Throughout East Africa, privately owned minibuses known as “Matatus” trundle along in decorous brilliance, picking up passengers at low fares. Michael Orange first encountered the vehicles in Nairobi, and remembered them when organizing the first Matatu Festival of Stories in 2013, an annual art, film, and music showcase that he now directs. This year, the theme of mobility symbolized by the buses persists in guiding the curation of the festival, which will take place in Oakland from September 23 to September 26. Migration, dispersal, and movement are all matters that resonate historically with the people of the African diaspora, manifested in everything from gentrified cities to the Atlantic Slave abduction. In a recent discussion with the Matatu team, resident Matatu artist Mahader Tesfai pointed out that mobility is not always a choice. “Most Black folks who were in Oakland don’t live in Oakland anymore,” he said. “We have to be mobile by the factors of the systems we live in.”
The opening film of the festival, Necktie Youth, deals with the notion of mobility metaphorically through the lives of privileged middle-class youngsters living in Sandton, Johannesburg, one of the wealthiest suburbs in Africa. Protagonists Jabz and September are unaware that race in the post-apartheid, post-Mandela era of South Africa has any bearing on their relationships with their white peers, one of whom commits suicide at the beginning of the film. “They’re good, they’re so past many of these things,” said Orange of the characters, “yet they’re running into walls because they’re still living with the sediment and the residue and the tradition.”
Despite the nominal shout-out to East African transport, Orange emphasized that Matatu is not an African festival, referencing the fact that Hollywood is not an “Anglo” affair. “Two stories are never included [in Matatu],” said Orange, “the [white] savior complex and brothers running around with guns.” With the tagline “The Spectacular Walk of Ordinary People,” the festival is instead dedicated to portraying the narratives of regular folks. Orange is often dismayed at the manner in which national media sensationalizes the day-to-day lives of people in Oakland. “That’s our secret to tell,” said Orange. “That’s not yours, pay me my royalty.”
Matatu’s carefully sourced tales drift across the Atlantic Ocean to the Netherlands, Israel, Ethiopia, and Senegal, returning to Suriname, California, and early Nineties New York to present a rich palette of footage. In the surrealist movie Crumbs, which will screen on the final day of the festival, a the protagonist travels through a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia while an old spaceship hovers in the sky above him. Tired of scavenging the crumbs of a lost civilization, he traverses stunning landscapes to find out why the looming saucer has turned on for the first time in years.
For Tesfai, ideas of future apocalyptic worlds saliently relate to his day-to-day life in Oakland. “We’re actually living in the future right now,” said Tesfai. “We’re dealing with things like water scarcity or being killed in the streets right now, things that you can take in many ways artistically.” Tesfai also noted the “kind of police state we’re living under in Oakland, with [police] gunshots and sundown curfews for protests,” as our discussion turned toward the Matatu Festival as a site of social and political dialogue.
“I actually feel like I’m doing something with this festival that’s in the spirit of [Bob] Marley,” said Matatu producer Maria Judice. The organizers strategically adopted the accessible backdrop of a festival in order to harness a collective site of conversation, rooted in the art of storytelling. “[Celebrating] Blackness is inherently political,” said Matatu performer Zéna, “being at peace with your identity, seeing the beauty in it … So [Matatu] doesn’t have to be this revolutionary thing.”
In that vein, the film ASNI: Courage, Passion and Glamour in Ethiopia, which screens on the second day of the fest, relays the story of a woman widely considered the “Billie Holiday of Ethiopia.” The movie offers a fierce portrait of songstress Asnaketch Worku, boldly unafraid of her sexuality, living “on the edge of her artistry” against the backdrop of a socially and politically conservative 1960s Ethiopia. By simply being and loving herself, Worku sparked radical community dialogue on the role of women in the performing arts. “I was dangerous,” Worku declares, eyes narrowed, in a trailer clip for ASNI. “Have you heard of Don Juan?”
ASNI, Necktie Youth, and Crumbs are just three of nine films that will be presented at Starline Social Club (645 West Grand Ave., Oakland) and the Flight Deck (1540 Broadway, Oakland) during Matatu 2015. In addition to the film series, several performances and exhibitions of works commissioned by the festival will generate heart-to-hearts across disciplines. The Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancers will perform on the final evening of the festival with an excerpt from their work RASA, set to music by Zakir Hussain. The musical lineup includes Saul Williams, local band Black Spirituals, Soulection producer Eden Hagos, and Zéna, a Kora (West African harp) player trained in the Jaliyaa tradition of musical storytelling. Mark De Clive-Lowe (MdCL), SaRa Creative Partners’ Shafiq Husayn — allegedly the only person that Erykah Badu allows to write lyrics for her — and Dove Society will also perform.
Every night, a local organization will host a happy hour. And to open the festival on September 22, a special dinner featuring a reading by Saul Williams from his newest work US(a), and artist talks with Tesfai and Donte Clark will take place at Miss Ollie’s restaurant. In a conversation with Williams on the relationship between film, music, and art in, he suggested that artistic disciplines generally work in conversation. “There’s always some sort of necessary interplay between creative genres,” said Williams, who works across media himself. “They all kind of illuminate each other.” Through multiple artistic practices, the Matatu Festival promises to speak to the power of narrative in the context of social upheaval. “There’s something about our backbone in this festival that is political,” said Judice. “If we’re not pushing the line, then we’re not doing our jobs. That’s why I’m here.”