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close this bookThe Courier N 122 July - August 1990 - Dossier Tourism - Country Report: Mali (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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View the documentThree ACP - EEC cuItural events: architecture, history, music
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Three ACP - EEC cuItural events: architecture, history, music

After an initial period of thought as to what the aims of a body devoted to subjects connected with cultural cooperation could and should be (The Courier reported on this), the ACP - EEC Cultural Foundation has considerably diversified its activities over the past year. And, with its organisation of the three events described below, it has made a successful entry into three specific cultural domains, those of Mauritian architecture, Caribbean history and African music.

Mauritian architecture was the theme of an exhibition of watercolours by Marc Gosswith comments by Raymond Chasle (Mauritian Ambassador to Brussels and Secretary - Ceneral of the ACP - EEC Cultural Foundation) at ACP House in the Belgian capital in June 1989, and bath texts and pictures are to appear in a book scheduled for publication in 1991. Caribbean history was presented in an exhibition entitled “ Primacias de America en La Espanola 1492 - 1542”, also held in ACP House, in April 1990, and African music was in the limelight in Brussels on 30 April at an outstanding concert at which the ACP - EEC Cultural Foundation premid “Jour d’Action de Gr” (Thanksgiving Day), a symphonic work by Burkinabomposer B.R. Guirma.

Houses of Mauritius and Rodrigues

by Marc GOSS

Before falling for the islands, I loved the desert and its oases, like Le Clo did. The towns and ksours, kinds of urban villages, of the Sahara are like islands in the middle of the immense stretches of sand and rock where, before the asphalted road came, people travelled on “ships of the desert”, meharis.

Le Clo talks about the sea as a visible boundary, saying he likes to “ think of the sea as a wall and of all there is on the other side of it”.

An island, potentially, is a combination of two things. It is the home of a political (from “polis”, the Greek word for city) link of sorts between all the inhabitants, be they from town or country, and it is a place hemmed in by the sea, acting as a wall. It is a place of sea views, the only views which bear no physical trace of that human endeavour which can replace terra firma by unpredictable hurricances, and only reflecting memories of dreams and voyages, pure myths of untamed nature, wild and eternal.

Architecture is an expression, in materials and space, of this “ other place” and the islands and their buildings still bear active witness to the most sublime achievements of architects the world over. Simple local styles have been transplanted and reinterpreted (see J. L. Pagand R. Chasle in “ Maisons traditionnelles de l’Ile Maurice”, Ed. Oc Indien, 1980) and there are sophisticated buildings too, gothic and Renaissance churches, Buddhist temples and mosques from all over the East. And it has all been pertinently chosen, adapted to surroundings, climate and people and reinvented, where necessary, with all the incomparable charm of the island’s culture, whose feet are firmly planted in this crowded land but whose thoughts travel about an inaccessible world “ hidden behind the wall of the sea”.

This is no exotic dream, nor in the look of a foreigner who is blind and deaf to the poverty of the islands, to their isolation, their meagre resources and their menacing overpopulation. If many people, like Gauguin, for example, and Segalen and Brel, see the islands as havens of universal exoticism, catalysts of imagination and curiosity (particularly through tourism, which has to avoid over - commercialisation and the self - destruction that goes with it) and images of a distant paradise, still welcoming and peaceful, it is because they are closer to them than to the concrete jungles where their dreams take shape.

Island towns and facilities are often seaports ports (and, of late, airports). Built - up roads sometimes grow between the sea port and the airport, as has happened on Mauritius, with the risk of turning the whole island into an urban area, with buildings scattered at first and then everywhere, stifling and uncontrolled, soon creating a concrete jungle in the middle of the ocean, with the surrounding sea forcing the high - density, high - rise developments beloved of the speculators and all those who do not have to live or work in them.

Economic development is called for, of course, but there can be no real development without a proper setting in which to live - without that essentially cultural phenomenon, architecture. And such a setting is the island’s main resource.

Mauritius’ domestic architectural heritage is remarkable, but under threat, for are today’s buildings really worthy of the past?

This island was discovered by the Arabs and then by the Portuguese, settled for the first time by the Dutch, who called it “ Mauritius”, then renamed “ Ile de France” until 1810 when the British arrived. And independent Mauritius has a heritage from them all. Its people are of European, African, Indian and Chinese origin and its society is a multiracial and multicultural prototype, each group having brought in elements of its own culture and own land in the different waves of migration. And an distinctive national outlook and culture have taken shape.

