Author: Eugene Ulman
The first African record I ever heard was a 10-inch vinyl release by the Soviet state-owned label “Melodiya,” a compilation album with the very prosaic title, “Songs of the People of Africa”. My parents had brought this record from Russia to Australia among their eclectic collection, which included classical music, lots of Russian music (singer-songwriters and albums for kids), as well as some international artists like Mireille Mathieu and Harry Belafonte. The African album had been released in the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union was supporting various national liberation struggles across the world, including Africa, and in the spirit of revolutionary solidarity, Melodiya considered it important to represent the various cultures of the people involved in these struggles. Interestingly, the comrades at Melodiya did not consider it necessary to credit the artists who perform the music. None of their names are mentioned on the album, only their places of origin: Angola, Dahomey (Benin), Volta (Burkina Faso), Guinea, Sahara etc. The individuals were unimportant, it was all about the “people.” But the story doesn’t end there. Whoever was in charge of manufacturing evidently wasn’t familiar with the music and how it should sound, and they made a very odd mistake: the record was pressed at the wrong speed.
When you listen to it at the slowest speed on the turntable (33rpm) it sounds speeded up, as it otherwise would have sounded when played at 45rpm. Of course, as a kid I had no idea that anything was wrong. It was the only African music I had heard at that point. It made a huge impression on me and I loved it. I just assumed that this is how these people play and sing, and accepted the sound as it was. It was only much later, when I was a teenager and heard other recordings from these countries, that I went back to my parents’ place, found this record and listened to it again. And that’s when I figured out that my first introduction to African music was based entirely on a Soviet technical error. This was the beginning of my relationship with the African continent.
Going to school in 1980s Sydney meant having almost zero exposure to any kind of African culture. Later in my high school years I saw the Market Theatre company on tour from Johannesburg at the Belvoir St Theatre performing a play called “Asinamali” by Mbongeni Ngema, the story of five prisoners brought together in a South African prison during the 1983 rent strike in Lamontville township near Durban, in which the rallying cry was “Asinamali,” Zulu for “We have no money.” The play was unlike anything I had ever seen before, with the amazing ensemble cast playing multiple roles and incorporating powerful acapella singing into what was thoroughly modern, cutting edge theatre. At that time, the Anti-Apartheid struggle was in full swing, and South Africa was on the international agenda. Being a politicized teenager, I started thinking; why is there an entire continent that we seem to know absolutely nothing about besides Apartheid and famine? From this point on, I began scowering the music shops of Sydney looking for African records. There were few available, and they were always imports and therefore expensive. I usually had to sell three or four records in my collection in order to afford one new African record.
I still remember the first African albums I bought: “Mr. Music” by Thomas Mapfumo, “Thokozile” by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, “Nelson Mandela” by Youssou N’Dour, “Tomorrow” by Hugh Masekela, “Stand Your Ground” by Juluka, “Aura” by King Sunny Ade, and “Soro” by Salif Keita. Then Paul Simon came to Australia with the Graceland tour: a momentous opportunity to see Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ray Phiri, Bakithi Kumalo and other South African musicians live on stage. Around that time, I discovered that there was a show on Sydney public radio station 2SER-FM called “Globestyle” that played music from all over Africa. From then on, I would look forward to 10pm on Wednesday nights and record the show on cassette so I could listen to the music repeatedly. Initially I could relate more easily to the Southern African sound. It took me longer to feel the Congolese and West African vibes, but I was fascinated enough by them to keep listening, and when I finally got it, I became obsessed.
My classmates at school had already thought I was weird, and this convinced them even further. I tried to spread the good word by making mixtapes for some of my friends, but my evangelism did not achieve the conversions I had hoped for, and it soon became apparent to me that this was a journey I was taking on my own, at least for now. I knew that I had to go to Africa. I had no particular mission or purpose in mind, just the awareness that this was the only continent that we never learned about in school and never saw on TV, and the need to know why. Also, on a more personal level, I longed to be in a place where loving this incredible music was normal, and not considered weird.
When we finished our Year 12 exams many of us were making travel plans. Some took a gap year; I started university but worked at the same time and saved up money to travel. While my classmates wanted to see Europe and the US, I fantasized about Dakar, Accra, Abidjan, Kinshasa and Nairobi. This was before the internet, so I did not have even the vaguest concept of what any of those places even looked like. When I searched for images of Africa in library books and encyclopedias I found mostly animals and landscapes. I knew that I wanted to go to clubs and see live bands, so my plan was to stick to the big cities. I was not expecting much culture shock, as I imagined all of these cities would be quite international, and expected them to feel quite familiar.
