The Tenor from Abidjan follows Landry Assokoly, a young man from Côte d’Ivoire, as he follows his dream to become a famous opera singer. Landry’s hope is to study at a top-tier music academy, and ultimately, to be seen and heard on stage as a world renowned opera singer.
Director Taneisha Berg’s film is organised around the familiar tropes of a heroic journey, where the protagonist overcomes seemingly impossible adversities: a young man sets about transforming his ambition from dreamscape to reality. He knows that this dream cannot come to fruition without a physical dislocation – the 24 year old Assokoly, who has no formal training, must journey to Europe, where he can get training, mentorship, and connections unavailable to him in Abidjan. And Europe certainly puts up its many roadblocks for Assokoly: as might be expected, the visa application process for Africans who want to travel to Europe is fraught. Berg recently spoke to Landry, and he told her that he is still struggling to get even a tourist visa. Apparently, “the agent at the embassy essentially implied that Assokoly would have no reason to return to Abidjan once in Europe, that he could not guarantee that he would respect the terms of his visa, and so the embassy would probably not issue a visa.”
How did Berg hear about Assokoly?
Martial Landry Kouakou Assokoly Yao – Landry for short – fell out of my sky on a cloudy afternoon in a small fishing village outside of Accra, Ghana. I heard him before I saw him: who was listening to the Opera at 2pm on a weekday in the middle of the tropics? I asked myself. I hit the main road to see him coming towards me singing in his powerful tenor voice. I chased down the road after him and breathlessly asked why he was singing Opera. He laughed a little. Perhaps thrown off by my rude interruption, he answered simply, “Because I love it.”
A couple of things here are revealing: first Berg thought she was listening to a recording – because, of course, an African “in the tropics” couldn’t possibly be singing opera. They might be singing in church, but an aria? She also asks him why he is singing opera (because, well, that’s what most people, who will think that African singer/opera is an incongruent juxtaposition, will generally ask). And his answer is just as telling: it is about love. It is because the music resonates in him. And he wants to resonate back for the art form that means so much to him.
On the mundane and obvious level, Berg’s film is the story of an African singer – with some obvious talent for singing – from a provincial city who wants to do something that is typically associated with high-class Europeans in funny costumes who sing notes that annoy and baffle the average joe. We can ask why this young man from Abidjan wants to sing opera: is this about Assokoly wanting to be “European”? Is this about the fact that Europe exercises so much influence over the black imaginary that what we consider “high art” (or that we even look for such things as “high art”) is still dictated by European art forms? Is this just about a deluded Assokoly, trying to escape the ordinaryness of his life – one that is filled with the practicalities outlined in his Human Resources textbooks and the requirements for a Business Admin degree for which he is trying to study?
But we cannot reduce Assokoly’s ambition to a caricatured journey that would make a post-colonial scholar cringe. Berg captures, through Assokoly’s voice, something of why opera is more than an art form that is typically associated with the elite, and with Europe. We see why the note, carried to its most impossible outer limits can be transporting and transformative. It is why we can close our eyes, and have Leontyne Price’s, Simon Estes’, or Kiri te Kanawa’s voice take us to meditative spaces that elevate us from the everyday.
In any case, Africa’s association with fine voices and singing is hardly unknown – in fact, it’s almost a stereotype: Africans can sing (and dance). But usually, that singing is not associated with “high” art – somehow, while Europeans can achieve, at the highest echelons, things that are considered “technically difficult” (that is, things requiring practice, discipline, and something to do with intellectual ability), Africans are only permitted to achieve on the level of “innate ability.” That stereotype is true of everything from football to singing. But lately, opera singers from Africa have been transfixing audiences: listen to Serge Kakudji (a Belgian team made this documentary about him last year).
Assokoly’s story is a little different from that of Kakudji: he has not been admitted to a school. His tourist visa to the Netherlands has not yet come through. Berg informed me that he “asked at the embassy if an invitation will suffice and they did not seem to think it was enough,” even though he has a “full guarantor in the Netherlands.” Berg has also put him “in contact with a few renowned opera singers and they are going to lend a hand in this process as well.” Knowing that regulations surrounding visa applications to European countries are stringent to the point of being racist, attempting to go on a tourist visa may not be the wisest course of action—because, as the person at the embassy told Assokoly (using, I’m sure, that dismissive/smug rhetoric that many of us travelling on Third World passports have encountered), if he has “no reason to return” (that is, they expect that he will violate his visa dates and stay), the embassy will deny him admission.
Assokoly – like many opera singers who eventually achieve legendary status – begins in a location that is not only geographically but also psychologically removed from the privileged locations in which opera is practiced. However, something in him – and not just his physical ability with his remarkable voice – harmonises with what an aria can do when it is at its transfigurative best. But those of us from places that do not have the resources to support our ambitions know all about the difficult journey that is part of realising those ambitions – and the barriers posed not just by the rigours of academia or training processes, but by the petty gatekeepers who mind the borders. Getting past them may be Assokoly’s biggest hurdle.
See the kickstarter page for the project for more info. Berg says that within a week, they were already at 46%, but still need the rest.