The (former) French colonials will not let their history rest, and they’ve been known to express their rancor through art. Both their literature and music have proven incisive, serving as vehicles of agitation against the dehumanization and abuses of French rule.
Writer, polemicist and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, as well as his mentor Aimé Césaire, and writer Patrick Chamoiseau, are part of a cadre of musicians and intellectuals from the French Caribbean, and from the Maghreb as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, who have contributed to the truthtelling of the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Their task to reveal has been snarled by the cynical French practice of, on the one hand, devalorizing and abusing Africans and Afro-Caribbeans as savages, while infusing these same subjects’ collective psyche with the myth that they were essentially “French,” thus making it especially difficult to establish an integral Black identity.
Fanon used his understanding of the human mind, as well as his experience fighting on the ground for the independence of Algeria, to inform his major works on colonialism, and he is considered the most important anti-colonial thinker of the 20th century. It was Fanon who awakened the world to the bitter reality that to be physically colonized is not as pernicious as to be psychically so oppressed.
On his second album, Insula, Martinican jazz pianist Maher Beauroy pays homage to Fanon, featuring salient excepts from his writings, most notably the iconic "Black Skin, White Masks" (1952) and "The Wretched of the Earth" (1961). The selections are read by Florence Baudin, and Beauroy has amassed a diverse assemblage percussion instruments, oud, mandolin, flute, violins, cello, acoustic bass (the emerging Martinican standout, Sélène Saint-Aimé) and vocals.
Each tune is a voyage, with straight-ahead jazz at the helm, undulating through musical idioms mostly as if by sea, informed by Caribbean rhythms and by passages through the Maghreb as well. Rather than mimic the argument and accusations of Fanon’s text in the narrative of Beauroy’s music, Insula is a free standing companion to Fanon, one that gives the listener room to contemplate, and to enjoy the music in its own right.
The album opens as Baudin recites a poignant and paradoxical poem by Fanon, affirming humanity and the loveliness of life, of love, of generosity. Fanon must remind us, in his “B Natural,” however, of the other “moi,” the other “I,” or by extension, “we,” who, he decries, disdains others, disparages and exploits them, and “murders” what is most human in humankind: freedom.
The musical voices in “B Natural” are melancholic and of longing, wafting over strings dominated by the cello, so aptly attuned to the minor key. In its one brief minute, “B Natural” lays the framework for the album, one that explores, through the hardships the colonials must endure, the contradictions of humankind. It reminds us that, after seeing his ideals coopted by injustice and exploitation rationalized by racism, Fanon ultimately sanctioned violence to redress French colonial oppression.
Shades of comfortable straight-ahead jazz meet with breakthroughs of hard bop in “Ki Moun Ou Yé” (Who Are You?), sparked by Beauroy’s tough yet lyrical phrases modulated by the strings and flute. In all, it’s a lovely journey of mood and melody, standing on its own as a tightly, excitingly composed piece.
For the colonizers (perhaps the song’s title refers to them), as read by Baudin with ire, the colonized are as if arrested in their development, impermeable to reason, incapable of handling their own affairs. With specific reference to the seemingly endless, fierce fight to thwart an independent Algeria, Fanon likens the steadily increasing rise in violence towards the colonized to the inevitable rise of violence within them that must needs find a way to be expressed.
After a dance-suggestive baroque introduction of cello and violins—I could have listened to more, and more of this—“Conversation” opens up into a flutey Brazilian-like bounce. High register violins and piano now converse over a background suggestive of Caribbean rhythms. There’s a satisfying urgency and a tenderness here, as Baudin delivers Fanon’s metaphysical musings that ask, among other weighty questions, whether he, in some way, has contributed to the debasement of ultimate truth, and, as aforementioned, should he be prepared to take up arms in the name of liberation?
“Algérie” is haunting, grounded firmly in the Maghreb and played on Qais Saadi’s oud as it interweaves with his vocal. The way the notes are rippled echo a Christian Gregorian era chant. The music accompanies contemplations by Fanon on the eventual free Algeria, addressing women’s (assumed) longing to be free of the two stereotypes he saw binding them: that of a slave to the men of their household, and of being a “sovereign,” or head of that same household as well. The interplay of spoken word, song and liturgical-sounding oud is otherworldly; you feel the dreamlike wooziness of bliss yet remain alert to the music enveloping you.
With Insula, Beauroy complements a brilliant vanguardist by bringing you up close to the depths of a wounded humanity. On both sides. Beyond the shackles and the sexual violence, the bludgeoning, you get to feel the depths of battered peoples without being taken down that maudlin, nor vengeful path. The music, while expressive of the panoply of colonization’s evils, does not devolve into a screed, nor into blood curdling rage. It illustrates and illuminates.
Maher Beauroy seems to have processed, with the indispensable help of the great man’s text, the brilliance and humanity of the person who penetrated the “psychosis of colonialism.”
Find the artist online.
"I will show you what a woman can do" - an overview of new music from women around the world by Carolina Amoruso.
Antonio Castrignanò - Babilonia
Henri Guédon - Karma
David Walters - Nocturne
"Frantz Fanon’s Enduring Legacy" (The New Yorker, 2021)