Note from BBT: I can’t really remember when I first became of aware of musician Jonathan Ferr or his short film “A Jornada”. I vaguely remember his name coming up in a discussion with a colleague and I remember watching a few minutes of the short film, but at that time, some time last year, I must have been occupied with another topic because I remember sort of packing his music and video away to further explore at a later date.
That later date came on a Saturday in October of last year when I started checking out music from his CD Trilogia de Amor. After listening to instrumental tracks of the CD on full blast in my Honda, I was immediately hooked. I know that artists often don’t like to have their music categorized, but the genre of his music became apparent to me after cruising the streets listening to the disc and being reminded of several artists from the Jazz world. Maybe it’s Soul Jazz. Brazilian Jazz. Or maybe I should call it what Ferr himself calls it, Jazz Urbano or Urban Jazz.
I was particularly impressed with the instrumental tracks, which, even with elements of modern production, sound as if they wouldn’t be out of place on albums by Joe Henderson or McCoy Tyner in the mid-70s. The arrangements and compositions are reflective, inspiring, uplifting and even motivational. The music seems to be saying exactly what black Brazil is saying today: we’ve been held down for a long time, but we’re still here and we’re gonna get there one day.
If that’s in fact what Ferr had in mind as he composed these tracks, I wouldn’t be surprised. One of his songs is actually called “Sonhos”, which is Portuguese for “Dreams”. Considering the optimism that the track seems to emit with it’s lead saxophone line, it’s fitting that Ferr would sample excerpts from the most famous speech by an influence African-American in which he shares his own dream.
Artists such as Ferr and his contemporary, pianist Amaro Freitas, are from Brazil’s new school of black musicians. Both reveal the possibilities and explorations that black musicians are capable of when given the opportunity. I have to make a point of this because, as both Ferr and Freitas know, being a black piano player in a Brazil where it’s rare to see a black master of the black and white keys, is a political statement in itself.
Ferr and Freitas are also examples of a new black consciousness far beyond just making declarations on blackness, exclusion and racism. Last year, Freitas was featured in an article which explored a rising promotion of “amor preto”, meaning “black love”, among a new generation Afro-Brazilians. I will explore that in a future piece, but for now, I want to delve a little into Ferr’s connection to this promotion of not only “amor preto” but also imagining a blackness in a whole other manner from our experiences as descendants of Africa in the New World.
The so-called Afro-futurism movement is a key component of the possibility of our re-imagining a blackness that doesn’t always have to be associated with pain, struggle, racism, poverty or invisibility. Set in three different time periods, Ferr’s “A Jornada” (the journey) short film features an all black cast and a black couple. Throughout the film, we see visuals that hint at the re-claiming of African ancestry and identity through visuals of African body paint, a subtle reference to the orixás and the very existence of a couple featuring a black man and a black woman in a representation of physical, spiritual and transcendant love. In Brazil’s Eurocentric audiovisual world, it’s a rare sight.
Following a path laid by the fictional country of Zamunda in the 1988 Eddie Murphy film Coming to America, up to Wakanda in the 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, in “Jornada”, Ferr creates his own representation of Africa in a place he denominated the Reino de Tundee, meaning the Kingdom of Tundee. Brazil is a country in which everything associated with Africa (lands, customs, gods, religion or people) carries misunderstandings or negative stereotypes, which in turns leads to an invisibility in relation to the continent, its people and descendants.
This has created an enormous necessity for exposure and education in relation to African people and their history in order to be able to envision a whole race of people in a different manner than that which has been created by the West. This goes for not only white Brazilians, but black Brazilians as well. And Ferr is clearly aware of this.
“It’s rare to see black people as protagonists in Brazilian film. I wanted to create a new paradigm for black people in film. I created a totally new world. The Kingdom of Tundee is a fictitious name that represents the African content. We created an entirely new society in which black people are able to create the life that they want.”
These narratives must be created by black Brazilians both in front of and behind the camera. The film may be only 10 minutes long but there’s a transformative power in its imagery that we hope to see replicated with more Afro-Brazilian filmmakers coming on the scene. On the production, the film’s website describes the work in the following manner:
“‘A Jornada’ is a Brazilian Afrofuturist short film that tells the story of ONA, a young black man who finds in AYE the love and meaning of his existence. ONA’s Journey is threatened by ALAISAN, whose gaze is the very manifestation of evil. The short film presents a mythical and imaginary Africa that is sometimes past and future, sometimes dream and reality, blessed by the Queen of IYA.”
In reviewing the film and approaching the idea of by black for black, the AUR Culture website posted the following:
“You can’t imagine what you don’t know” and knowing other possibilities of being and being present in the world, as black bodies, allows us to seize all the potentiality that is ours, to tell our stories, to exhibit our narratives, and to be protagonists of what, until recently, others told for us.”
It is a concept, a right and a demand that has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades within the Afro-Brazilian community. In the piece below, Lidia Zuin further explores the meaning and importance of this 2019 Jonathan Ferr short film.
A Jornada brings the Afro-futuristic look of Brazilian musician Jonathan Ferr
In a 10 minute short film, the pianist explores technology and nostalgia in a look at a black future that does not fail to honor its past.
