“This boli is also the repository of ancient knowledge”

“Be ecstatic! In inhumanity! »Indicates Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, Africa Express) to the male choristers during the rehearsal of a scene evoking slavery, within the show The Flight of the Boli, of which he ensures the musical conception. This opera, also danced, is written and directed by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, multicésarised for Timbuktu. The starting point is the theft of a boli, a sacred object of a Mandinka animist population, the Bamana, by the writer Michel Leiris, during the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic mission in 1931. Now on display at the Quai Branly museum, this zoomorphic sculpture to which the adepts worshiped the bamanaya was the source of a magical power, of vital energy, an intermediary agent between the living and the ancestors, depositary of the memory of a people. This abduction of an object with a spiritual and memorial charge opens the symbolic gateway to this show which wants to restore this lost magic and power. Through different paintings, he tells the painful and complex relationship of Africa with the West through the ages, from the Mandingo empire of Soundiata Keïta to the 12the century until the contemporary era. The poetic, aesthetic and artistic ambitions are commensurate with the breadth of his historical and political purpose. In this quest for harmony, which refuses soreness, to quote Abderrahmane Sissako, the orchestra, made up of musicians from Mali, Burkina Faso, Congo and England, intersects with Mandingo or Congolese sounds with Gregorian chant. Among the performers of this show, played and sung in Bambara, Lingala, French, English, we find Fatoumata Diawara, Jupiter Bokondji, and Baba Sissoko. A few days before the first performance on October 7 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Rwandan actor, author and director Dorcy Rugamba, Abderrahmane Sissako’s collaborator in the direction, told us about his aspirations for this exceptional project. .

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Le Point Afrique: What does the boli represent for you as a sacred fetish object?

Dorcy Rugamba: Beyond the belief of this cult, this boli tells me about the cohesion of a society. All spirituality generates a culture, a philosophy, a relationship to the world, a link between people and with themselves. When this nuclear heart of a society is broken, it collapses. If a phenomenon of domination is added, then follows a loss of identity, of self-esteem. This boli, this spirituality, is also the repository of ancient knowledge, transmitted over several generations. Culture and worship play a role in building a civilization. When these links are broken, it gives rise to violence, societies are weakened, disenchanted. The theft of this object illustrates the balance of power between Africa and Europe at a time in history. The author of this act, Michel Leiris, was not a thick brute nor a colonialist. It’s even more complex! In his diary, he recounts the disturbance that seizes him by committing this act which he knows to be sacrilegious, a symbol of the relationship of domination. The common thread of the show, this boli takes us on a journey through different eras and situations, until today.

Is this narration of the story essential?

Today’s society is a product of a complex history that has lasted for several centuries. We cannot approach it in the theater in its entirety, so we offer an experience so that the audience does the work of deduction. Currently, these topics are coming to the surface. The uprisings caused by the death of George Floyd show that part of history, long buried, is beginning to be unearthed. Hence these debates in the public space, this destruction of statues of characters whose history we did not know, because it was not taught. The boli is like a meaningful pretext for a society destroyed by this theft. It’s a bit like the history of Africa. We strive to understand an era. There is this wonderful sentence by Aimé Césaire taken from his speech on colonialism: “The great historical drama of Africa was less its too late contact with the rest of the world than the way in which this contact was made. ; that it was when Europe fell into the hands of the most unscrupulous financiers and captains of industry that Europe spread. Africa would have met Europe during the Renaissance, the objectives would doubtless have been different. But Europe, interested in predation, raw materials, spoliation generated this terrifying report from which the world has not yet emerged. The spectator thus leaves with questions, the art allowing to change perspective, angle, question. Emotion is necessary inasmuch as it is surpassable, and that it leads to Brecht’s question: what happened to get us to this place?

Before the premiere, around fifty actors, dancers and musicians meet on stage for an afternoon of rehearsal.
© Théâtre du Châtelet – Hélène Pambrun

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In the show, is the music a metaphor, a symbol of the boli?

Yes, the boli sounds, through this music proposed by Damon Albarn rich in different influences, where the song of the griots meets the Gregorian chant. It is harmonious, a heart that beats in unison, it is not a tower of Babel. Musicians from different countries, who do not know each other, find an understanding through a common language. Listening to this piece, you can’t tell who is white or black. The boli is also the miracle that music allows, but that, alas, we do not find in society, where ideologies to catalog, identify people prevent them from recognizing themselves. By going beyond these identity markers, we realize that the Other is the complementary or even the similar, and not a threat.

In what way, according to you, is it to evoke the Mandinka empire of Sundjata Keïta?

Other empires existed in Africa, but they were often based on military force. While that of Sundjata is fascinating, because it was during his reign that one of the oldest humanist treaties, the Mandé charter, was enacted by brotherhoods of ritualist hunters. An act of civilization during a golden age of Africa where the spirit of the Enlightenment reigned. Create a societal whole where people can live free, in peace, enjoy a quality of life… These questions remain unanswered today.

