First Impressions: Stiffness, Amadou & Mariam and men slapping each other’s buttocks. Hi, Sweden.

I step outside and notice the rain droplets falling on my forehead. Damn it. Why do I always forget to bring an umbrella with me? Being in Sweden is different, for the first time I am staying for longer in a country where I go out and nada, I understand nothing about what is said or talked around me, I could as well be deaf and there be no difference. One day after paying entry at a club, a bouncer dressed in a police uniform (they do that in Sweden) asked for ID but totally unaware, I simply walked past him. Somewhere in the back I heard someone shout but I just assumed it wasn’t towards me. After all I am black- couldn’t he see I am not from here? – thought my prejudiced self. The thing is, I got used to people just assuming I am not from somewhere. For example, in the Netherlands most people assumed I was not Dutch hence automatically addressed me in English. In Germany, the same and even in Brazil, my home country, many people tend to ask me where I am from.  However, here- a place where I feel to be ever so different- this has surprisingly been not much of the case.

Perhaps it’s because in the Netherlands I had friends who I spoke English to then making it easier for people to notice I am a foreigner. Or maybe this is just another of Sweden’s many good attributes, in addition to its progressive values towards gender equality and environment, it also teaches people not to presume someone’s nationality based on their skin color. Or, perhaps, just a competent bouncer doing his duty. Whatever it is, I don’t know, all I know is that he must have been stunned by my seeming confidence walking through as it took him a while to actually reach me, by the time he did I was almost at the bar. Offended but somewhat more shocked that this tall bearded man with an authoritative funny looking hat was now leaning aggressively towards me, I knew I had gotten myself into trouble though not sure for what yet. So I turned to him in a James Dean kind of way and said, listen man, I don’t understand a thing you’re saying now back-off please  (I didn’t quite say that but you get the idea). The reaction on his face was priceless, turning red his wrinkles softened into a confused smile it even made me feel bad. “Oh, I asked you for your ID  over there but then you just walked away- sorry, I didn’t understand you didn’t speak Swedish.” I apologized, handed him the ID and watched as he investigated my document further. By then everyone was staring and speculating, while I stood there feeling like a stupid tourist.

Moments like this summarize most of my recent experiences in this strange, strange land called Sweden.  For the past two weeks I decided to go out and discover the city of Gothenburg in spite of feeling like an incomprehensible loser for half of the time and so, here were some of my first impressions:

First stop: Amadou & Mariam and fancy theater.

So during my first week I passed by this fancy building called Stora Teatern and saw that one of my favorite artists, Amadou & Mariam, were coming to play and immediately hyped, I walked in and bought a ticket. Eventually a week passes and finally it is Amadou & Mariam and I’m all giggles and smiles. (: 

Me: before at home and while through before the concert started

Even though they ranked somewhere in the European charts and collaborated with bigger artists like Manu Chao and Santigold in the past, not many people seem to know Amadou & Mariam which really makes them extra cool. They are also foreign in that “foreign” sense of the word meaning non-white and from a “developing” country which immediately made me assume certainly three types of people would show up. Number one: people in their 40s obsessed with the category  “World” music. Number two: older folks who were once protest loving hippies but still wearing loose colorful clothes they bought during a lifetime trip to Goa or Thailand sometime in 1966; and finally, hipsters because let’s face it, they are everywhere. I get there and 3/3 score, convictions confirmed, I skim the audience and as predicted mostly white and Swedish because I could only hear what appeared to be gibberish around me. I don’t think there were more than maybe five or six people of color in the whole venue- one of whom I note, worked as a coat checker- this equated to me feeling like the only black person in the room but guess who isn’t used to that by now.

At the entrance people are standing by the bar and though I cannot understand a thing, it looks like they’re talking about some very smart things. Look at you- I think to myself- being fancy. However, this sophisticated feeling of cool soon vanishes the moment I get to the place Amadou & Mariam are about to play. Here is when things start to get interesting, I gotta say that this night has left me with some particular impressions about Swedish culture. The first one about seats. Yes, there actually were seats. Glancing at my ticket and once again down the hall, it unfortunately turns out I am actually in the right room. You must be kidding me. At this point I am trying to picture seeing one of the coolest, grooviest middle-aged married singing couple alive probably ever while sit and trust me, it doesn’t look anything close to amusing.

SSS: Swedish, Serious and Stiff

After being accompanied by two staffers, mic in hand, stands in front of us a short, same sized couple, both wearing gold yellow robes and sunglasses, smiling curiously at the audience who is cheering at this point quite modestly or to say the truth, not really at all. Interfering the slight awkwardness in the room, Mariam, with her charming familiarity breaks the ice with a casual “Hello- how are you doing tonight?” Here we come to my second shock of the evening, that is the response of the crowd- if not for me and maybe three more people in the back, cheering was barely a thing if so to say there was even a thing at all. I immediately took regret shouting  “wooohooo” as everyone around me turned to give me that “ehm, what are you doing?” look. Naturally my hand coiled immediately back to its place and embarrassed I sat to myself wondering when had cheering become not so in anymore. I suppose not here, not in Sweden- it’s that ahead. 

