ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44

Doing so much with the spoken word

His is a voice you cannot ignore. The beauty of it is that you don’t want to, says Smriti Daniel describing Benjamin Zephaniah, the performance poet who was in Colombo last week

The griot wanders from village to village. He carries messages; he carries hope and despair, breaking news and ancient tales. Sometimes he sings, sometimes he shuffles through a dance, sometimes he simply stands up and speaks out. He is the wanderer, the teller of tales, the singer of songs. He is a link between people, between tiny villages and distant cities, between different, yet overlapping realities.

Meet Benjamin Zephaniah, a performance poet, actor, activist, and movie maker among many other things – in essence, a modern day griot, who was in Colombo last week courtesy the British Council. Poetry is in Benjamin’s blood, and as one of the earliest and most popular British performance poets, Benjamin is something of an icon (not least because he very publicly turned down an O.B.E.). As performance poetry goes mainstream, albeit at a leisurely pace, Benjamin remains at the heart of the action. He’s also the perfect window into an art form that packs a potent punch – intense, powerful and low on trappings.

Despite its hip, rebellious feel, performance poetry is actually, and obviously, far older than written poetry says Benjamin, explaining that “it’s interesting, because people say that performance poetry is new…but as an instrument, the tongue is far older than the pen.” Most societies may have needed a strong oral tradition before a written tradition developed, he points out, as that would be the only way for people to pass on and remember their cultural heritage.

Speaking from a Caribbean-West Indian point of view, Benjamin traces the journey taken by the slaves who were forcibly abducted by the British, Portuguese and Spanish traders and shipped to Jamaica. “Most of them were illiterate,” he says, “but somehow they had to keep stories and experiences alive, and also to find ways of entertaining each other.” For the slaves, exploited and robbed of dignity and independence, stories and poetry performed for their fellows became a treasured and nurtured kind of self expression. “That’s why it survived there,” says Benjamin simply.

The end of slavery did not lessen the importance of this long tradition. A lot of people were illiterate or semi-literate at best, says Benjamin, and so the oral tradition remained strong. And even in villages, where no newspapers were read, people craved news of happenings in the larger world outside. Enter the griot. Benjamin explains that in West Africa, a griot is a man who is something of a nomad entertainer cum announcer. He does “whatever it takes to spread the word,” explains Benjamin adding that “I always say it’s a kind of alternative newscaster.”

The griot in some ways is the voice of those who do not normally have a voice. Just like his modern urban equivalent – the performance poet. Benjamin remembers leaving Jamaica to travel to Britain with his family as a young man. Not slaves, yet not entirely accepted, Benjamin and many other immigrants like him found themselves the focus of sometimes extreme racism and discrimination. They had lots of things to talk about, lots of things they wanted to say, and no platform from which to say it. They were not main stream – you can’t be when you’re fighting an entire social and political system determined to keep your voice from being heard.

“People always ask me if I’m political, but it’s a bit like asking Bob Marley if he was political. He would say, no, no, no, no…we’re just writing about our circumstances.” For Benjamin, it’s not about politics; it’s about social commentary - even if it does take some pretty unusual forms. “Reggae music, for instance, had its own ‘politics’ – “nobody was giving these people a voice in Kingston, Jamaica. Then reggae music got up and said, use the music. You use that platform to say something. That’s the way it was with poetry in Britain. I was able to take a stand, make some poetry and of course to talk about life in Britain.”

Benjamin says that the first well known performance poets in Britain were Jamaican. Later Ethiopian kids and Nigerian kids – all immigrants – signed up, as it were. More recently many Asians, particularly women, are coming up. Benjamin finds it interesting how a lot performance poetry in Britain today is dominated by Blacks, Asians and homosexuals. “They had no voice- not in the main stream,” he shrugs, dreadlocks swaying. Performance poetry is honest and in touch with people’s realities in a way that manufactured mass entertainment will never be. “If you really want to know the pulse of what’s happening, then you go and listen to the performance poetry.”

Benjamin himself has used his stage to make himself heard on issues dear to his heart -from the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence to the wholesale and unnecessary slaughter of turkeys at Christmastime. Things are changing now. “There was a phase when you had to get up on stage and do political poetry,” says Benjamin, “but now what’s happening is that people are allowed to do their own thing…and it might get personal – and that’s cool really.” You need only take in a session of performance poetry to realise that the connection between poet and audience can be direct, intense and somehow intimate. Performance poets bring nothing to the stage – only themselves, their voices, their infectious energy and perhaps a bottle of water. The occasional performance will see a poet use music in the background, and more often than not, a poem is meant solely for spoken delivery – it simply won’t work as well on paper.

“I could perform a new poem and I would know if it works there and then,” he says, “I don’t need a publishers or an expert to tell me.” Their work tends to be fluid, and a poet often forms a strong bond with his audience. “Poetry audiences by definition tend to be intelligent and accepting” says Benjamin. “If you cry it doesn’t mean that you failed. I say I can’t do this poem, I’ll come back later, they don’t say, ‘bad show, I want my money back.”

Honest emotion, be it tears, laughter or even anger are not uncommon in an audience faced with Benjamin Zephaniah. All that passion for life and humour pours out of him, challenging you to remain unmoved. His is a voice you cannot ignore. The beauty of it is that you don’t want to.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.