The types and techniques of building in all these places are apparent in the island’s architecture.

The first houses are reminiscent of rustic dwellings in Brittany and Normandy and maybe (with the shingled roofs) the Jura, and they later inspired the “nigger cabins” of the era of slavery. But the patrician dwellings of the sugar dealers and other traders soon displayed signs of the sophisticated style then in fashion, Mauritius’ vernacular architecture borrowing from it, happily, with a romantic island approach of its own.

The influence of Palladio, the Renaissance genuis, whose works set the scene in Europe and its colonies - in Louisiana, Africa and Malabar and Dravidian India - is all over the Mascarenes.

Through the Palladian style, cursiously enough, houses began to hark back to an even earlier model, the Gallo - Roman villa, with a colonnaded facade and a large central room (as in Villers - sous - Ailly, Mayen and Stahl, near Trier) and the Mauritian (or Rodrigues) villa is laid out in exactly the same way, with a verandah - style facade between two pavilions and a communal room.

Going beyond any considerations of typology, this architecture developed a style of its own - “creole” as it is called in the language and popular culture of the same name - based on the then plentiful, high - quality wood worked by talented craftmen.

Patrician houses and working men’s cabins alike have their facades, their columns, their fanlights and their balustrades adorned with lacelike borders and unusual mouldings and their wooden roofs and frontages painted - an approach which shows that a specific tradition can be born at the crossroads where foreign influence meets home - grown local talent.

Is this not something to be borne in mind when tackling the development issue? Have we forgotten that development is an essentially cultural notion embracing quantity and quality and economic, ethical, scientific and artistic considerations as well? Raymond Chasle, the Mauritian Ambassador to Brussels, has made no small contribution to getting development redefined with this in mind, both in Mauritius and in Brussels and in the Lomegotiations.

Architecture is what society uses to provide a place worthy of its memory and its future projects and, since materials, know - how, employment, techniques and economic considerations are all involved, it may be a way to global development too.

A number of local architects have embarked on a promising process of cultural reassessment and are innovating, while modernists remain content to imitate an already - outmoded fashion from elsewhere. And the work of the European post - modernists, who are now harking back to their traditions, sometimes bear a surprising resemblance to the creole style.

Reinterpreted, rehabiliated versions of the traditional houses of Mauritius and Rodrigues reflect the true modernism of living in pleasure and comfort in time and space.


A chapter in the history of Hispaniola

Spain and the rest of the Spanish speaking world are getting ready for gala celebrations in 1992 to mark the 5th centenary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. The mariner stopped in the Caribbean several times before reaching the continent proper and, on 12 October 1492, he landed on the island that is now divided into Ha and the Dominican Republic. He called it Hispaniola, because it reminded him of the Spanish (“Espanol” in Castilian) province of Castille, and he apparently always remained fond of it.

The “ Primacias de America en la Espanola” exhibition, part of the celebrations, was run, in conjunction with the Latin Union, in ACP House in April 1990, with the added intention of marking Dominican Republic’s accession to LomV, and there were some extremely interesting exhibits which institutions in Spain and Dominican Republic had loaned to illustrate the “ meeting of the two worlds “. They included books from the “ Tabula Americae” collection of facsimiles of old documents from the archives, a series produced in Spain at the instigation of the Spanish 5th Centenary Committee and specifically intended, of course, for bibliophiles and people who specialise in this period of history. There were also posters of paintings, maps, engravings and photographs of buildings, statues and currency, all from Dominican Republic.

All these documents are filled with emotion. It is impossible not to be captivated by the “ Libro de las maraxillas del Munzo”, the Book of Wonders of the World by Marco Polo, the Venetian, with annotations in the margin by Colombus himself, or Columbus’ Book of the First Voyage, a manuscript by Brother Bartholomew de Las Casas, who accompanied him. Or indeed the Veitia Code “ Modos que tenian los yndios de la Nueva Espana de Zelebrar sus fiestas” (how the Indians of New Spain Celebrate) or The Maritime Atlas of Juan Riezo - Oliva (“ Atlas Portulano “) covering the known world in the era of discovery and printed in Naples in 1580.

