• NEXT EDITION
  • 27-31 OCT 2021
  • Porto, Portugal

"As long as some lives are more valuable than others, we cannot envisage a better world post COVID-19. "

TALES FROM QUARANTINE

As we all are suspended from one kind of reality, WOMEX looks at ways of sharing, learning, and exchanging as a community to create spaces of reflection, support, creativity, and inspiration.

We present “Tales from Quarantine”, a series of messages/notes/thoughts from a range of voices within the industry- festival directors, music producers, filmmakers, activists, label managers on how they have been affected, moved and changed both personally and professionally by this global pandemic.

Connected to each series is a selection of documentaries from the WOMEX Film Programme archives, available online for ten days. Please log in to your virtualWOMEX account to watch the films The Revolution Won’t Be Televised & A Story of Sahel Sounds.

In the fourth series, we hear from Rama Thiaw, Amani Semaan and Christopher Kirkley.

Read part one of this series.
Read part two of this series.
Read part three of this series.

Rama Thiaw

Rama Thiaw.

Rama Thiaw, Filmmaker
After spending many weeks in Europe working on my films, I returned home to Dakar in March as the borders began closing. As a Senegalese director, COVID-19 did not prevent me from continuing my creative process, since I took advantage of the general slowdown to isolate and write. Scriptwriting is a process that requires solitude, and I must say that in the first few weeks, COVID-19 was beneficial to me.

It was in the unknown length of the lockdown that I started to feel the adverse effects of the pandemic, especially on my work schedule. Many off my shoots were postponed to a later or unknown date due to border closures and a total lack of transparency in international and national political decisions. For one of my next films about reggae, I have no clue when the musicians can resume their activities and tours, and therefore I don't know when can film them and finish this film.

The postponement of cultural activities and events has had a direct impact on my income; in Senegal, no employment means no salary. The head of cinematography here accompanied by some directors, pleaded our case to the Minister of Culture, to release an emergency fund in the face of this extraordinary situation. To this day, we are still waiting for a substantive response from our authorities.

Apart from the concrete problems, the other issue is the psychological and emotional impact of the pandemic. How to manage uncertainty? It is true that as freelancers in the art world, we are used to fragile work environment. But now with the pandemic, we have additional uncertainties. With the closure of many borders, roads and airports, the world suddenly stopped being connected, stopped being one big "global village". With one certainty: we did not know how long this closure, this withdrawal into ourselves, would last. And this is hard for me, as a "nomad and explorer of the world."

Emotionally, I have experienced the last few weeks as an attack on one of my fundamental rights – my freedom. My freedom to move around, to have my own schedule and to dispose of my life as I deem fit. Here in Senegal, we haven't had total confinement but rather a state of emergency with a curfew from 7pm to 8am. All hotels, restaurants, bars, cultural places, goods markets, schools, places of worship had to be closed as well for an unknown period.

Those who dared to go out during the curfew were beaten by the police and or put in jail. Suddenly moving at certain hours became criminal. And those political powers that are supposed to guarantee my rights regarding my freedom became the same ones that in the name of my "good health" imprisoned me in space and schedule that I did not choose. This made me think a lot about prison conditions. For my part, I share Angela Davis' vision on this subject entirely. I am against the very existence of prisons. I much prefer public interest work, rather than imprisonment. The debate on systematic incarceration must also be one of our priorities in the post-COVID-19 world.

The management of the crisis has also explicitly demonstrated that, in the face of death, some lives are more valuable than others. Especially when one considers malaria, the viral disease that kills an average of half a million people every year, mainly in the global south. Yet for decades, no vaccine has been created. No borders have been closed. Nor has the global economy stopped. While for COVID-19, yes. Yes, suddenly for a few hundred thousand deaths in the West, the whole world came to a standstill; with urgency for the pharmaceutical companies to find the vaccine. In this, I experienced a great injustice.

And as long as some lives are more valuable than others, we cannot envisage a better world post COVID-19. But I have hope when I see what is happening with the #BlackLivesMatter movements around the world. I am hopeful when I see that the younger generations are ready to fight for more equity in the world and the environment is no longer the fifth wheel.

