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Stories from the Scotsman
Scotlandís African Queen

DID you know that Scotlandís founding mother was black? No? Well, not only does the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath detail far-flung connections, but mythology also tells of Scota, a Pharaohís daughter, who was married in Spain to the exiled Prince Gathelus, the leader of a migrant people. Gathelusís travels took them to Scotland - named in honour of his love for Scota. Some versions of events also link the pair with the Stone of Destiny. Scota, some sources say, was North African - and would therefore have been black.

Scotaís story is one of many to be told in Ancestral Voices, a show that combines song, dance and theatre to encapsulate 1,000 years of Scottish black identity. It is the brainchild of the Scottish Black Arts Forum - theatre director Aileen Ritchie, choreographer Rosina Bonsu, Soma Recordsí Jim Muotune, Amu Gift-Logotse, an African performing artist, and jazz star, Suzanne Bonnar.

Itís not the first time Bonnar has gone in search of her roots. The Dunoon-born singer famously went on a very public pilgrimage in 1993 TV documentary The Blacksburg Connection, to find her father, James D Wade. For Bonnar, Ancestral Voices meant taking this process a step further. "Itís all a journey, to explore another part of me," she says. "I think the connection at the end of it is Africa - Iíve never been to Africa, but that, in a sense, is where it all started."

Bonnar believes African and Scottish people have much in common. The main theme of Ancestral Voices, she says, is that African people came to Britain through choice, not under duress, through slavery or asylum. The four performers have drawn on personal experiences, something Bonnar believes brings variety to the piece. "Probably Jim and myself bring more of a Scottishness to it because we were brought up here. Obviously, thereís the female perspective, and Jim - being the young media mogul whoís into technology - brings a different slant again. There are elements of history, film, documentation - myself and my daughter up in the Highlands. Weíve used our own stories, experience of racism, the weather, what itís like being in Scotland, what home means."

Wary of tubthumping, Bonnar sees Ancestral Voices as a way of raising the profile of black culture in Scotland. She is scathing about the lack of opportunities for black actors. "Look at BBC Scotland - what is there if you donít fall into the stereotypical Chewiní the Fat character?" she says. "Even in soaps or Scottish drama. I donít know if people are aware of it."

Bonnar stresses the show is for everyone. "I think itís a refreshing piece; itís really interesting hearing other peopleís stories. Hopefully people will enjoy the honesty and integrity. Itís not about preaching. Thereís one race, the human race, and we are more alike than we realise; itís about shared experience."

Ancestral Voices is at The Arches, Glasgow, 21-23 March.

Tanya Dawn McLellan
Wednesday, 13th March 2002
The Scotsman

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