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