Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sharp, Sharp! African Video Sunday #3

In honor of Lesotho's Morija Arts and Cultural Festival that got funky this weekend I'm posting a video by the South African DJ Black Coffee who headlined the show. Black coffee knows what he's doing on the decks as he produces club friendly beats that you just want to move to. Because cigar smoke and shaking bodies look so good in slow motion, here is "Juju":

The bonus this week is another vision from the diaspora. This time its Kanye West with his epic short film "Runaway". Say what you will about the guy's personality, but besides the dialog, this video is well put together. Kanye spins an interesting tale of a gorgeous phoenix's time on earth. The phoenix is played by Selita Ebanks in a costume as striking as it is sexy. I wonder if it inspired any copycats on a night like tonight, when we all assume new identities and roam the streets. The soundtrack to the video is well produced and catchy, while the dancing boasts Nigerian choreography.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Morocco and Spain: 4000 Photos in Two Weeks

Pretty fantastic photo project. Very inspiring. I might have to have to do me one of these fancy videos at some point.

Morocco & Spain from Mike Matas on Vimeo.

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Morocco & Spain. 4000 photos in 2 minutes. A couple on the move.

via NPR


What is Google Baraza?

There is a new Google service I've been meaning to try out called Baraza. "Baraza" means “taskforce” or “council” in the East African Swahili language and that is exactly what the service is attempting to be by relying on the strong African tradition of social networks. Baraza seeks to create a community to engage African internet users in issues they are interested in. Baraza Team member Aneto Okonkwo clearly defines the service's purpose:

One of Google’s goals in Africa is to make the internet more locally relevant and bring more people online. One of the challenges of the internet in Africa is that there is a lack of local content online. At Google, we find that users search for information about local businesses, entertainment, health, etc but often don’t find it because the information is not yet available online. In order to help bring more local content online, Google engineers have created Baraza to allow people in countries across Africa to ask questions and post answers to questions from others.

I find Baraza's mission to be quite noble, but Google, ever the innovator, is actually behind in designing a platform for more African content and community on the web. The African blogosphere and news sites have naturally grown on their own to answer many of the questions Google hopes to answer with its service. Afrigator for example, a network of African blogs, has been around for years and plenty other micro communities exist for their respective niche interests. Even so, perhaps what will be innovative about the service will be that it is a more centralized and organized meeting place for those seeking African content to interact and find what they are looking for, albeit without a flashy visually stimulating interface.

One other drawback I can identify is that most of the conversation, if not all of it, seems to be happening in English. Having lived in different regions of Africa with very well established written languages, I can say that a conversation in English is not only limited to a more narrow group with a solid education, it's not always an accurate representation of what people are trying to say. Just ask NGUGI WA THIONGO, the famous Kenyan writer, what he thinks about language and he will likely tell you that language is the vessel of culture (in his own words of course).

Baraza is the latest in what appears to be a string of new initiatives designed to bring more Africans online. Google teams recently spearheaded two conferences in East Africa, in Kenya and Uganda, to communicate with local developers and tech entrepreneurs for the purpose of discussing what new tech/mobile innovations are on the horizon. Facebook too has been looking to expand its market by introducing with select mobile operators that allows users to access facebook for free. This service is marketed towards new web users who are logging on with their mobile phones Hopefully some fruitful relationships will be realized as African consumers are engaged and products are tailored to their interests.

The Google Baraza service has just gone public this week following its beta testing phase and so it will be interesting to see how it grows and evolves. I certainly will be trying out the service. We'll see how well people can respond to queries about obscure locales in The Gambia and Lesotho.

Baraza's introductory video is below:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sharp, Sharp! Video Sunday

Keeping it regional, I am presenting another batch of South African musicians starting with DJ Cleo. I've been experiencing the night scene in Maseru and the DJs down here actually know how to kick out some funky deep house beats worth dancing to. And the local dancing is in fact rather spectacular. That's the inspiration for this tribute to "Kwaito" or South African house.

