Sunday, 20 December 2009

Paul Robeson in Africa Sanders of the River

This film, Sanders of the River, (Alexander Korda – can be viewed full screen) shows colonialism at work in Africa in the 1930's. Colonialism is when people from far away Know Better and can treat natives like stupid children. Even if the motives are benevolent, it's still demeaning. Colonies may no longer exist, but "colonial" values prevail, especially in an increasingly monocultural world dominated by anglophiles. It's not that people don't mean well, it's just they don't know much or care. Tourists who think foreign countries exist mainly as places to get blind drunk in are just one of many types of "new" colonialists. So, cringeworthy as this film is, it still stands as a warning.

Paul Robeson plays a feckless African who Sanders uses to placate the locals. It's embarrassing to see him being demeaned as a "coon". But Robeson didn't sell out. We can turn that embarrassment on itself, by seeing the film as a document of society as it was, not as it "should" be. If a proud, talented Rutgers man can be humiliated because he was black, we should feel indignant that he should have been forced to do such things. At least he gets top billing, above Leslie Banks as Sanders.

He's magnificent, anyway, and what a powerful booming voice - pity he didn't do Russian basso roles. Besides, he's a serious hunk. Look at his muscles, revealed by a leopard skin loincloth - complete with tail - and when he wiggles his behind! The songs are pastiche, but there's a lot of interesting "archive footage" asd the movie was shot in part on location in the Congo. The chiefs and members of the "Acholi, Sesi, Tefik [sic= Efik], Juruba {sic = Yoruba], Mendi and Kroo" nations of East and West Africa participated as extras. hence the vivid dance scenes and processions. It's surprising how well they take to acting. Whether the routines were staged or original, it doesn't really matter, this is history captured as it was 70 years ago. There are wonderful scenes of the bush and the river, too, hippos swimming, giraffes, plains full of animals. So the movie has lasting value despite the plot.

Besides Robeson, there's another black star, Tony Wane, who plays the rebel chief Mofolaba. Who was he ? His accent's pukka Oxbridge and his presence is charismatic. Had he been white he'd have had a big career. There's also a very faint gay subtext (white guys).

Anyway enjoy the movie if you're snowed in and there's nothing on over the holidays. Lots more on this site about Africa, multiculture and black music. And more movies.
TOMORROW : stagings of Winterreise ! ballet, theatre and others !

1 comment:

Roger Thomas said...

Interesting blog. You write that it's a "pity [Paul Robeson] didn't do Russian basso roles". But with your knowledge of the demands in voice training and single-minded dedication of opera singing you will be fullly aware that he wouldn't have been the Paul Robeson so much of the progressive world came to love and honour had he turned to opera. Maybe he wasn't cut out to be an opera singer but in any case he had too much going on to focus on such a demanding and in some ways constricting activity: stage and screen acting, song recitals, writing and political activism. All, as Robeson put it: "a weapon in the struggle for my people's freedom and the freedom of all people".

That's not to say that Robeson did not have much more than the usual basic equipment for Russian song -- more so than many non-Russian singers who learn the words and pronunciation but not the language or will only sing Russian repertoire in translation. He began learning Russian in the early 1930s with the Russia-born composer Alexandre Gambs. He told the press he was finding it "extremely easy to learn the language" and that his voice was suited to Russian music perhaps because "there is a kinship between the russians and the negroes. They were both serfs, and in the music there is the same note of melancholy touched with mysticism".

When he first visited Russia in 1934, the customs officials and other Russians were impressed with his language skills although he still used interpreters in conversation. In New York in 1932, after a recital that included some songs in Russian, the Russian-born (Lithuanian Jewish) anarchist activist Emma Goldman wrote: "I swear if I had not known Paul as a Negro I should have thought an educated Russian before me. I can't tell you how beautiful he talks Russian."

By the early 1940s, on recital tours in the US with the Lithuanian-born St Petersburg conservatoire-trained Clara Rockmore, who played the theremin, "Pavlik" and "Clarochka" found it politic to converse entirely in Russian when in public, especially when racists were about. Clara wrote that Robeson spoke Russian "almost too well" having read deeply in the literary language of Pushkin and Dostoevsky.

Robeson regularly included Russian songs in his recitals, including pieces from Mussorgsky's opera Boris Gudunov. They met with popular acclaim but not always the approval of the professional critics -- plus ça change... Of an Albert Hall recital in 1936 the Manchester Guardian critic wrote that Robeson's voice "has nothing in it of the real Russian sonority and dark timbre".

On his visits to Russia, Robeson must surely have sung a lot in Russian and there might be unpublished recordings in the Russian sound archives. But here he is singing in Russian IN THE SOVIET UNION in 1949 in a YouTube clip: