Saturday, November 05, 2016

REPOST: Remembering an African Icon: Brenda Fassie (MaBrr) 3 Nov 1964 - 9 May 2004

Thursday 3 November 2016 was the late great South African musical icon Brenda Fassie's birthday. She would have been 52 years old had she not passed on in 2004. In honour of this birthday, the website OkayAfrica  had a great piece on the 10 best Brenda Fassie songs. Many of my favourites were on the list while others did not make the cut. The wonderful thing about Brenda Fassie was that her large musical repertoire spanned two decades and several genres. Although fans of her music have divided opinions about which song was her best, there was something in there for everyone in her large body of work. For example, like the author of the OkayAfrica article, my brother insists Weekend Special was her best song. I  wholeheartedly disagree. Reflecting on her legacy, here's my piece from 2012 on the icon that was Brenda Fassie.  
The Late Brenda Fassie
Source: Lastfm
The late great South African musical icon Brenda Fassie may be remembered by some only for her infectious hit Vulindlela that took the African continent by storm in the late 90s and early '00s. However, for many of us growing up in Southern Africa in the 80s and 90s, Brenda Fassie's music was the soundtrack of our lives. Her early pop hits were the songs we used to sing along to in the playground in primary school while in high school, her kwaito tracks were the stuff of intricately choreographed dance routines. 
In fact from the late 1980s through the 90s there was a transition in  Brenda Fassie's music from pop songs mainly in English to the dance rhythms of kwaito almost exclusively in local South African languages. As Brenda Fassie reached the height of her career during this period, not only was she known for the music but also for the offstage drama that managed to fill newspapers and tabloids.

Despite all the drama, it came as a complete shock to me when Brenda Fassie tragically passed away at the age of 39 years in 2004 just months after I saw her perform live at the Ghana Music Awards.

So I was just thinking to myself. Today marks 8 years since the passing of one of my favorite musical icon and out of the plethora of her songs, which would be my ultimate favorite? This is actually a very hard question. 

Would it be Zola Budd the hit that celebrated the Johannesburg mini-van taxis nicknamed Zola Budd after the South African long distance runner of the time Zola Budd

Would it be Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. The song that encapsulated the Zulu proverb "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" (a person is a person because of people) and described Brenda Fassie's gratitude to others? This song had a really glitzy video involving a plane and runway. I am sure we still have it on VHS somewhere.

Would my favorite be No No No Senor? A song with an amusing video that replicated an American Western (or more like a Spaghetti western) with Brenda as a heroine saved by a cowboy on horseback complete with a stetson. I kid you not.

There are just too many songs to choose from. There's Brenda's ode to Mr. Nelson Mandela in Black President which was years before he actually became the first black president of South Africa.  There is also Boipatong  featuring the powerful vocals of Tsepho Tshola of the band Sankomota dedicated to those killed in the tragic Boipatong Massacre of 1992. 

Who could also forget Too Late for Mama that tells the story of a mother struck by lightning on the way to fetch water. I am really confused why google keeps linking this track with Alicia Keys. Or did I miss Alicia Keys re-doing a Brenda song completely?

Still among the Brenda anthology there is the ultimate early dance  track Istraight Lendaba which along with Higher and Higher were hits around the time that kwaito music was just emerging as a genre. 

There are the later kwaito classics like QulaNgeke Umconfirm, Nomakanjani, Amagents (an angry response to another South African musician), the very dark Memeza and of course Vulindlela

So I thought about it long and hard. My ultimate favorite Brenda Fassie song would have to be the very first one I ever heard when I was still a child. The video featured a young 19 year old Brenda Fassie belting her heart out in It's nice to be with people when she was still billed as 'Brenda Fassie and The Big Dudes'. This was before the fame, before the drama and before the tragedy.

Sadly, I can't find the original video on the internet:

When Time Magazine described Brenda Fassie as the Madonna of the Townships in a 2001 article, I for one thought they got it completely wrong. Brenda Fassie was not the Madonna of the Townships, Madonna was the Brenda Fassie of America. 

Brenda Fassie aka MaBrr; fondly remembered and forever cherished.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Best of the B.A.D: The coffee shop ambience arrives in Accra

Last week (29th September) was International Coffee Day. Days like that are important to me since I am a completely unrepentant coffee addict. I like my coffee daily, strong and freshly-brewed. One thing I have always appreciated about living in that ominous place called 'The West', was access to a plethora of coffee shops. In New York City, there is literally a Starbucks at every street corner. As a grad student in London, my heart would skip a beat every time I handed over precious pounds at one of the many coffee shop chains that were there solely to feed my addiction.
Coffee shop chains represent a dubious brew of globalization and capitalism with a hint of a country's growing affluence. My appreciation of these places has not only been for real coffee brewed to perfection but for their warm ambience. Coffee shops are likely to have comfortable chairs, sometimes couches, places to plug in a laptop and if one is lucky, free WiFi. For me they represent the perfect environment to catch up with friends or work for hours fuelled by caffeine. 

