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Koffi Kwahulé and “jazz writing” / Text Raphaëlle Tchamitchian

“Jazz brings a permanent challenge. I may have lost my kingdom but I can build a new one, safe from destruction, a kingdom elsewhere, in suspension, beyond the stable world. I think that is the dream that jazz is telling us. And it’s not only a black dream, but a human dream.”

– Koffi Kwahulé

Koffi Kwahulé © the artist

Koffi Kwahulé has already written over 20 plays and novels that have been translated and performed around the world. His theatre is violent yet open, dark yet full of hope. To create such a paradoxical form, he looks to jazz for his inspiration, but not as an influence—instead jazz is at the heart of his project. His unique form of “jazz writing” has been performed this year at the Avignon Theatre Festival. 

“My model writer? Monk,” said Kwahulé to Gilles Mouëllic in 2007 (Frères de son, Théâtrales editions). The simple statement nicely summarizes his project. The Monk in question is the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), an unclassifiable genius of the 20th century, who never physically wrote anything down, let alone actually produced a theatrical work. The Kwahulé in question is Koffi Kwahulé, a playwright and novelist who, to my knowledge, has never performed music on stage. However his work has more in common with jazz musicians than dramatists. “I’ve read a lot about jazz musicians and what they say,” he reveals in the same interview. “I read little about theatre. I read little about what specialists, theoreticians, actors or directors say about theatre. My relationship to theatre and to art in general is structured by what jazz musicians say.” This may seem surprising from someone who produced his thesis on Ivorian theatre but as soon as you open his books, all becomes clear. His work is infused with jazz, both in terms of its themes (some plays, like Cette vieille magie noire, even make specific reference to it) and the writing itself. 

In Jaz, Misterioso-119 and Blue-S-cat, the characters remain nameless. The only clues to deciphering them are found in their bare, free-verse text, the words on the page, surrounded by white space and silence. Words almost collide with each other; reading isn’t linear; we have to work to reconstitute the fable. The characters are dissipated yet cruelly flesh and blood. Encountering a Koffi Kwahulé play is about hearing and feeling, as much as it is about reading. Repeated rape, infanticide, murders, situations are violent, bodies scarred. Destinies are compressed; relationships are incomplete; vital spaces are oppressive and window-less. While emergency engenders catastrophe and vice versa, this is a theatre of dystopia, the flipside of utopia, a theatre driven by the desire for openings onto an aesthetic and political elsewhere. Hope is ever present, as is the possibility of transcending one’s own condition to take flight toward a different self. 

This potential is contained within jazz, in its history and future. It is the fruit of cataclysm—the slave trade, deportation, objectification, the commoditization of human beings, exploitation, torture, the destruction of families, languages, and relationships. It gave birth to one of the most vibrant movements of the 20th century: black music—gospel, work songs, the blues, jazz, rhythm & blues, soul, rock, hip hop, rap: all the result of the primal uprooting. Without these forms, today’s popular music would not exist. Among these was Great Black Music, a designation adopted by free jazz musicians in the 1960’s to highlight the continuum of the tradition, which in the way it is played embodies this uprooting. Improvisation exists in many musical forms. If it has such an important role in jazz it is because improvisation involves inventing something in the present that cannot be grasped and written down. Improvisation is born of the experience of loss and dispossession. It is a remnant of the African continent’s distant oral cultures. We know how painful a fantasy the return to Mother Earth was for African-Americans (cf. Maya Angelou’s magnificent The Heart of A Woman). “Jazz brings a permanent challenge. I may have lost my kingdom but I can build a new one, safe from destruction, a kingdom elsewhere, in suspension, beyond the stable world,” explains Koffi Kwahulé. “I think that is the dream that jazz is telling us. And it’s not only a black dream, but a human dream.” This is the dream we find in his writing. 

Born in Ivory Coast, Koffi Kwahulé is Afropean—he has lived in France for over thirty years. He may feel that sense of loss in the same way, but identifying himself with the jazz tradition is a way of reaching out to black American destinies and expressing the condition of the trans-Atlantic diaspora. In 1999, at Rennes University, he stated, “Writing about African-Americans is a way of saying I embrace their condition even if I have never lived in the United States, even if I’ve never known the racism they know. It is my way of appropriating what they have lived, and of creating a black national space, and a virtual bridge between all black worlds.” This identification with jazz also creates a literary connection. The work of many American writers and playwrights has been inspired by jazz, from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison, whose novel Jazz doesn’t actually mention jazz. America, and in particular New York, has often featured in Koffi Kwahulé’s work, from his first published play Cette vieille magie noire (Tchicaya U Tam’si prize in 1992) to his latest as yet unpublished work Samo, A Tribute to Basquiat, directed by Laëtitia Guédon in 2017, depicting the early adulthood of Jean-Michel Basquiat before he became the artist Basquiat. For Kwahulé New York is both a point of departure and a destination; on the way, jazz has shifted from stage to page. 

Koffi Kwahulé’s jazz style is characterized by a number of features: he does not use stage directions; characters are not pre-defined; the readers are left to fend for themselves in the dark, groping for clues that might indicate the who, what, where and when of the story. “Stage directions are an unconscious reference to an already existing theatre. To me, when in the presence of contemporary theatre, we have to come face to face with something we don’t know.” Every creative act is born of an empty space. Kwahulé confronts us with this emptiness. “The director, [reader or spectator] is confronted by a hole, the same hole I had to encounter. Directors have to cope with that gaping absence.” In jazz writing, we also find multiple voices that exist as sound before they convey meaning. “Writing is sound,” says Kwahulé. A sound similar to that of jazzmen who spend their whole lives cultivating their own sound; their sound is like their identity card, an entity which betrays everything they are.

His jazz writing could be found in Avignon in Jaz, a play dating back to 1998 directed by Alexandre Zeff at the Chapelle du Verbe Incarné during the Festival. While no actual reference is made to music in the fable, Alexandre Zeff deployed a jazz group on stage as a counterpoint to narrative of the main character Jaz, played by Ludmilla Dabo. Jaz recounts a rap and redemption, loss and flight, death and resurrection. “The goal of Jaz is plain to see: to write a text which doesn’t need actual music but which itself is jazz,” explains Kwahulé. The missing “z” is indicative of the character’s loss of identity, the same loss from which jazz was born. To help us in this journey of identification, there is this hypothetical stage direction: 

Une femme.
Le crâne rasé peut-être.
Nue peut-être.
Un revolver.
Des balles.
Une ardoise.
Un jazz (un seul instrument)
qui, de temps à autre,
troue/est troué,
enlace/est enlacé
par la voix de la femme.

Music also features in the Koffi Kwahulé’s other two works presented at the “In” of the Festival d’Avignon 2017: Ezéchiel et les bruits de l’ombre, performed by the author in the Jardin de la Vierge of the Lycée Saint-Joseph accompanied by the multi-instrumentalist Michel Risse, and Kalakuta Dream, recounting the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s life, who has had a great influence on the author’s work; a reading took place at the Jardin de la rue de Mons on July 16th. 

With Kwahulé, writing jazz means inviting the reader/viewer to take part in a communal theatrical experience, a plural polyphonic community—the community of jazz, naturally but also that of the broader community of humankind, because “being a jazzman is the human condition”. 

In something we Africans got issue 2
Raphaëlle Tchamitchian
Mai 2017