An English pop star.
A Mauritanian filmmaker.
And a French ethnographer who 89 years ago, during an expedition to Africa, took a sacred object without asking permission, although he later regretted it.
The ingredients of
Le vol du boli
(The theft of the pen, although
in French also means flight) give an idea of the peculiarity of this opera premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
The music is the work of Damon Albarn, the leader of Blur, the flagship
of the 1990s, and a musical explorer who has credited his interest in African tradition and insatiable curiosity.
Also, creator of operas related to Chinese legends or the history of his country.
The scenography is due to Abderrahmane Sissako, director of
, which recounted the occupation by the Islamic State of the city that gives the film its name and which won seven Caesars, the French Oscars, in 2015.
The story - told with an overwhelming display of dance and video, and actors and singers in French, English, Bambara and Lingala - starts from a true story.
On September 6, 1931, the expedition led by the ethnographer Marcel Griaule and destined to collect material for French museums, arrived in the town of Dyabougou.
On September 7, Michel Leiris, a writer from the surrealist orbit and an ethnographer's apprentice with Griaule, found some objects of interest.
In particular, a “strange shape”, a “kind of suckling pig” in color “dark nougat, that is, coagulated blood, which weighs about 15 kilos”, Leiris noted in his diary,
It was the famous
, a fetish of Bambara animist culture.
Leiris packed it up and took it away.
"With a stupor that, only a short time later, will turn to disgust," he wrote, "I find that, after all, you feel curiously sure of yourself when you are white and have a knife in your hand."
, which now belongs to the French state and is exhibited in the Parisian Museum of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, is the common thread that sustains
Le vol du boli
, and a symbol.
The opera is the story of a "robbery": the one that the Europeans perpetrated in Africa.
And of the "flight" between both continents.
At the beginning, the king of the Mandingas appears on the scene, on a throne.
Later, Leiris discovers the fetish while singing a melody whose lyrics are the September 7, 1931 entry for
An hour and a half later, the king of the Mandingos has become the guardian of the French museum where the
Meanwhile, the scenes cross the centuries: colonialism, the slave trade, world wars, decolonization.
It is the music that sustains the plot, somewhat schematic, and that shapes the "robberies" and "flights" between Europe and Africa: the obsessive rhythms and melodies, the medieval voices of the Notre Dame choir, and the trumpets , the African choirs, the percussions and the powerful voice of Fatoumata Diawara, actress and singer in
, who has also collaborated with one of Albarn's groups, Gorillaz.
The band never leaves the stage, and there is Albarn directing it, playing the trumpet, the keyboards or the guitar, until the final crescendo: the music envelops everything, it becomes something organic, an object, the real
, and the room standing up, he applauds the actors and him, a nondescript-looking man, who goes unnoticed for much of the play, but who becomes the star of the party.
"Bravo, Paris," he says.
The three unique sessions this week, in the midst of the pandemic and with limited capacity, coincided with the trial in Paris of Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese activist, for taking a Chadian funeral post at the Museum of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, scene that, with the spirit of protest rather than pecuniary, filmed and disseminated on the networks.
The activist has been sentenced to a fine of 1,000 euros.
The theft was proposed as an act of protest in favor of the restitution of African works of art stored and exhibited in France.
There are more than 88,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, almost 70,000 of them in that museum, according to the report presented to President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 and prepared by experts Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr.
In Burkina Faso, Macron promised: “I want the conditions to be met within five years for temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage in Africa.
African heritage cannot only be in private collections and in European museums ”.
The premiere of the opera also coincides with the approval in the National Assembly of a law that will allow the restitution of 26 works claimed by Benin and one by Senegal, as well as the beginnings of a possible
black lives matter
that Leiris stole remains behind the display case in a tiny, dark room in the Museum of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, where African-born guards, such as the dethroned king from The Theft of the Pen, are being watched. There are no plans to part with it. "The decision of an eventual transfer of ownership of the works falls on the competence of the State and the decision of the Government, and not the museum", responds the communication department of the Quai Branly. "If this piece has been the target of a restitution lawsuit - which is not the case as far as we know - it has not been directed to the museum."