And how can the visitor pass by the first map of America, drawn by Christopher Columbus in 1493, or the plan of La Isabela, the first “European town” in America, founded in January 1494, or the first “ road”, built of huge blocks of stone in March 1494 to link La Isabela to Saint Thomas de Janico via the Col des Hidalgos in the northern Cordileras? How can he fail to be interested in the first town council (24 April 1494), the first monastery (1502), the first hospital (1503), the first Chamber of Commerce (1503), the first currency (1505), the first lump of sugar (1506) and the first banana tree (1516)? Or the first uprising of the slaves (1522), the first peace agreement between the Europeans and the Indians (1533) and the first university (1538)?

Monsignor Lopez Rodriguez, Metropolitan Archbishop of Santo Domingo and Primate of the Americas, who presided at the private view as Chairman of the Dominican Standing Committee for the Celebration of the 5th Centenary of the Discovery and Evangelisation of America, mentioned various aspects of the exhibition (over and above its historical content)’ which seemed, not surprisingly, to echo the aims of the ACP - EEC Cultural Foundation human dignity (Hispaniola was the scene of its first proclamation in America), equality (the need to emancipate the black slaves was also announced on Hispaniola, as Raymond Chasle was to point out, in connection with the revolt which Toussaint Louveurte led at the end of the 18th century), and the inter - cultural dialogue, as Hispaniola is, par excellence, a melting pot of races and languages.

M. - H.B.

“Jour d’Action de Gr”: Symphony

This symphony, by the Burkinabomposer Belemsida Renuirma, was first conceived as a ballet, which the ACP - EEC Cultural Foundation hopes to put on one day. But the work, as premid in Brussels on 30 April, is a piece for choir and orchestra and it was played by the Symphony Orchestra of Europe conducted by Pierre Roullier. Here is how the Foundation describes it:

“ Father Guirma’s symphony “Jour d’Action de Gr” for choir and orchestra, is a magical ballet in the popular tradition of the Mossi, one of the tribes of Burkina Faso.

All the Mossi songs, dances and rhythms which give the work its texture date to back into the mists of time.

Every year, after bringing in the crops, the Mossi held great festivities to offer thanks to God and manna to their ancestors in honour of the latest harvest which could not be eaten before the celebrations had taken place. The Moro Naba, King of the Mossi, and his vassals made huge amounts of beer from the new sorghum and sacrificed many animals in the process, turning it into a national festival, where everyone ate and drank their fill at the expense of the King (or Lord). In the Mossi language, they called it the “beerfest of the King”.

On the day of the ceremony, which was punctuaded by music and dancing, people from every class of society came to pay hommage to the monarch. “

This is why sections of B.R. Guirma’s piece are entitled “ Naab Rayuuya” (festival of thanksgiving), “Mossi Royal March “, “ Naab’a Zanne” (entry of the dancers of the Warba, the folkdance of the Mossi of Ouagadougou), “Ballad of the Mirgrants of Yatenga “, “ Wenega “ (popular rejoicing), “Fulani Dances” and “Peul Dances”.

The composer remains faithful to the sources of tradition and successfully brings in variations and harmony, combining inspiration with masterful borrowing from Western music. . The words of the songs are from the oral tradition and there is every respect for the musical grammar of Burkina Faso in the use of popular melodies and harmony, both genre and technique being strictly authentic. By taking its inspiration from the folk dance and music of the ritual ceremony, Guirma’s symphony is echoing the ACP - EEC Cultural Foundation’s concern with the promotion of a people’s cultural identity through its collective memory.

It is also a fine illustration of the inter - cultural dialogue, which is one of the fundamental areas of activity of the Foundation.

Since the instrumental sounds in a symphony orchestra exist in Africa, Guirma can score for Western instruments without changing the nature of the African music.

Here, then, he has produced a specifically African work for symphony orchestra in which tradition and modernity have been fused to bring out the values of traditional achievements.”

It should be recalled that Father Guirma’s other compositions include the theme music from “ Wend Kundi”, by the Burkinabilm - maker Gaston Kabor

The Symphony Orchestra of Europe, itself an inter - cultural enterprise with members from 14 different countries (seven of them in the EEC), was joined on this occasion by singers, including two Africans - Opportune Nana - Tapsoba, the Burkinablto, and Venance Mobio, the Ivorian tenor. An enthusiastic audience warmly applauded them all and gave an ovation to the composer.

M. - H.B.