I vividly remember my first arrival in Africa. I had deferred my university studies and was barely 19 years old when I flew into Dakar on Alitalia and got a taxi to a hotel near the Kermel Market that a musician I met in London had recommended to me. My first two days were horrific. Nothing felt familiar at all. The hotel was a filthy windowless brothel, and in my bed I swam in a pool of my own sweat together with bugs of all sizes that I could not identify. By day as I walked the streets, I was stared at by intense-looking Senegalese vendors – and anyone who has been to Senegal knows how intense those looks seem when you’re unfamiliar with the culture. I had no one to talk to; no way of knowing whom to trust, and everyone who engaged with me seemed to want money. Yes, I’m sorry, I know this is a stereotypical story of a Dumb Foreigner’s First Days in Africa. I wish I could say mine was different, but no, that was pretty much it. I was in tears, and all I could think was “Why did I come? What the hell am I doing here?” Part of me felt like simply getting the hell out of Dakar, but where would I go? To another town in Senegal? Or to another country? I had no mental picture of what those places might be like either. For all I knew, they could be even worse. And so, I told myself what over the years since then I have repeated to myself in many other places when things got tough: “You’ve come all the way here, so you can’t just leave with nothing. Deal with it.”
The first step I took was to walk around town and look for a better place to stay. Eventually I found the Hotel du Plateau in Rue Jules Ferry, near the Daniel Sorano Theatre. Quite recently I stayed there again, for the first time since that first trip, and I am happy to report that it’s still very nice. It was at that hotel that I made my first Senegalese friend. Moustapha was about the same age as me, and he was staying at the hotel with his mother. They were from the city of Kaolack, but said that they visit Dakar often for their family business. I think Moustapha could sense how lost I felt. He approached me in the lobby, when I was asking the hotel staff for directions to a place I wanted to go, somewhere on the edge of town. They were trying to explain to me that outside the city center most streets had no names, and I just had to get to the general area and then ask someone for directions once I’m there. None of this was making sense to me at all, and Moustapha offered to take me there.
So off we went, and of course he easily found the place I needed. Afterwards he just kind of stayed with me. He seemed quite happy to take me around town and basically chaperone me, but at this point I was still in “culture shock” mode and suspicious of everyone. I just kept thinking, “What does this person want from me?” In my mind I constructed an entire scenario, in which he and his mother are con artists, professional grifters, planning some kind of elaborate set-up, with me as their “mark”. She might not even be his real mother. I got even more worried when we got back to the hotel at night from a gig, and Moustapha said he didn’t want to wake his mum, and will sleep in my room on the sofa. Having someone I just met accompany me all day around town was already making me uncomfortable, and I admit that the idea of this stranger sleeping in my room, in a country where I knew no one and hadn’t yet learned to read people, did scare me. But all of a sudden, it was like a switch had been flicked in me, and I accepted that I have to trust someone, and since Moustapha had made the unilateral decision to be my friend whether I like it or not, it might as well be him. That was a turning point for me, and from then on I began to feel completely comfortable in Senegal. I went out every night, heard incredible bands, met lots of people and made friends, ate Ceebu Jen in their houses, and before long I felt like I had been living in Dakar for years.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my encounter with Moustapha and his mother was also my first of many experiences with Sufis in West Africa. When I told them that my next destination was Mali, they instructed me to visit the town of Segou and see a certain Sufi shaykh there. I had no idea what that even meant, and had no plans to travel to Segou. Mostly out of politeness, I said I would try to go there if I can. Moustapha and his mother saw me off at the train station, and when I boarded the train I saw him surveying the crowd before approaching one of the other passengers. They did not appear to know each other, but they had a brief conversation in Wolof, and throughout the entire journey, the stranger would periodically come over to me, just to make sure I was okay.
When we arrived in Bamako, the capital of Mali, that stranger did something very similar: he surveyed the crowd and approached a young Malian guy who did not seem to know him, after which the Malian guy took over and helped me find a nice and inexpensive place to stay. A little while later, after I was settled, he came back with some friends and they asked me what I would like to see and do in Bamako. The first thing I thought of was that I want to see Zani Diabate play. Zani was the most amazing Malian musician I knew. His albums were my African music happy place: intense hard rocking take-no-prisoners playing, ferocious groove, raw folkloric call-and-response singing plus Zani’s incredible psychedelic guitar pushing the whole thing into overwhelming, hectic delirium. Somehow these guys knew where he lived and took me straight to his house. Zani was very kind and welcoming to me, but when I asked him about his next gig, to my horror he told me that he won’t be playing in Bamako for a while, as he was about to go on tour around rural Mali with his band. When he saw my genuine disappointment he laughed and said, “Come with us on tour!” I thought he was joking, but he was serious. And so, I joined Zani and the Super Djata Band in their somewhat dilapidated, custom-painted tour bus, and we traveled to small villages where they performed the most extraordinary shows I had ever experienced, for the most appreciative and excited audiences on planet earth. It was a life-changing experience for me, obviously. The villages on itinerary didn’t have electricity, so the band travelled with an old generator that rattled like a helicopter and would sometimes die mid-song. I slept in village huts and was welcomed like a rock star. After a few days we passed near Segou, and I knew this was my jumping off point. I found a taxi, asked the driver if he knew the Shaykh’s house, and he took me straight there. I told the Shaykh that Moustapha and his mum had sent me, and I was allocated a guest room in the family compound.
