Addicted to novelty since 2001

One Night to Leave the Leopard Print in the Closet

Last night I went to the (Ford) Centre to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I went on something of a whim, having enjoyed their work on Paul Simon’s Graceland, but otherwise knowing very little about them.

It turns out that they have a long and remarkable history in South Africa. Read the Wikipedia entry for all the details, but suffice it to say that they deserve their status as ambassadors to the world. Their music was simultaneously foreign and beautiful, seeming to me to be the proto-music for many Western styles.

I think it’s ill-advised for Caucasian Canadians to break out all of their Africana on the night the South African band comes to town. There were massive dangling bead earrings, bizarre animal print jackets and, the worst example, some short white guy wearing a shirt like this.

Now I understand that 20th-century fashion has plundered all corners of the world. That’s how fashion works, and I don’t object. In fact, I applaud the people who bypass the Gap and express their individuality through their clothes.

However, it’s not like wearing a Canucks jersey to a hockey game. The night that Ladysmith Black Mambazo is in town is in fact the one night you want to leave your African clothes at home. To me, wearing your Arfricana says to the performers “see, I’m the same as you.” When, in fact, the evening should be about celebrating difference.

Maybe I’ve got this all wrong — what you think?

6 Responses to “One Night to Leave the Leopard Print in the Closet”

  1. Rog

    I’ve owned a couple Ladysmith Black Mambazo albums and hmm, I’m somewhere inbetween. In someways, perhaps you’re overthinking it.

    Would you consider it to be inappropriate for non-Scottish persons to wear Kilts at a traditional bagpipes concert, or would that be just getting into the spirit of the occasion? How far do we need to segregate cultures? When does celebration cross the line into irreverance?

  2. Olaf Gradin

    I would agree with Rog’s comments if the Mambazo concert were actually a festival. Since it’s just a concert, I would tend to wear concert clothes, which look pretty much like the things I wear everyday. I suppose that if you do wear African clothes on a daily basis, you might wear them here to. Then again, I know many Africans – some white, some black – and none of them wear the traditional garb to work. If you want to show Mambazo that you care deeply, buy a CD and T-Shirt.

  3. James

    I think that what matters in this context is the relationship of the person to the culture they’re echoing.

    Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a native culture. An outsider of that culture has to be respectful in how they treat it. Was the short white guy respectful in his themed shirt? I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like it, but I wasn’t there.

    I’d also say that trying another culture isn’t inherently a bad thing, so long as the tryers are open to all aspects of the culture (not just the easy, photogenic examples) and treat it with respect. Multiculturalism isn’t just a choice of restaurants or shirts in a closet. The short white guy at the concert obviously felt he’d earned some kind of right to wear his African-themed shirt.

    We’re all magpies in our fashion, but we have to be sensitive to the origins of our influences. If a member of a ruling class is mimicing the culture of a less powerful class, then it’s pretty offensive. In a closer-to-home example, I find middle and upper-class kids echoing white-trash culture (trucker hats, wife beaters, track suits) obnoxious and offensive.

    Echoes of culture (and particularly fashion) often drift so far from their source that their relation to an origin is severed. So we see people rolling up their jean cuffs today, just the same way GIs rolled up their pant cuffs when they returned from Vietnam, where they were imitating the peasants on the rice paddies.

  4. Darren

    James: Like I say, I approve of this kind of behaviour generally, not in this particular instance.

    It’s interesting that you’re offended by the ruling class’s acquisition of the oppressed people’s culture. To me, that’s the history of fashion. Weren’t jeans the garb of poor workers at the turn of the century? Don’t we get collarless shirts from mid-century Chinese farmers (and, I suppose, Chairman Mao himself)?

    As I’m sure you know, poor black kids drive North American fashions like no other minority group.

  5. Arwen

    I was also at the concert: great performance.

    I noted the garb, but saw it differently: having been the child of a hippie, the African clothing seemed to me to be the fair-trade wearing, Birkenstock (or Clark’s) clad uniform of the monied hippie class and not something particularly special about Ladysmith. That shirt you show in your link is one version of the dress-up man’s shirt of my tofu & commune laden early years – since alarmingly sloganed t-shirts were deemed inappropriate for formal wear. Since they weren’t monied hippies, my mother made & embroidered these shirts for my dad.

    I’m not sure that there’d be anything else in some of these wardrobes, or that, after 30 odd years of wearing this style, (or growing up with folks wearing the style), that you’d necessarily consider yourself as “dressing in an african way”. Frankly, I wouldn’t have noted your shirt picture as african at all… Check the hippie kid’s ignorance. I didn’t also know the history of tabouleh till it became mainstream. It was just what we ate.

    Also noted as part of the uniform: women wearing many shades of purple, nothing that isn’t cotton, dangly bead or shell earrings, and those african brimless-hat thingies. Hornby Island still features a lot of this wardrobe, (when everyone’s dressed up: sloganed t-shirts and ripped jeans or sarongs otherwise), but I think it’s fading at the vancouver folk fest.

    What I thought was “Whoa, how hard-core. How old-school.” I feel that way about 30-something goths, too.

  6. Matt

    I have to agree with Arwen. I grew up with lots of my family wearing traditional African garb. Of course, we’re a black family. But, as Americans, who albeit have an historical root to Africa, are still in a certain way appropriating another culture. It’s similar to me to those white kids who grow up in urban areas and dress and talk like b-boys and girls. Is that appropriation? Well, to a certain extent, yes. But, it could also be seen as an homage or as a desire to become part of the culture. So, let the “wiggers” (as those white people who adopt black urban culture are sometimes called) be a part of that community. Let the black Americans bbe a part of the African communities. Don’t let color keep white people from being a part of the African communities. Who knows, some of those people you all saw at the concert could have been white Africans. Culture is made to be cherished and shared. At least that’s my perspective.

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