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  • Carmen in Africa: French Legacies and Global Citizenship
  • Naomi André

Nowhere is it more evident that Carmen has become a product of a global cultural imagination than in two early millennial African adaptations of the French nineteenth-century story about the so-called gypsy Carmen by Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet.1 Much further south than the original setting in Seville, Spain, the African Carmens have made a critical migration. No longer just looming close to Africa in the Moorish culture of southern Spain, both of these Carmens now inhabit the sub-Saharan heat of the continent with settings in Senegal and South Africa. The two films, the Senegalese Karmen Geï (2001), directed by Joseph Gaï Ramaka, and the South African U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005), directed by Mark Dornford-May, are both the first feature-length films by each director and, amidst the vast array of Carmen adaptations, the only ones to put the Carmen story on the African continent.2 In these two versions, the story of Carmen is given a new articulation. More directly, both films of the opera reimagine Carmen and reinvent her in each sub-Saharan African country. Carmen has become a global citizen: an amalgamation of her French roots is reconfigured in Dakar, Senegal, and Khayelitsha, South Africa.

In this examination, I contextualize these two millennial sub-Saharan African Carmens by juxtaposing them with their two nineteenth-century French original versions: Prosper Mérimée’s serialized novella Carmen (that originally appeared in the Revue des deux mondes in 1845–46) and Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (that premiered at the Opéra Comique in 1875). Here I am not concerned with pointing out all of the details of what has been left out, what is the same, and what is new (such a goal would create a dizzying discussion for four similar, yet different, versions). Instead, I am more concerned with how the two films create multiple meanings for different audiences. Africanist cultural anthropologist Karin Barber has theorized the importance of the variety of “texts” in African culture and their connection to diverse publics. Barber posits that “audiences make the meaning of the text ‘whole’ by what they bring to it.”3 Yet she also addresses the complications when a text is detached from its local context and is open to multiple audiences—a process she calls [End Page 54] entexualization. When a text is brought into a new context—through entextualization—this can set a “discourse in motion . . . in such a way as to highlight the fluidity of performance.”4 It is this polyphony of juxtaposed interpretations that I am interested in pursuing. Side by side, stories about Carmen’s independence and so-called exoticism (according to Western audiences) in Seville, Dakar, and Khayelitsha are saying something new about how race, nation, sexuality, and gender work together in different combinations.

A challenge in this type of analysis is combining multiple threads that do not usually get woven together. Upon learning about the two African settings of the Carmen story, I found myself asking several questions. Why would two sub-Saharan African countries entertain this European subject? Early in the new millennium, after colonialism, and after apartheid had finally been dismantled—why reference the elitist high art form of nineteenth-century opera? What connections do Senegal and South Africa have to opera and what do these two films say about their own current and traditional national and musical cultures? How does each film relate to and retell a version of the nineteenth-century French sources? How does each nation make Carmen its own?

Though there has been a good deal written about Carmen as a subject and the many different adaptations of Mérimée’s and Bizet’s Carmens, the scholarship on these two African Carmens is still emerging. On September 7, 2001, six weeks after Karmen Geï opened in Dakar, Serigne Moustapha Diakhaté, a high-ranking Mouride cleric and the host of a religious radio program, issued a fatwa against the film for a blasphemous use of Muslim praise poetry. The scene in question involved the Catholic funeral and procession for the lesbian prison warden Angélique who committed suicide...


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pp. 54-76
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