It was way too hot to sleep inside, and instead I crashed on the roof of the small mosque, also within the family compound. Apart from the muezzin’s call to prayer at the crack of dawn I slept very well. Each morning I would wake up to find at least 15 small children gathered around and staring at me. During the day, as I walked around the streets, their number would swell to about 30. Their French was only slightly better than my Bambara, but I enjoyed hanging out and playing, and apparently so did they. I spent my days exploring Segou with the kids, and my evenings hanging out with the shaykh’s family. On my last day, as I was saying goodbye to the kids, one of them pulled out a coin and bought me a tinani, a tiny fish similar to a whitebait, from a passing vendor. It was a touching gesture, a genuine desire to give me a present, and I ate it with obvious relish, which the kids found hilarious. Suddenly, another one of the children pulled out a coin and bought me another small fish. And then another one did the same, and another one again – each child wanted to buy me a fish. To this day I remember my tinani overdose in Segou as one of the great moments of sincere generosity that I have encountered.
On that first trip to Africa I made my way across the continent from Senegal to Zimbabwe. As planned, I spent most of my time in capital cities. I felt completely comfortable in all of them, and made friends easily. People just seemed to include me in whatever they were doing. In Ghana I got sicker than I had ever been in my life and hallucinated for four days. People I had only just met nursed me back to health (I later found out that my illness was a side effect of malaria prophylactics, and since that time I have refused to take them). In Kinshasa, I witnessed the last days of the Mobutu regime. I stayed at Hotel de la Creche in Matongé, the nightlife district, where there is a live music venue on virtually every block. Most of them are outdoor clubs, so from the rooftop bar of the hotel I could actually check out the various bands playing around the neighbourhood and decide which to go see. There were strikes and riots in Kinshasa at that time, and security was tight. One day I took a photograph of the musician’s monument at the Victoire roundabout and found myself surrounded by six soldiers pointing machine guns at my chest. I held my hands up and protested my innocence, for a moment expecting the worst. A crowd gathered and began shouting at the soldiers. “Ignore them,” the people were saying to me, referring to the soldiers, “They’re bastards and criminals.” I wanted to point out that machine guns pointed at your chest are hard to ignore, but I couldn’t find the right words. At that point, the crowd actually moved towards me, and pushed their way in front of the guns, shielding me and hurling abuse at the soldiers, who seemed shocked by this, but clearly were not prepared to risk a confrontation with a crowd over me. They shrugged their shoulders and walked away. I was speechless, and feebly tried to thank these people who had pushed their way in front of 6 AK-47s to protect some foreign kid they had never seen before. “Don’t thank us,” people said to me, “we’re sick and tired of them, enough is enough.”
Eventually I made it to Harare. Today, Zimbabweans who were too young to go out in the 90s don’t believe me when I tell them you could walk around the Central Business District at all hours of the night and find live bands. I saw Thomas Mapfumo play a New Year’s Eve show at the Queens Hotel in Kaguvi Street. Some people I met invited me to come with them to a house party in the suburbs somewhere. After a while we came back for more Thomas Mapfumo, then drove to another party somewhere in another suburb and then came back for more Thomas. The music didn’t stop until dawn – whenever Thomas took a break the band played reggae. I saw the Four Brothers and John Chibadura at the Elizabeth Hotel, Ilanga at the Playboy Club, jam sessions at Job’s Night Spot, and basically went from club to club almost every night. Food was fresh and delicious, beers were dirt-cheap and Harare was a diverse and welcoming city with interesting bookshops, art galleries and theatres. My experiences in Zimbabwe, at least on that first visit, were not as intense and overwhelming as in West Africa.
No culture shock, no emotional roller coasters, no life-and-death situations. The streets were clean, there were no vendors, the shops closed at 5 and people went home. Zimbabwe didn’t feel exotic in any way – it was thoroughly familiar, like a mid-sized city in Australia, but with better music. All right, I’ll admit it – I was slightly disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Harare, but I didn’t think it would be the first place I’d come back to. It feels weird writing this now, like confessing that you thought your closest friend was a loser when you first met. Yes, Dakar terrified me and Harare disappointed me, but only because I was too focused on what I wanted them to be, and did not immediately see them for what they really were. I am happy to say that both these cities forgave me, accepted me and eventually adopted me.
