Friday, November 19, 2010

Lapiro de Mbanga Makes "Impossible" Appearance in Brooklyn

On November 16, Brooklyn's Littlefield performance space was the site of the third Impossible Music Session.  The brainchild of Austin Dacy, these sessions present the music of individuals who are prevented from being present due to political oppression.  Lapiro de Mbanga, a veteran singer and bandleader from Cameroon, has been in prison for over a year on trumped-up charges of "incitement" stemming from public reaction to his 2008 song "Constitution Constipée."  The song criticizes President Paul Biya, in particular his efforts to amend Cameroon's constitution in, essentially, a power grab.  Biya has been president for 28 years, and has no intention of making way for fresh leadership.  Or, apparently, any second guessers.

The evening at Littlefield began with a short film about Lapiro and the Boston-based band Lamine Touré and Group Saloum, who learned "Constitution Constipée," and came down to Brooklyn to perform it for this occasion.  Touré, a Senegalese native, made it clear that this gesture meant a lot to him.  He is well aware that few African singers have shown the kind of courage that Lapiro has, and was pleased and honored to sing the man's song.  Touré and his band were, by the way, completely up to the task as well.  They sounded fantastic.  And what made the evening particularly special was that Dacy managed to reach Lapiro by mobile phone in his prison cell, and the incarcerated singer was able to hear Group Saloum's performance.  Afterward, Lapiro told the crowd at Littlefield that the experience had been "emotional."  That had to be the understatement of the night.

Lamine Touré, Austin Dacy, Maran Turner
Also on hand was Maran Turner of Freedom Now, who gave background on Lapiro's case.  Turns out Lapiro has many powerful advocates, including UN officials and Senator Richard Durban of Illinois.  So far, this support has not moved Cameroon's government to do the right thing and free Lapiro, but it may yet.  For more on the history of this case, visit Freemuse, the website of the international freedom of musical expression organization, which has long championed Lapiro and other artists who face censorship in countries around the world.

On behalf of Afropop, I also spoke a few words, noting that musicians of Lapiro's generation include precious few willing to stand against misdeeds and corruption on the parts of leaders who betray the promises of the independence they helped bring about.  We think of Fela in Nigeria, Mapfumo in Zimbabwe, Mzwakhe Mbule in South Africa, Lapiro on Cameroon, and a few others, but not many.   However, message to corrupt African leaders:  the current generation of popular singers were raised on hip hop frankness, not Independence-era deference.  There will surely be more and more popular artists willing to call out official misdeeds and focus public attention on them.

Kudos to Lapiro for his courage, to Freemuse and Freedom Now for their vigilance, to Lamine Touré and Group Saloum for rising to the occasion, and to Impossible Music Sessions for taking such a creative approach to a difficult situation.  The evening ended with a terrific, mostly mbalax set from Group Saloum.  All else aside, this band kicks ass!

Banning Eyre

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