I hope that the debate on the end of white patriarchal supremacist capitalism will conclude along with the virus. And that together we can think of other economic alternatives: anti-globalisation and against this dogma of financial growth at any cost. We need to discuss the failures of our modern democracies so that they can become truly participatory instead of continuing in the name of some tiny financial elite, mostly white, old, male; without any vision for our shared humanity.

Yes, I expect a lot from this post-COVID world, where culture has finally shown its inescapable importance. None of us could have survived this imposed confinement without books, movies, music, etc. None of us could have survived without cultural nourishment, and that is what makes us resilient, our humanity.


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Rama Thiaw is a Mauritian-Senegalese writer, director and produce. After a Master's degree in International Economics at the Sorbonne University, she chose a career in cinema and graduated at the University of Paris 8. The Revolution Won't Be Televised (2016) is her second documentary feature premiered at Berlinale winning the Fipresci Critics Prize and was part of WOMEX 16. Thiaw also organised the first edition of Sabbar Artistiques (2019), an international women's festival around questions of feminism and African identity.

Amani Semaan

Amani Semaan.

 

Amani Semaan, Festival Director
I am located in Lebanon, in a city on the coast called Jbeil. I have two jobs. My work as a casting director plus head of research in TV production for shows in the MENA region came to a complete halt due to the pandemic, and now it's slowly coming back to life but with a lot of complications. I am also the director of festival Beirut & Beyond. I have always found myself juggling between the two jobs and was never able to fully focus on the festival. I guess I can say the positive part of the lockdown was that I had more time to work on strengthening the various strategic structures of the festival that was needed for a while. In one-way time was lost since everything had been paused and I couldn't work on many previously planned projects. On the other hand, time was gained because I started working on other things that I didn't have time to do before, checking them off my to-do lists. So I had a kind of balance with time.

To be honest, I was really frustrated with the lockdown. I didn't really see it as a time to connect to myself or to discover new passions because I believe my life before the pandemic was balanced enough, and I was aware of what I wanted. I had by choice decided to live with my parents recently, so I was already very connected to my family. I have coffee with my father every morning, a cigarette with my mother at night before bed. So lockdown or not, I put in time and effort towards my family and didn't need pandemic to appreciate them.

I deeply understand the privilege I have to stay at home and live the lockdown without much economic impact on my life. At the same time, there are many families around the world suffering tremendously and trying to survive the lockdown. So yeah I can't really brag about it, that I took the time to connect to myself. And this is why it's bit frustrating, as the lockdown is catastrophic on many levels and to say one took the time to figure out life just seems connected to a specific class of society. I mean, how does one connect with oneself if another one can't eat and provide for his/her family?!

The pandemic for me didn't reveal anything new other than how incapable governments are. The fiasco created by governments all over the world in dealing with the pandemic is having terrible repercussions. How can we stop the world for 5 months? Sure lives were saved, but a lot of people died not from corona, but the impact of the lockdown and a lot of people have to start from zero economically. Of course, the virus is severe, but it should have been dealt with logically, projecting the long-term impact of the lockdown on economies and industries rather than creating excessive amounts of fear and panic.

With Beirut & Beyond we consciously decided not to put any live events or performances online during the lockdown. The pandemic is so catastrophic and is having ripple effects worldwide that I felt it needed to be processed differently rather than in a rush to find quick alternatives. In my opinion, cultural institutions could have taken this time to take a step back and reflect on what is essential instead of continually putting out so much content. At some point, there was an overwhelming number of online platforms with all these live concerts, free streaming, zoom conferences etc. without taking into consideration the quality of the materials presented. The fact that we are giving free access to culture neglects the long-term impact on cultural industries, many without considering the fees for the artists. Giving the audience, so many possibilities to consume culture in ways that aren't immersive really diminishes the value of culture. It will make it harder when we go back to the live music scene to explain to the audience that they have to pay for a concert.

How would the audience have reacted if all manifestations of culture had stopped for three weeks? I think it would have made a significant impact, proving its importance for societies, especially during hard times why it is essential to pay an artist instead of ripping their music for free. I think this would have been more impactful than rushing out to our phones and filming ourselves performing in our living room and putting it out there.


