Tuesday, July 26, 2011

random notes: seun kuti, swimming, a black yoga teacher

seun kuti in prospect park
Seun Kuti, Fela Kuti’s youngest son, played in Prospect Park, Brooklyn last week. We were planning to go, but then decided it was too damn hot to make the trip down to NYC, what with the East Coast being in the middle of a heatwave and all. 
For those who don’t know, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a hugely popular and influential Nigerian musician who originated a style of music called afrobeat, a mix of traditional West African percussion, James Brown-style big band funk, the modal, free jazz of the mid to late ‘60s and call and response vocals. 
He was also an unabashed critic of the Nigerian government -- for which he was repeatedly jailed, tortured and beaten over the years -- and an unapologetic practitioner of Yoruba, at a time when that tradition was considered by many of the country’s Christians and Muslims to be a backwards relic. 
Somewhat of a cult figure in the US during his 1970s-1980‘s heyday, Fela became known to a greater number of people when the musical 'Fela!' came out on Broadway. In Africa of course, he remains a legend, on the same scale as Bob Marley. Fela died in 1997. 
I saw Fela one time back in 1989, at the Apollo. He was a commanding performer, completely mesmerizing. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. And the music was slamming of course. Easily in my top ten shows of all time -- actually make that the top three.
Fela has another son named Femi, also a musician, who performs a more pop-oriented brand of afrobeat. I’ve seen him play a couple of times as well, first in 2000 and most recently in ’09. He puts on good show but IMO has little of the power and intensity of his father. That’s not meant as a put-down though I’m glad he’s out there doing his thing. 

Seun, who took over his dad’s band Egypt 80, is supposed to be closer to his Fela musically in terms of playing those long, extended jams so I’m looking forward to checking him out sometime. Just not when it’s 102 degrees.
my favorite lake
Here’s the lake where I swim all summer. It is surrounded by white rocky cliffs and you have to hike in about 20 minutes through the woods to get there. The water is usually freezing cold, sometimes so much so you lose your breath the first minute or so after diving in. The water is quite clean but murky as lakes tend to be and there are snakes in it (non-poisonous). 
Although located in a state park, most of the lake is not open to the public for swimming; you have to be a member of this swim club to join and prove you can go 10 laps or so in deep water. There are over 800 people in this club and as far as I know, I’m the only black person -- this little nugget corroborated to me by the founder. Like a good white liberal, she asked me if I could help get the word out to some other black folks about the club in case anyone wanted to join and I flat out told her that that was a nice gesture on her part, but probably a waste of time. I did agree to put up some flyers though.
Once past the early years of childhood/youth, most -- certainly not all -- black Americans don’t seem to be too into swimming. Maybe it’s the hair thing for the women, maybe it’s not having access to swimmable water in one’s formative years. I dunno. One thing I have noticed, at the YMCA I go to which is located dead center in the little black section of my town, there are plenty of black folks there working out but they are NOT to be found in the pool. You get the kids sometimes in the shallow end as part of a group class or sometimes splashing around with their parents, but as far as serious lap swimming goes, I’m pretty much it. 
In the three years I’ve been going there regularly, about 2-3 a week, I’ve only seen ONE other black person doing laps. (I was like “Hey there, sonny!”) Which is too bad. Swimming is such a powerful way to connect with the water element, and not to mention great exercise. 
Along this tip, we -- I can’t speak for other nationalities -- also don’t seem to be as much into the experience of raw nature as much other ethnicities are, although I wonder if this is more a matter of class than race. More thoughts on this in a future post, that is, black Americans’ relationship to the Mother.
a black yoga teacher
I was away visiting my mother for a few days and while I was gone I took a yoga class at the local YMCA. To my delight and surprise the teacher was black. Not only that she was also 80-years-old. In more than 20 years of doing yoga, I’ve only had a couple of black teachers, so this was a real treat. 
Eighty-years-old and mad limber. And when she moved, fluid as a dancer. At one point she was lying on her back, raised her leg up and touched it to her nose. 
I talked to her after class and she told me she’d been practicing yoga since 1955 and teaching since 1965. So, a fringe negro for sure. 

