare situation to find oneself in after a solid week of wall to wall dance.

The crowning event of the night was Peter John Sabbagha’s One Night Stand. P.J. has been making dance in South Africa for a long time and, even though I have only seen two of his works I am delighted and impressed each time. This is the second time I’ve seen One Night Stand and it just gets better.

It is a big sexy piece with wild dancing and a message…but I think the program text can describe it better. “…The choreography is fast. The movements are so fluid that they curl with contortion, electrifying with their kicks followed by decelerations, wanes and surprising deadening effect. The sumptuous lighting…takes us through different climates and atmospheres which help shape the strange world of One Night Stands. P.J. Sabbagha creates a visceral dance, which examines the impact of AIDS on the body of each individual.”

Friday night was also the night of the grand presentation and cocktail party hosted by Total, the company sponsoring some part of Danse l’Afrique danse. According to their web page, “The TOTAL Group is a multinational energy company and the fourth largest publicly traded integrated oil and gas company in the world. With operations in more than 130 countries, the group employs around 95 000 people in its businesses that cover all aspects of the petroleum industry, from oil and gas exploration, development and production, and liquid nitrogen gas (LNG) in its upstream operations, to refining, trading and shipping crude oil and petroleum products in its downstream operations. The TOTAL Group also produces base chemicals and speciality chemicals for the industrial and consumer markets. In addition, it has interests in the coal mining and power generation sectors.”

Before One Night Stand we got to hear several speeches from both French and South African Total VIPs. We should be grateful that they support the arts, I suppose. Their speeches included references to the many social and cultural projects they fund. Hate to be cynical here but I would love to know what percentage of their earnings goes to good works compared to what percentage goes into the pockets of the execs and shareholders. AND what they’re doing to the environment. “Cloud Atlas” has a good description of what the world will be like when the Corpocracy is in full control…it ‘s not pretty and it’s almost here.

But what the hell. The terrace party with white table clothes, candlelight, black-suited waiters, a string quartet (I think) and lots of wine and hors d’oeuvres overlooking the lights of Soweto was impressive. I am thinking ‘it’s not your father and mother’s Soweto anymore, is it.’ And that is a good thing. Although no good will come of it being Total’s Soweto either.

I want to go  home now. The End.

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