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Festival director of Beirut & Beyond International Music Festival – Amani Semaan’s career in music took off in 2011 working as a manager for emerging musicians. In 2012, Amani co-founded Beirut & Beyond, an NGO that aims to develop the independent music scene in the MENA. She also works as a line producer and casting director for entertainment music shows, such as MBC's The Voice.

Christopher Kirkley

Christopher Kirkley

Christopher Kirkley, Guerrilla Ethnomusicologist
I live in Portland, Oregon. Generally, people here are pretty cognizant of the dangers around the virus so, in comparison to other parts of America, we are doing well. The country though really stands out as possibly doing the worst job in dealing with the outbreak as well as the rise of this new fascism. Frankly, in Portland right now we have federal troops on our downtown streets, whisking people away in unmarked vans. The city is the forefront of a lot of what's been happening in the past months and continues to be singled out for the protests. But we still have a lot of protestors on the streets- just last night there were about 5000 people out.

On one end it's very encouraging because there is a strong contingency of Americans that don't support what is going on and are talking about white privilege and systemic racism- conversations that in the past were generally confined to academic spaces are now prevalent in the public sphere. And that's good, but it's also incredibly depressing that 50% of Americans, majority white embrace the current presidency's ideology and that, is a hard pill to swallow. I was aware of systemic racism in America. I wasn't aware of how overt it is and how unwilling to change a large portion of this country is.

Work-wise things around the record label have slowed down considerably. It has given us a moment to be with family, go to the beach with the kids, go hiking and appreciate the abundance. I am glad to have slowed down a little bit, it has been a nice change and to take advantage of this beautiful part of the world we live in when it comes to nature, all the forests and lakes. And for a few social contacts we have, we genuinely enjoy and value those connections more than ever.

At work, we have ceased physical operations at the moment. We were working on a record that I foolheartedly decided to make by hand- 500 records hand glued, hand-stamped and so now that has become a solo operation for me. We generally had a lot of direct customer sales, but also have a vast presence in record stores and every record store is closed now. Probably the most significant blow is all the tours across America & Europe that we have had to cancel. We have since pivoted and done a lot more work on the digital side of things. We are working on a series of music called 'Music from Saharan Whatsapp' where we have artists from West Africa record music on their cellphones and send it over on WhatsApp. This music has a 'pay what you want' option, lives online for a month on our Bandcamp site and 100% of the money goes directly to the artist. We have found a significant amount of success, and in the past six months were able to raise around $11,000 for the bands. We are doing everything to try and make it work for the label family and us.

This experiment we have done with having artists record and send music over WhatsApp has really pushed me to focus on the networks of musicians I have built over the decade. What I have always been focused on is putting the power in the hands of these musicians and artists from West Africa who could do a better curatorial job than I ever could. It's an exciting outlook towards the future; we will see how it develops.

Through all this madness, one absolutely incredible thing is that we have had massive support from fans of the music! Bandcamp as a digital platform started a day a month where they don't collect any fees so there has been an enormous spike in sales from people who are pay what they can and donate. This huge outpouring of support from people, not only with my label but also with Bandcamp as a platform has been an enormous help to weather the storm. So where we haven't seen any institutional support, what we have seen is a lot of people supporting music and culture. And as hard it is to see this divided and fractured country right now, there are larger spaces outside of the cultural one that are also finding support – protests, for example, are becoming very normalised. People who would have never gone to a protest before are going to protests - elderly neighbours, people bringing their children. There is this growing sense of solidarity and awareness that is coming out of all of this. So there are many elements of hope and positivity that we can continue to speak of.


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Christopher Kirkley is a music archivist, collector, artist, curator, and occasional DJ who runs the project Sahel Sounds. His work examines contemporary popular music in an evolving technological landscape in the Sahara and Sahel regions of West Africa, from the interplay of localised traditions with transglobal influences to new media models of cultural transmission. The film A Story of Sahel Sounds, part of WOMEX 17 and now online on virtualWOMEX dives deeper into his fascinating work. More info on the label here: www.sahelsounds.bandcamp.com.

 

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