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Despite these conflicting stories, the show aims for aesthetic harmony …

It is the strength of the art to transcend painful memory. Otherwise, the world would be screwed up, the horizon barred or we would be forced into amnesia. However, we can know, remember this story without drawing grudges, revenge. It is a question of transcending it, thanks to the miraculous weapons of the spirit to quote Césaire. They allow a man to be reborn to himself, to repair himself, to restore the strength, including symbolic and spiritual, which was withdrawn from him at a time. Modestly, what we bring through music and the stage can allow spectators, not to overwhelm, but to overcome passions.

Boli: this object was kept in a sanctuary of the initiatory society known as Kono. The animal represented would be a hippopotamus or a horse.
© Patrick Gries / musée du quai Branly

Is it also a quest for beauty?

Beauty will save the world, said Dostoyevsky. It is undoubtedly a wishful thinking, but we would like so much. The theater is confronted with the human condition, even in its deepest obscurity, there is a lot of blood. But the strength of art, of culture, allows a form of resilience. Eighty people from different countries work together for the creation of this show, to do common work. It is extraordinarily beautiful, it saves despair and gives an idea of ​​the potential of men. Or a nostalgia for what could have been if we had met otherwise… The purpose of a show does not lie only in its words, but also in its way of making, in its incarnation. It is only by grace that one can heal the soul. Otherwise, seeing the world as it is is suffocating, like George Floyd’s cry: I can’t breathe!

Abderrahmane Sissako insists: this work is not a cry. Africa cannot be reduced to its painful past, even if it must also be told …

No matter where you are, it’s always very difficult to talk about these stories. Damon Albarn believes that he would not have this legitimacy on the pretext that he is English. But for us, this concerns the whole of humanity, an African is no more legitimate than a European. To quote the poet Terence: “Nothing that is human is foreign to me. As an African artist, another difficult question arises: speaking of this story, do I put myself in the position of a victim? Because we know that we will be attacked on this subject. In Europe, where a lot has been done to ensure that this story is not in the public space, as soon as we approach this past, we are accused of being in a victimization. Our artistic proposal ensures that the world does not feel sorry for the history of Africa. It is not a question of locking the continent in its painful relationship with the West. At the same time, it is impossible to understand the world and Africa without this story. It would be putting on blinders, closing our eyes to a reality that is imposed on us.

The director and actor Dorcy Rugamba, worked with Abderrahmane Sissako for the production of “Le Vol du Boli”.
© Johanna de Tessières

Are you also talking about globalization?

In today’s modern societies, we are all connected. As the philosopher Michel Serres said, the digital age is the third cultural revolution of humanity. We have access to all information, to the world’s library, but at a terrifying price of blood, human lives, deaths. Because the conditions of extraction of minerals which allow to have this comfort are inhuman. Installed in this relationship of domination, the world has changed its discourse, its system, but the mechanisms are the same. We offer our contemporaries to understand our situations. This show takes place during two historic moments where the questions of racial discrimination, police violence, colonization come back to the fore, as if the dead came to haunt us. And during this pandemic, which stopped the world at one point and reminds us that we now live in a village. The world can become aware of its diversity and its unity. This show talks about all of us, concerns us all. Spectators here will occupy every other seat, wearing a mask. Understanding this particular device, this current situation, leads us to globalization.

Long forgotten by history, skirmishers are part of the story here …

This episode belongs to our common histories. From the butchery of the Great War to the Second World War, which gave birth to a monster, the industrialization of death, Africa found itself embroiled in European conflicts. African soldiers have died on the battlefields in Europe. The victory against the Nazis was also won with them. But at the time of celebrating it, we whitewashed the troops, therefore history. These men were not allowed to march. It’s strange, Europe is getting rid of a totalitarian regime while being totalitarian itself. This chapter is also a reminder, because we are not currently immune to such ideologies, in this world where populism reigns.

Another character embodied in the show, the Belgian King Leopold II. What is it emblematic of?

His reign gives a key to understanding the world today. Having never set foot in the Congo, he obtained this immense territory at the Berlin Conference. With his henchmen and multinationals, they have cut this country in line, generating exploitation for a quarter of a century devastating, to the point of halving its population. It was the era of the automobile industry, those who took advantage of it ignored the conditions of rubber exploitation in Congo. We know that part of the dysfunction of our world is due to multinationals. Talking about this country is also talking about these large groups that make it rain and shine today, and have become stronger than the States. The industrial revolution and the advent of the automobile devastated the Congo, and now the digital revolution is exploiting its minerals, especially with a child labor force. The reign of Leopold II allows to understand the current Congo. Everything has been done to make this country unmanageable, remains the soft underbelly of Africa. It is important to remember this.

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Poster of the show Le Vol du boli.
© DR

* Le Vol du Boli, from October 7 to 9 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.

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