Who decides who and what can represent the face of a culture? Where do our typical images of culture come from? I mean, when we think of the Japanese, it's sushi and karaoke. When we think of Germany, it's beer and lederhausen. When we think of the Brazilians, it's Carnaval and bikinis. But what about the faces that make up just as much a part of our culture as the stereotypical images? I mean, if America is all baseball and apple pie, we can't forget that our baseball teams are dominated by Dominicans, Venezuelans and Puertorriqueños, and the people that pick our apples every autumn often hail from south of the border.
This Wednesday my gal pals and I had a fabulous holiday get-together at La Provence on Guerrero and 22nd. At the end of our very enjoyable and delicious meal, we chatted with Lionel, the owner, about European football, and he commented that the French team is not even French. This attitude is pervasive in certain European countries, and particularly in France, where the very Gallic people claim that the dark-skinned immigrants and children of immigrants aren't really French. But really folks, when you look at history, the French have been claiming territories outre-mer as part of France for centuries. So the idea of a black man not being French is downright silly. And in my opinion, what country wouldn't want to claim Thierry Henry as one of its own (who by the way is French born, raised in the banlieue of Paris).
Last night, Lilia and I saw a show at the Independent that also challenged my own conceptions of image and culture. Her friend's boyfriend's band Aphrodesia was playing that night, and Lilia informed me that it was an afrobeat band. The Fela Kuti fan that I am, I was imagining a 10-piece orchestra with sparingly dressed men and women of the African Diaspora blasting out danceable grooves. Instead, the lead singers were three white women dressed in striped tights and combat boots with punk hairstyles, and nary a dark-skinned person in the band. It was a little bit of a shock to me. But the music was tight and everyone in the crowd was dancing like mad just the same. The lead singer had the crispest voice, exploding with energy, and when she sang, her eyes lifted toward the heavens and it seemed that she was calling upon the gods to guide her through the melodies.
Clearly this woman has studied African musical traditions and is infinitely inspired by the music, as was the rest of the orchestra (amazing show by the way!). So I asked myself, why can't a white American woman sing Nigerian afrofunk? Why can't the son of Algerian immigrants play for France? If they weren't allowed to do these things, then maybe I, the San Francisco born grand-daughter of Irish and Hungarian immigrants, wouldn't be allowed to speak French as I do, or use chopsticks, or shake my booty as well as any Cuban girl (and those who know me know I'm not kidding about this last one).
[As a side note, if you have never eaten at La Provence before, you're missing out. This is the only restaurant in SF with a menu featuring all authentic dishes from Provence. La Pissaladière et la Soupe au Pistou sont formidables!]