(“fringe negro” is my little term of affection for black folks who are far outside the mainstream. I use the word “Negro” because I like the way it rolls off the tongue and because it is non-PC and tends to rankle. I do NOT use it as a synonym for ‘Uncle Tom’ as it’s often employed today. I myself wear the label ‘fringe negro’ proudly and I’m always happy to meet another member of this very small tribe.)
You would have to be fringe to be black and doing yoga in 1955. Hmmm, maybe I should interview her for this blog. . .  
Anyhow, she was very masterful in her teaching. All those years of practice definitely showed. She focused you inward -- as the best yoga teachers do -- while at the same time adroitly conveying the proper alignment/breathing for each posture. 
Best of all she had a definite spark. You know, like life was still fun for her. Lots of folks lose that as they get older from just the vagaries of life beating them down or from following paths that don’t serve them. So that was great to experience. I think I’m in love.
Fela's biography is back in print after more than 20 years.
International Association of black yoga teachers: http://www.blackyogateachers.com/


  1. Thank you for reminding me that I still needed to pick up some of his work for my itunes. =)

    I myself have had a love/hate thing for water; our gym class involved swimming class, and it was really difficult for me to manage changing, acclimating to the water (really important, I didn't realize how much ASD really affects all these things until I think back on it) and then changing back, in a 45 minute class period. And of course, there was the hair issue (didn't help it was the 80's and my parents thought that I should graduate from braids to the most care-intensive layered and styled cut in the WORLD when I didn't even like brushing my hair!) I did, however, love going to the shore, where I could enter and leave the water on my own terms, and take all the time in the world to get acclimated to the change of temperatures and all that. I can't swim well, but I don't drown. My children, otoh, are part mermaid or something. =p

    Ha! I love your use of fringe negro, and even the "Uncle Tom" association has a certain ironic validity--I mean, I can remember how many times I'd stammer through a furious inarticulate rant that stuff like yoga and social anarchism, or even punk rock wasn't exactly "white people stuff," my interests weren't morally and politically wrong, and I wasn't "trying to be white."

  2. Funny how the kids turn out, isn't it? Hard to get my own spawn anywhere near the water.

    Good pointing out the connect between fringe negro and uncle tom. Didn't think of that. Maybe in some subconscious way it's a "reclaiming" of the term Uncle Tom a la "nigger/nigga." To lessen the sting.

    A pox on those who want to put the "black experience" in a narrow, pre-determined box.

  3. "Fringe negro" is my new favorite term. :) Thanks for sharing it with us out here in reader-land.

  4. ^^haha, glad you like. I remember sharing the term on another (black) board a few years back and most folks didn't get it. They were all "well, why are you separating yourself from other black people? Do you think you're better or something?"

  5. I saw Seun Kuti here in LA a month or so ago. He was amazing! I'm so glad I happened to hear about his (free!) show on the radio because I'd never heard of him before. Needless to say I'm a huge fan now.

    Interesting about the lake, water and nature. I surf and I spend a great deal of my recreational time hiking and/or camping so I can't personally relate. That's unfortunate and I look forward to your future writings on Blacks and connection to nature. Honestly, I really cannot spend enough time outdoors (that lake is GORGEOUS. I'd be all up in that if I were there...).

    One of my yoga teachers is an older black woman, I'd guess mid 60s. She's amazing and also a "fringe Negro" which is how she and I bonded. Fringe Negroes of the world UNITE! :)

  6. ^^Love your last sentence! It's my new motto! Ah but that little word "unite" -- now there's the rub!

    And you surf? Man that's cool. I skateboarded as a kid but overall, balance sports have never been my forte. Lots of good surfing near my mother's house though, where I spend a portion of every summer, and surfing is definitely on my list! Has been for some time.

  7. I am loving reading your blog! I've been a solitary 'create my own faith' alternative believer for 20yrs and am beginning to come out of isolation- not an all bad thing necessarily, but your blog is truly a breath of fresh air! I relate to so many worlds and walks of life and each of those worlds seem to be isolated from one another and I end up feeling I belong everywhere & no where at the same time. Loved to even see the words 'black' and 'yoga' printed together LOL That lady is so inspiring- and to be herself, even in 1955! And got the nerve to still be going strong- wow. Thanks for lifting my universalist black spirit!

    Another member of the 'fringe negroe' club :)

  8. Hey Auset, thanks for stopping by. Can definitely relate to feeling like you belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time.