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The concert started after the percussionists and guitarists entered the stage, all swinging and  dancing, making hand movements for the audience to follow which for my relief they did. As Amadou and Mariam began singing I could feel the audience loosening up, however there was a strong contrast, on stage a vibrant presence and off of it where I was, an entire different world- it seemed dead. I felt like Alice through the looking glass except that I couldn’t reach the other side and instead of magical creatures I was surrounded by what appeared to be mute deaf zombies. C’mon people, there’s a show happening out here, lighten up I think the point is to enjoy it.

After the first two songs, the keyboard player walks all the way to the front raising his hands pleading us to stand. Lord, praise the keyboard. Yet up I quickly started wishing some would have stayed down. At first I tried to think positively: think open mind, different cultures enjoy music differently, this could be watching a concert sat down or not shouting as your favorite band comes on stage or perhaps, dancing. Then I thought I should be supportive: nice, at least, now, they’re trying? I felt like a mother who tells her kid how well they can dance when actually it looks like someone is having an attack of epilepsy. There are many things Swedish culture is known well for but rhythm, sorry to say, is definitely not one of them. While some looked like they were trying to dodge bullets stepping on a battlefield, others took it as their one chance in the year to let loose and go wild, really wild, too wild probably. To watch Amadou & Mariam without paying attention to Swedish stiffness became a dubious task. I cringed almost the entire way through, perhaps that explains why there were seats.

Still in the beginning, Amadou & Mariam rocking while we sat and watched.

Amadou & Mariam or more like Josephine Baker?

What caught my attention was one percussionist in particular, one with the shaker, she had tribal patterns on a skirt that seemed more like a thin cloth wrapped around her waist. She was beautiful and when she danced everything seemed to breathe around her, to be honest it was hard to keep my attention just at Amadou and Mariam. Truly, an ecstatic performance. However, something inside of me kept telling me her dance moves appeared too foreign, a fulfilled imagination of the “exotic”. Especially when sat I couldn’t help but feel that the concert seemed more like a “performance” in that true sense of the word, instead of a joint experience we should “all dance together” – as Amadou liked to repeatedly say. Perhaps because the setting didn’t invite us to participate along by standing and dancing which I guess made the concert feel more of a “show”. More than anything, witnessing it made me feel uncomfortable. The fact that as an audience we were expected to sit while the performers danced and moved on stage it made all seem more of an spectacle performed especially for a white European audience.

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I don’t know but it just felt odd. The racial makeup of those on stage in contrast to those off of it echoed too close to a sort of colonial/postcolonial voyeurism. Watching that while sat made me cringe in that same way I do while watching videos of Josephine Baker dancing in nothing but her famous banana skirt. Although a performer of indisputable talent and courage that drove her to be the first worldwide famous black performer as well as an icon of the Jazz Age, one cannot overlook the fact that Baker probably had to mold herself to the expectations white European audiences had of people like her- dark skinned people. This might explain some of the choice to impersonate ‘savage’ and ‘animal’ like characters in her performances, probably because in order to become the star she was, she had to comply with the ‘exotic’ and dehumanizing ideas that circulated the identity of people of color. Perhaps, this was the only way a woman like her could imagine achieving such success that is, to compromise her image, something I imagine many black artists felt complied to do at the time. For me the question still prevailed, how much did that actually change? Did Amadou & Mariam think of providing an idea of West African music that fulfills expectations of white Europeans? You know, the tropes, that carefree, full of rhythm, full of soul African with the beat of the drum in his/her heart. Did they seek in any way to portray the “exotic”?

Watching them as one of the only few black people in the audience made me question how much of what I was seeing was actually a genuine“authentic” cultural performance. Now I know this is hard to answer as any performance and especially music concerts involve a certain level of show and play-acting. But still, suddenly everything seemed too folkloric, too put on. Don’t get me wrong though, I still think they did an excellent job, their energy was purely charming. It was more everything around them though, the whole jumping up and down, the performative seductive dancing, it gave an over the top enthusiasm that just seemed “too much”. This is especially in contrast to your audience when they seem so immobile (on chairs, literally), stiff and at times even unresponsive. Perhaps I’m too critical and this is just a thing of mere cultural difference or maybe the fact that Amadou & Mariam have a disability that makes it difficult for them to  easily move on stage meaning everything behind them should. But still, to me it felt weird. It was not until we all stood up and could dance along that I finally felt more comfortable enjoying instead of constantly judging it as a cultural spectacle for white people.

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