As a bonus we have fellow South African group Freshly Ground sticking it to Robert Mugabe in their new video. As a result of this song and video, they have been officially banned from playing from playing in Zimbabwe. Freshly Ground and a few other bands played in Maseru last night and I had tickets and everything but it was raining so much during the day that I left the venue early and didn't get to see them play. Apparently the rains did finally abate so they took the stage and rocked Lesotho. OF course by then I was long gone. Instead of seeing the concert I did however check out a local bar with some friends. When we arrived the lights were out, but there was still a huge crowd inside hanging out and waiting for the lights to come back on. My friends and I went up and got our respective drinks by using cell phone screens to see the money, then sat down on some beer crates and watched as a group of spirited young guys sang Sesotho songs in anticipation of the electriciy's return. A solid night after-all.

Friday, October 22, 2010

TED Prize Winner 2011 is Photographer JR

I am a huge fan of TED. TED gives a prize annually. For 2011 the prize belongs to artist JR. Can't wait to see what he'll spend the $100,000 on.

From TED:
JR exhibits his photographs in the biggest art gallery on the planet. His work is presented freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not museum visitors. His work mixes Art and Action; it talks about commitment, freedom, identity and limit.

As he is anonymous and doesn’t explain his huge full-frame portraits of people making faces, JR leaves the space empty for an encounter between the subject/protagonist and the passer-by/ interpreter.

This is what JR is working on. Raising questions…

His personal website is

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sudan's Referendum: Alternate Endings (or Beginnings?)

Sudan is set to have a major referendum in early January to decide whether it should remain a single state or if the the southern Sudanese region should break away as an independent state. The people of South Sudan have generally been unimpressed with the national government in Khartoum and it is expected that in January the majority will vote for independence.

All eyes are focusing on the country to ensure that the vote is undertaken in a free and fair manner without violence. There is however, a history of violence between the North and the South of Sudan. If the outcome of the referendum is deemed to be inauspicious to any of the militias in the country, tempers could manifest themselves with bullets. The Sudanese situation is made even more tense by the fact that largest source of income for the government comes from the oil fields located mostly in the south. On the day of the referendum, the oil-rich regions of the middle belt will cast their own vote as to which side they would prefer to be on, North or South.

The government in Khartoum, it is presumed, is not real excited about the vote. Without a long history of fair elections in Sudan and with such high stakes, we could see the vote manipulated. My biggest fear (besides renewed armed conflict) is that Khartoum will allow the vote to go ahead and even realize the creation of a Southern Sudanese state, but that the oil rich regions will somehow vote to be with the North. You will still see a South Sudan that is excited to have self-determination, but without a major chunk of the resources that could finance their growth. This may lead to more poverty and anger than already exists in high quantities today. Hopefully however, there will sufficient pressure from the international community to see the true will of the people come to life this January 2011. Let's cross our fingers for a peaceful vote.

As we wait anxiously for the referendum to occur, we can at least be entertained by a video urging Sudanese people to vote.

Sharp, Sharp! Video Sunday

I want to introduce a regular feature (well see how long I can manage it) on this site that highlights the high quality, high entertainment realm of music videos from African countries. With domestic entertainment markets booming in many countries and video technology becoming more accessible, the number of well produced videos coming from Africa is sky high. It's become a favorite pastime of mine to discover music from all over the continent and now I want to share the cream of the crop. Some videos will be from classic stars that are making a name for themselves internationally and others I hope you will have never heard before. Regardless, you know with me as the curator we're gonna be keeping it sharp, sharp!

To inaugurate the video feature we'll take a look at a South African woman with an incredibly soulful voice and dedication to producing music in her native Xhosa language. Here is Simphiwe Dana. Love the voice and the Afritopia. Enjoy.

