African American cultural producers in Europe

Engaging with Skip Norman’s films of the period between 1966 and 1970 forces us to face the limits of any approach to film based on auteurism. Not only were many of the DFFB films produced collectively and within a film school context, they also point to a largely invisible network of diasporic practices of African American artists in Germany (and Europe) in the 1960s. The names Cullen Maiden, Billy Brooks, and Donald Coleman, all of them involved in Skip Norman’s films, bear witness to these connections. Most likely, they are indicators of a larger web of personal and working relations in Berlin and Europe at the time.

Cullen Maiden, the narrator in Blues People (1968) and Strange Fruit (1969), was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. He was trained as a singer at Ohio Wesleyan University and continued studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Thanks to The Rockefeller Foundation Opera Voice Scholarship, he was able to receive some of his education in Munich. Information about Maiden is scarce, but a blog entry on the website of the British Library informs us that he found work in East Berlin: “Like many artistically talented African-Americans, Maiden found he could get far more work in Europe than the United States so, in the late 1960s, he joined the Komische Oper Berlin where he gained a favourable reputation for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He also worked in Scandinavia and finally settled in London.” Apart from his engagement at Komische Oper in East Berlin, he also regularly worked with Kurt Masur and the Leipziger Gewandhausorchester (cf. an audio-clip from a performance in 1973). A collection of his poetry and other writings appeared in 2008 under the title Soul on Fire, echoing Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

Skip Norman’s film Strange Fruit (1969) ends with a song by Billy Brooks and his band El Babaku. A year later, On Africa (1970) begins with the same song. Brooks, a drummer as well as flutist, had come to Europe in 1964. In Berlin, as Andrew Wright Hurley wrote, he “quickly became a stalwart of the German jazz scene.” El Babaku, a band that uses neither chords nor horns, focuses on African (mostly Nigerian) rhythms, but also finds these rhythms in Cuba and Latin America. In the liner notes to the album El Babaku Live at the Jazz Galerie, recorded on May 3, 1971 at the jazz club at Bundesplatz 193, Brooks argues: “The power, the new thing about jazz was the rhythm. But it was hidden in horns—in melody and harmony. To make it even more powerful, we have to go back to Africa—and to Cuba and to Latin America where African rhythms are unspoiled.” Brooks politicizes rhythm and formulates a critique of European notions of progress that are transmitted via melody and harmony: “The harmonic progressions in European music are symbolising progress. Progress is the character of Europe—of the white man. […] Power is the African way. Power and subjection. In other words, the African submit to what they are doing. The European character is progress. To do a thing and outdo it next time. It became infectious. Like the atomic bomb. It progresses to its own end …”. One of the trancelike, hypnotic songs on the album, “Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz,” is dedicated to Malcolm X and bears his Muslim name and title. Another member of El Babaku was Donald Coleman, a percussionist born 1939 in New Jersey. Like Brooks and Maiden, he came to Germany in the 1960s and later lived in Koblenz. Unfortunately, his German language webpage doesn’t seem to have been updated for a long time.

Skip Norman left the USA in 1961 to live and study in Göttingen. He moved to Berlin in 1966 to attend the first year of Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie (DFFB) and stayed until the mid-1970s. Like Cullen Maiden, he regularly spent time in Scandinavia (Denmark), where he recorded Bobby Seale’s speech for Strange Fruit in 1969. What kind of diasporic kinship and friendship lies behind the joint work of Norman, Cullen, Brooks, and Foreman? To what other diasporic artists and activists was the Berlin scene connected? Where are its links to the present?



Andrew Wright Hurley, The Return of Jazz: Joachim-Ernst Berendt and West German Cultural Change, New York/Oxford, 2009, p. 206.

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February 25th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / Contexts

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022

Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Centre, Kyiv) on Putin’s “World War Z” and the West’s deadly “foot-dragging”, via Project Syndicate: “The main feature of this Western condition is constant belatedness. The West has always been too late, incapable of acting ahead and instead just reacting to what has already happened. As a Ukrainian joke went at the time, ‘While the European Union was taking a decision, Russia took Crimea.’ Then as now, Ukrainians wondered, ‘What is the West’s red line? What will compel the West to act instead of waiting and discussing when to intervene?’”

Barbara Wurm on Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed in Mariupol, via Die Welt: “Kvedaravičius unfolded a whole spectrum of visual anthropology over a decade with only three films [Barzakh, Mariupolis, Parthenon]. It now awaits evaluation and exploration. The time will come. The films themselves make possible an infinite immersion in the matter of the world, between dream and reality, horror and everyday life, facts and phenomenal imagology.”

April 5th, 2022

Statement by #AfricansFromUA on Equal Treatment via e-flux notes: “Non-Ukrainian nationals from the war in Ukraine arriving in Germany have been facing very different terms of treatment—both in different federal states and cities but also within the very same city throughout time and different facilities. While some received so called ‘Fictitious Certificates’ for one year without further procedures others were pressured to submit an asylum application with their finger prints registered and passports seized. Again others were given a so called “Duldung” including the threat of deportation.”

April 5th, 2022
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