By Lidia Zuin
Torus is a movement made up of different people who have been thinking about the spirit of time and, with it, the artistic and cultural manifestations that have defined our present and which also connect with our past and lead us into the future. In a recent publication, Victor Hugo Barreto brought the theme of Afrofuturism together with the media and communication strategist Morena Mariah, who is responsible for the Afrofuture project, in which he precisely addresses the theme and its ramifications.
As Barreto describes it, “Afrofuturism allows the possibility of experimenting with a distinct temporal perception. A ‘de-centralizing’ lens. By proposing a shift in perspective crossed by the racial issue, that is, by proposing to look at the world from an Afrocentric point of view, it provides us with a lens for a step until then invisible, to understand the questions of the present and possible futures.”
Despite being an older concept, dated around the 1990s, it was from the release of the film that adapts the Black Panther series comics that Afrofuturism became a popular issue in the media. Along with the launch, artists like Solange and Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe and even singer Elza Soares also promoted this new look at African culture in the context of music. In Brazilian literature, Fábio Kabral gained prominence with his novel O Caçador Cibernético Da Rua 13 (The 13th Street Cyber Hunter) and singer Xênia França launched her iconic clip “Nave”. And now we have the release of the short film “A Jornada”, an Afrofuturist project that has been incubated by pianist Jonathan Ferr since 2017.
With a confirmed presence at the 2019 Rock in Rio, Ferr has his own style of combining his influence of jazz and funk with elements of rock’n’roll and even electronic music. In “A Jornada”, the artist develops a cinematic narrative that translates many of the concepts of Afrofuturism by telling a story that transcends eras and that is eternalized in archetypes that refer to elements of African culture and contemporary black culture. The album, entitled Trilogia do Amor, is the result of a spiritual search by the musician, who seeks answers about ancestry, affection, love, energy and knowledge. Divided into three parts, “A Jornada”, meaning ‘the journey, “O Renascimento” (the re-birth) and “A Revolução” (the revolution), the album is also part of an Afrofuturistic audiovisual trilogy, with each work receiving the title of each chapter of the album.
The first film, “A Jornada”, spent a year in short film festivals in Brazil, for which he was awarded for best costume, as well as having competed for the best soundtrack with the track “Luv is the Way” as a backdrop for the narrative. From the poster, which has a beautiful image of a black couple with their bodies covered in tribal, yet metallic paintings, it already brings the futuristic and at the same time ancestral tone of the work.
As in Afrofuturism, Ferr’s short film also has a touch of science fiction that also appeared in the identity of jazz composer Sun Ra, considered one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. According to Ferr, not only he, but also other artists have already been working on this process of imaginary construction of black people.
Ferr explains that in “A Jornada”, the team that had almost 20 people (mostly black professionals) sought to find an axis between fantasy and denunciation, but always concerned with showing the black body in a free, poetic and sensitive manner. “From the use of some archetypes to tell this story, science fiction has been there, especially in terms of the time/space of the story.”
This is because the short film transits in three times and in three places: Kingdom of Iya in 1538, In some diaspora in 2017 and in the Kingdom of Tundee in 2538. According to Ferr, A Jornada seeks an axis between fantasy and denunciation, but always with the concern that the black body appears in a free, poetic and sensitive way. “We used some archetypes to tell this story and science fiction is there, especially in terms of the time and space of the story.” In this sense, Tundee’s kingdom ends up functioning as a representation of Africa, a mystical place where all blacks came from and where they will also return.
The Kingdom of Iya is precisely part of Tundee, and it is there that we meet the central characters of the work: Ona, which means “way” or “journey” in Yoruba, and the Queen of the Kingdom of Eya, who spiritually represents Africa that cries for those who leave it, but who also gives birth to their children represented by a gourd – an object present in the life of many African cultures and which is also present in the gastronomy and work of different tribes.
Between these two characters, there is also Alaisan, which in Yoruba means “sick person” and who represents in the narrative the dark side of the human personality. “There is a relationship with Iching and Yin and Yang, which, while repelling, are also attracted. So it is with our shadow,” comments Ferr. In the present time, which is portrayed as a diaspora (a term, by the way, very important to understand the issue of contemporary African identity and the precepts of Afrofuturism), we are introduced to Aiye, a princess who discovers ancestral love in Ona. With earthy tones, Aiye represents a balance and a variation of the Queen of Eya in a mystical environment.
Poetic and engaging, the love relationship between Aiye and Ona is represented by engaging choreographies, but it also has the pain and violence that mark the contemporary black identity and experience. When Ferr chooses to start “A Jornada” in 1537, the artist does so consciously by choosing a date when the slavery of the black people begins to be widely explored in Brazil and the Americas. It is the moment of rupture with the Mãe África (mother Africa), of a first diaspora that doesn’t stop even in the present represented in 2017. Using Afrofuturism as an aesthetic and artistic reference, in reality, ends up becoming an educational, philosophical and sociological tool, as explained by Ferr:
“When we are thinking about a black future, in a country like Brazil that kills and imprisons the black population, we are talking about the social sphere and we create imagery points that help the entire black population to change the curve of its destinies. This is a social revolution that is rising, still slow, but it is.” – Jonathan Ferr
His opinion also finds a parallel in Morena Mariah’s position when she describes Afrofuturism as a worldview that goes beyond her political, philosophical, cultural and aesthetic power. As she argues, it is a way of “seeing oneself as a black people and understanding the state of things in which we are inserted and how they got here. In other words, it is to know the past and how it brought us to the moment in which we’re in.”