Although 'coffee shops' in the Netherlands mean something different and if you ask to be taken to a Dutch coffee shop and expect coffee and cake, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead you will be taken to a seedy, poorly lit place with few windows and people smoking marijuana legally. In the Netherlands, the right word is 'café' and they usually offer strong black coffee and a heavenly slice of warm Dutch apple tart. So much better than any Dutch coffee shop.

Alas, I digress, this was about Ghana not the Netherlands. When I
moved to Ghana back in the early 00s, there were very few coffee shops or cafés and few offered that charming ambience that I craved so much.  Things have changed and the inevitable force that is globalization has finally led to at least two new coffee shop chains offering brewed coffee and comfy seats.  I managed to go to 2 branches of my particular coffee shop 5 times within 3 weeks.  I did wince at the heavy amounts I parted with to get my fix but for me it was also about that charming coffee shop ambience that had finally arrived in town.

The coffee, the music and the cool people

PS: In the past 2 years, I have come to realize that the strongest and most delicious coffee can be found in East Africa. Places like Java House in Nairobi (that allows you choose the strength of your coffee) or Mokka City Café and Lounge in Dar es Salaam serve the most unforgettable cups of coffee on this planet.  One of the most delightful cups of coffee I have ever had was on a coffee plantation in Mbeya, Southern Tanzania. Their coffee foam patterns were amazing too.

Delicious coffee at Mokka City Café and Lounge
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Coffee at Utengule Coffee Lodge, Mbeya, Tanzania

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Best of the B.A.D: I guess that is what they call 'Inflation'

My bestest buddy El, who is not Ghanaian, occasionally sends me articles from high-brow financial journals such as the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal that chronicle the meteoric rise and fall of the African star that was Ghana. Rather than providing a cautionary tale for other developing countries, I am beginning to believe that financial reporters delight in a train-wreck or two. 
Back in the early 10s, Ghana was seen as the African 'wunderkind' by many economists. There was much talk about an economic boom which was being lubricated, literally, by the flow of oil. There was even the hasty re-classification of Ghana as a Middle-income country. Sadly, in a fate reminiscent of the Celtic Tiger of the late 90s / early '00s, economic boom was followed by bust.  

I should point out that I know nothing about economics. The one econ class I took in college for 'fun' ended up being an albatross around my neck. I digress, back in the early 10s, Ghana was the golden child that lost its shine very quickly. The nagging question, which is captured in an Oasis song NOT about Ghana, is 'Where did it all go wrong?'. The answer to this poignant question I will leave to economics types who know all about falls in commodity prices, huge wage bills, speculating, eurobonds, markets, borrowing, mismanagement, corruption etc. etc. 

However, what I do know is that my recent trip to Ghana provided some practical experiences in one important economic principle: Inflation. I am definitely the wrong person to attempt to explain 'inflation' but according to Google, inflation has something to do with a general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money. These sentiments are echoed in the dictionary screen-shot below: 

Back in 2009, I waxed lyrical about the things I loved the most about Ghana living. This was in post entitled Celebrating the best of the B.A.D. Included in this list was "Doing your hair for cheap".  It was as if Ghana 2016 read my post and decided to teach me a valuable lesson. To cut a long story short, the amount I paid for doing my hair in 2010 or even 2012 was the amount I gave out in tips in 2016. The exact same thing happened when it came to getting my troublesome brows waxed. Full prices in days gone by are now tips in 2016. 

Inflation was all around me. Another example was when I took a short mini-bus (trotro) ride and was literally laughed out of the vehicle by the conductor (the mate) after I proffered Ghc 0.20 in his direction to pay for the ride. The mate then explained quite patiently that short rides started at GHC 1.00. Let's not even get into taxi fares. 

Next up was the GHc 50.00 note. Back in the day, these notes were hardly used or even seen but now they flow like water through the system. 
Ghana Money
Source: wikipedia
Whenever a GHC 50.00 note was whipped out circa 2010/2011, it was sure to cause a slight panic at any reasonably-priced restaurant as the staff scrambled to find change for such a huge note. These days, GHC 50.00 can barely cover lunch for two people. I shudder to think what collection bowls in churches look like these days; seas of pink (GHC 1.00) are probably now seas of green (GHC 10.00) and purple (GHC 20.00). 

I probably retained zero knowledge of economics from my brief dalliance with the subject in undergrad but one of the best lessons I got was from my return home to Ghana. I finally got to learn, firsthand, what they mean when they say a country has been hit by inflation. Hmmm do they actually say that?