Over the years I have come to call the African continent home. I have probably spent the most amount of time in Harare, and it is a city where I have found profound inspiration and friendship, but other cities like Dakar, Maputo, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Addis Ababa and Cairo have all become a part of me in one way or another. More recently I have found a sense of belonging in Johannesburg and decided to make it my main base. It’s always deeply satisfying to return to any of the cities where I feel at home: I find a spot at my favourite café or bar and before long someone will say “I haven’t seen you for a while, have you been away?” The sense of belonging that cities can give us is an entirely different feeling to identifying with a country – cities offer us a commonality beyond nationality. You can be a New Yorker without being American or a Londoner without being English. Those who come and go are just as important to a city’s heartbeat as those who were born and bred there. No matter how much time I spend in Zimbabwe, I will never be a Zimbabwean, but I can confidently claim to be a Hararean. Living in Maputo did not make me Mozambican, but part of me is a proud Maputensa. I don’t know if I will ever be a South African, but I feel I have become a Joburger now. That’s the beautiful thing about cities – they belong to everyone who uses them.
And this brings me back to the thought I started with – why I am not and could never be an Afrophile. People have occasionally introduced by saying “he loves Africa” and somehow this always makes me uncomfortable. What does it mean to “love Africa”? There is something disturbing to me about the idea of picking a country, a culture or a continent and deciding to “love” it above all others. Of course, it’s wonderful and important to learn about a culture and be fascinated by it, but we have all seen the “philes” – the ones who “find” a foreign culture as one finds religion: suddenly this culture is superior to all others, and its clothes, food and customs must be adopted wholesale over one’s own.
I admit, I did go through something close to an Aphrofile phase as a teenager, when I learned that there was such a thing as an Afrocentric perspective, when I began collecting records by Thomas Mapfumo, Youssou N’Dour and Bob Marley, saw the films of Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cisse, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Djibril Diop Mambety and Haile Gerima and read Cheikh Anta Diop, Ngugi w’a Thiongo, C.L.R James, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah and Ali Mazrui. Knowing how African civilizations have been ignored, distorted and marginalized, of course I understand and appreciate the culture and ideology of Pan-Africanism, but actually living in Africa has cured me of any nationalistic tendencies or romanticism. I no longer know what Africa is. I am often asked impossible questions like “What’s the best country in Africa?” (They’re all places with people in them – I don’t know a single country in the world that isn’t amazing). Or “Are the people friendly?” (Which people? Some are and some aren’t I guess, like anywhere. The people who are too friendly for no reason aren’t necessarily the ones you want to meet anyway, and besides, most people are busy with their own problems and it’s not their job to entertain you). I have found that the sooner the “otherness” of a place disappears for me, the happier I am there.
I remember my first days in Addis Ababa, and how I was conscious at every moment of the sheer “Ethiopianness” of the place. “I’m in Ethiopia,” I kept thinking, “everyone around me is Ethiopian!” Sure, it was exciting to see a place that had never been colonized, that celebrated its own uniqueness and saw no need to conform: the alphabet, the calendar, the musical scales, the spices – everything was different, and so… Ethiopian. But in less than a month it all just felt completely normal, and its otherness vanished. I was no longer conscious of being “in Ethiopia” at every moment – I just was where I was: here was my neighbourhood, there was my favourite bookshop, or the place I go for coffee or the market where I buy my veggies. These days, whenever I arrive in Addis Ababa it feels no different to arriving in London.
Sometimes people describe me as “Africanized”, in the way that some Africans living in the west are described as “westernized,” and perhaps in some ways it’s true. It is only natural that living in Africa, the continent has become part of my identity. I connect with many aspects of African cultures as my own, and if other people recognize this, I’m fine with it, and I understand that it’s meant as a compliment, an expression of acceptance more than anything else. After all, what does it really mean to be “Africanized” when the African continent, named by the Romans, is so heterogenous and diverse? I believe that I remain the same person, regardless of where I am in the world, but my identity, like everyone else’s evolves with life experience. It’s not essential to define it. There is no such thing as “pure culture,” and if we are open and honest with ourselves, we can find a sense of belonging in all kinds of environments without compromising who we are. There is only one sun, and we can be home anywhere on earth that we find ourselves. While we must always acknowledge and respect those that came before us, ultimately no one can truly claim to own a continent, a country, a city or even a street.
About Eugene Ulman
Eugene Ulman was born in Russia, grew up in Australia and has been living, working and travelling all over Africa and beyond since 2001. His work includes filmmaking, writing, photography and producing. He has made documentary films for the BBC, Al Jazeera, SBS and other channels and writes regularly about music for the Sydney Morning Herald. His current project, a film about Johannesburg, has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and is a now due to be released in 2021.