Roots. A simple, single syllabled word that simultaneously evokes notions of nature’s strength, self-awareness, origins, histories, freedoms and identities. These connotations are ideal for the East End film festival of the same name, celebrating the diversity that saturates East London. This part of the city has been home to diaspora histories from every corner of the earth, so often silenced by the noisy rhetoric of integration, assimilation and the parameters of ‘the good immigrant’. Earlier this summer, I arrived at the cosy Aldagte Curzon for a screening of Jaha Browne’s and Tara Manandhar’s documentary ‘Homelands’ as part of the festival.
The documentary follows four musicians: Mercury-nominated Terri Walker, double Mobo award winner Shakka as well as grime artists Saskilla and Diztortion. The opening scene offered anything but images of the bustling Brick Lane or artsy Whitechapel, instead we were faced with soothing music and bright animated fonts against the natural beauty of Jamaica. The mesmerizing opening scene invites us to contemplate the relationship between sound and identity, with British -Dominican Shakka asking multifaceted questions like “what makes me sonically?….What makes me culturally?”. It proves to be an emotional and complex task: to understand how the fabric of the universe – sound – offers itself up as a tool for an exploration of selfhood.
A recurring motif is merging genres of music, reflecting the merging of various cultures that have formed each artist’s identity. Meeting up with people who have remained in each ‘homeland’ and comparing styles of music is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. The four Europe-based artists meet up with performers in their country of origin and work on new material together. This collaboration opens up a cultural dialogue towards understanding their roots, as well as how those musical roots have shaped their identities abroad.
While Terri, Shakka and Saskilla introduce British sounds that stem from the black diaspora, feeling a pressure to connect with their audiences in Dominica, Jamaica and Senegal (as does Diztortion in Suriname) the music on the ground back in their homelands is ironically foreign to them.
This notion of merging unearthes the complexities of colonialism and imperialism, which seem to shadow each of the four countries. The consequences of colonialism are inextricable from today’s realities for the previously colonised. We see Shakka faced with the customs of the indigenous people of Dominica, who are struggling to preserve their traditions and history due to the small population left after colonisers plundered the land. Added to this, the eclipsing of indigenous culture by the traditions created by the descendants of people forced onto the island as slaves further complicates a painful history with questions of the inauthenticity of their identites. Saskilla continues with this theme, touching on the need of the Caribbean diaspora to acknowledge Africa as its origin and birthplace of the entire diaspora’s sound. His tour of Gorée Island – once the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast – is a poignant moment that affected the East London audience as much as it does those on camera.
Another prevalent dichotomy is that of the perception of the diaspora versus those who remained in their native land. Saskilla, sitting on a panel to speak about music, finds that when people leave for the UK or USA, the community resigns themselves to the belief that they will not return and have no interest in building an industry back in their homeland. Yet the panel talk proved that native music is integral to the diasporas’ understanding of self, and the journeys documented show that nothing is more close to the artists’ hearts than seeing their communities at home progress.
Diztorion continues in this vein in Suriname (with large South and East Asian demographics as well as those of African descent). He maintains that although he was born in the Netherlands, he remains Surinamese, and this is highlighted by his insistence on using Surinamese in his collaborative music during the film. However, it is interesting to note that the Surinamese artist Adika wanted to incorporate Dutch into her song as way of appealing to Western audiences. Diztortion explains they have a saying in Sriname – colonisers “beat slaves so hard, the Dutch stayed in them”.
Terri walks through Trench Town beaming at the musical history that has influenced people internationally, hopping into the ruins of Bob Marley’s van as children sing in a courtyard. The scene emphasises that music is a way of life, a primary form of communication in her homeland, an idea reinforced when we witness Terri’s cousin create an entire drum kit out of bricks, plastic tubs, metals pots and wood.
Directors Browne and Manandhar met the artists for the first time during the making of the film, so we get to experience a genuine relational development both in front of and behind the camera. The search for relationship between music and identity authentically unfolds as we discover that the artists and the filmmakers are learning about and discovering historical roots that have fostered contemporary creativity in real time with the audience. Rather than simply expressing how music has helped the entertainers understand their identity as a voyeuristic experience, there is a real connection between the audience and artists.
During the Q&A, we found out that the narration unfolded naturally as the artists’ stream of consciousness is used to guide us through the various turns their journeys take. It makes for an immersive experience. The viewers, artists and filmmakers are all experiencing music and its effect on culture and identity simultaneously, creating a sense of unity between various diasporas whilst deftly exploring the differing cultures within them. In a sense, we come full circle to the age old belief that music is a universal – and unifying – language. But the journey to that conclusion is distinctly personal, historical, and as culturally localised as it is globally relevant.
Watch the film here
Words by Hanna-Johara Dokal