And as a diasporic bonus and keeping with the futuristic theme I'll bring you a funky young cat from the US, Janelle Monae. This girl's legs move in such ridiculously incredible ways and I'm really digging the hair. Freedom.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Water...Blog Action Day

So, word on the street is that it's Blog Action Day and the theme is water. The Acumen Fund blog was kind enough to point that out. Having lived in a village for 2 years where the water table was more than 100 feet deep and open wells were the most reliable way to access the water, I want to echo the call for awareness about the challenge to provide clean water to all the earth's inhabitants in a sustainable way. The fact that water is become more scare while populations are rising rapidly is quite scary to contemplate. Thus the issue is not simply providing access and sanitation, but ensuring that strategies are employed to make water use more efficient. In the US, water comes so easy to us in most parts of the country that we don't even really think about where it comes from. Yet many aquifers in America and elsewhere are drying up. I don't wan to go on, but if nothing else I urge everyone to: (1) find out where their water comes from (if it's not already obvious) to establish a greater connection to the valuable resource and (2) think of ways to reduce water usage. Blind consumption is no longer acceptable. I'm not sure why it ever was. In a global world (it always was), what we do affects others. In the coming years it will be more important than ever to take the African philosophy of UBUNTU to heart.

"You can't exist as a human being in isolation." -Desmond Tutu

And the Blog Action Day video:

Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

Friday, October 8, 2010

University Graduation Party: Lesotho

Graduation weekend went down for the National University a couple weeks ago in Lesotho and I was lucky enough to be invited to a graduation party in a village outside of Maseru. I accepted the invitation immediately, excited about the chance to get out of the city and observe a community celebrating the educational achievements of one of its own.

I was traveling to the unfamiliar village by myself. After wandering around from car park to car park looking for the correct vehicle and after turning down numerous offers to be driven to my destination in a private taxi for only 50 times the normal rate, I finally found the appropriately marked car. On such a busy day as graduation day it wasn't long before the car was full, all of us squeezed beyond comfort, overflowing on to each other. Beads of sweat formed on my face in the mid-afternoon heat as the car weaved through the traffic leaving town. On the outskirts of the city we picked up some enthusiastic young guys carrying oblong paper bags. With smiles on their faces they turned back from the row in front of me and offered me a sip from their obscured bottles. I politely declined.

The car chugged on as the density of the city declined and rocky hills emerged. Eventually the conductor clicked a handful of coins in my direction, indicating it was my turn to pay. Bulky backpack on my lap, butt numb on the thin layer of foam covering the rough metal seat, I struggled to burrow into my pocket for the fare. After some delicate searching my hand finally triumphantly produced the required coinage and I passed it along to the conductor. I sighed and began staring out the window (a favorite past time of mine), determined to engage my visual memory in an attempt to internalize the route. It wasn't long however before I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder, it was one of my drinking buddies from the row in front of me, gesturing towards the conductor. I glanced over to see the conductor holding up the larger of the coins I had given him and saying “Bad money, bad money, bring new money.” Confused, I instinctively looked back to the paper bag wielding guy, my closest friend on the bus. He too echoed the statement, “bad money, it's no good.” At that point I had my “aha moment” and finally discerned that one of the the coins I had provided to the conductor was counterfeit. He handed the imposter coin back to me and sure enough, upon close examination the silver embossed symbol of cattle was indeed scratched, revealing a copper color underneath. I wondered if the people in the vehicle thought I was trying to pull some scam. I managed to blurt out in my defense, “hey, I didn't know”, but who knows how convincing that was. I reached back into my compressed pocket and produced a replacement coin, though in the process the imposter coin dropped with a clink into the abyss of feet below.

I returned to my window and watched as the houses outside were left behind, most of them decent sized cement structures since we were still relatively close to town, with the occasional circular thatched mud hut. After awhile I began to get that feeling where you think you may have gotten on the wrong bus, the objects you've been told to look for just don't seem to be appearing. I asked my drinking friend if we had passed my stop and he was able to reassure me somehow in his mumbly voice that indeed we had not, though we would be arriving soon. True to his word, I soon found the vehicle stopped at a seemingly random spot on the road and I was ushered out. Across the street I noticed a manifestation of one of the few businesses that makes a regular profit in the villages, the public bar. Upon arrival at the bar, I asked for directions to my destination and surprisingly they were delivered promptly and rather clearly by a man who dropped and ignored his hat as he spoke. I followed the dusty paths as I had been told until I reached the modest house on the hillside with the circus-like tent in its yard.

I arrived well before the graduate's caravan from the university and so I was able to get comfortable with my surroundings. I introduced myself to the family preparing for the event and was able to practice my rusty Sesotho with a few unlucky kids. I marveled at the impossibly large pots of food and did a dance with a particularly agile grandmotherly woman wearing a traditional Seshoeshoe dress who was quite fond of sticking out her tongue at me as she shook her body. When the caravan led by the graduated young woman arrived a delightfully welcome chaos ensued. Arms were thrust into the air and the atmosphere was replete with ululations. The graduate, proud yet shy, took her place at the high table under the tent, behind what appeared to be a decorative bonzai tree. A circle formed and it was time for speeches. Her father, a professor at the university, spoke first, followed friends and family, then finally the guest of honor took the spotlight and said a few quick words. With all protocols dutifully observed the time many in the crowd had been waiting for was upon us and the massive pots of food emerged to pay their respects. Queues formed for the adults and the children, the DJ blasted his beats and fingers were well licked. Besides the occasional broken glass and plate and the untimely tumbling of the table upon which the giant bowl of buttery green beans rested, one could call the party a success. It was refreshing to observe a tented gathering where hearts were filled not with sadness, but with joy.

As the sun burned red and hung low in the sky I departed. It was not until darkness prevailed however, that I arrived home. I was satiated. I had a full belly and a satisfied mind, my cultural experience in Lesotho having been greatly enhanced over the course of the day. Sleep came easy.

Below are a few shots I took of the celebration:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rise of African Film

Africa's interest in film is nothing new. From the Masterpieces of Sembene Ousmane of Senegal to second most productive film industry in the world in Nigeria called Nollywood, African cinema can be both artsy and accessible to the masses.

With the video recording technology getting cheaper and interest in African stories growing; on and off the continent, visual media entertainment has exploded in recent years. The usual major players are behind many of the movies (Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya), but other countries across Africa are stepping up their production quality and producing features that are entertaining and aesthetically pleasing. The FESPACO film festival held every 2 years in Burkina Faso has been a mainstay for decades now, but new festivals and awards ceremonies are now popping up as well like the African Movie Academy Awards held annually in Nigeria. As far as competing globally, South African film Tsotsi became the first African film to win an Oscar in 2005. Life, Above All is South Africa's entry for Best Foreign Film for the 2011 Oscars and it has a real chance. Other films released in the near future could be award winners as well. I'm betting Pumzi a Kenyan sci fi short, which played at Sundance this year will captivate audiences on a larger scale when it's rereleased as a full length feature. Another film about Kenya, The First Grader, a true story about an 84-year old war veteran who took advantage of free primary education in the country, is sure to be a touching tear-jerker. Even the film Inception, which I saw recently here in Maseru, has scenes in Mombasa.

Certainly film related to Africa is rising in popularity. Africa is becoming a major film locale with movies that are engaging to African audiences and those around the world. It's refreshing to see a diverse selection of African stories being told and I'm sure there will be many more to come. Film workshops like Film-Africa in Kenya are training the next generation of African Filmmakers to share their visions. Who knows, maybe someday I could work to bring more African stories to the screen.

Check out Kenyan Princess, an African film blog.
Released online, these trailers are creating a lot of buzz:

RELENTLESS from LluĂ­s Prieto on Vimeo.

I especially can't wait to see The First Grader. And I'm quite interested to see Relentless which features the fine fro-y raspy voiced singer Nneka. Hey if anyone knows how I can get the PUMZI short let me know, I've been searching everywhere!