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Caona: Keeping the gold. An Interview with Cae Massena, co-founder of Caona, a collective dedicated to supporting women musicians in France.

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Jamika Ajalon, artist, musician and poet, speaks with Cae Massena, artist, musician, academic and co-founder of Caona, a collective dedicated to supporting women musicians in France.

Jamika: What do you do?
Cae: That's a very good question (laughs). I am kinda questioning that everyday. I am artist, I like to make art. My medium of expression is music, voice, and writing. My experience varies. I was trained as a performer at Berkley college and then here in France at the Conservatory, but at the same time I was also an English major, in african american literature. I did my thesis on Toni Morrison. So my work (music) is informed also by these things, i.e., women writers who have contributed to us having some kind of visibility and/or points of reference. I was also involved in the jazz in genre, from a very academic approach, which gave me a since of validation, and was a very important part of my experience... but then in Berkley, I saw 17 year old girls who knew three chords and declared they could play guitar, and I thought maybe I am intellectualising too much. Seeing that triggered me to do my own thing and that is when I started getting into song writing.
Having said that, I am definitely committed to feminism and what it means to be a mixed person here in France.. definitely interested in those subjects and its something I try to translate into what I do on a daily basis.... hence getting involved and starting Caona.

What does Caona stand for?
Well to begin with Anacaona, she was military chief, poet, musician, in the Tainos Indian community...which was the original population of Haiti. She's a very strong prominent history figure in Haitian history, she resisted, obviously, Spanish invasion, defending her people and her culture. I thought she was interesting figure as a symbol, being both strong woman but also an artist expressing herself and at the same time resisting oppression. So that was really what Caona was about. Anacaona, means gold flower and basically gold is the reason this civilisation was destroyed. In the process of stealing the gold they also destroyed the real gold which is the culture in the civilisation. That's why we took the name,Caona; creative active women in arts.

Why and when did you start Caona?
Originally the idea started with Farisha and another friend who was academic, finally understanding as a woman and as a black woman in this industry there is the question of access that's there and that this is not just my experience, but an experience of a lot of women--a lot of black women in this industry. The idea was just to answer that problem and to get out of our isolation. I felt very isolated as musician when I started it in 2007 and started feel like it wasn't random that that happened. I had a succession of instances where it was impossible not to see that I was being discriminated against. I mean here I am, a Fullbright scholar, Berkley graduate, and I applied to be a teacher for a major music institution in France All the applicants were male. I was the only female. This is an institution that is funded by the State, and I was like how come only men apply, but I guess its because only men knew about it. I talked to the director about this and he said the women don't want to do this kind of work. On so many levels this was wrong, and here I was living in the fantasy that we have equality, I kinda thought I was feminist but I wasn't, I mean I thought I was living in the fantasy that we have equality.
Then I went to present my work, after this huge preselection process... so get there .. and I present to a jury of ten people and one was a woman, and the first thing, after I sang, that one of these men asked, was did you learn how to sing?

noooo .. 'cause I am naturally black... I came out of my mothers womb singing... naturally :-)
(laughs) it was both sexist and racist … and at that point I knew I wouldn't get it. I mean asking me that was like I was just a black woman doing what comes naturally like people have it in there blood and you don't have study it cause every one knows. It was a kind of erasure of my work as a woman and as a black person. It was a big blow, and at the same time I was seeing a lot of events like the Les Femmes s'en Mêlent and Les Femmes Sur le Mer music based events purposly designed to promote women, because women are not being promoted enough and I thought it was a great initiative. My only problem with them is that they are/were very white... not only in terms of the artists featured but also the genre is very narrow... more pop rock and that's it... a small window to look at music. They want to seem like they are the most evolved and unbiased (men). Les Femmes s'en Mêlent, its headed by a man, and the first thing you see when you open the website, a long with the hipster graphics is 'we are not a feminist organisation'... and it makes u think… what's so dangerous about identifying as a feminist and with equality?

Yeah one of those things that make you go hmm? Switching the subject slightly back to Caona... it's interesting that the co-operative is made up of women of colour but its not referenced in the name or the description of what you are about.
You are asking a question I think relates to what it means to be black here in France could say it in an English speaking country where communities are less seen as a threat... but in France to say this is from the femme noire it doesn't work.. people find it suspect. Should we do it, maybe we should. but I think also at the beginning it wasn't necessarily for us, we weren't closed to the idea of working with women who are not w.o.c. as long as they were trying to resist oppression in their message,a and b ,were celebrating other types of genres. I think France as it is now has a very big problem. Being French,I kinda like that its the republican idea of not over differentiating yourself on the basis of appearance, sexual orientation.

You are French no matter what.
Exactly. And so throughugh that, if u are gonna say this a collective de femnoireoire, I mean u can do it but,as it is today, its very transgressive and being in Frenchench context. We haven't wanted to do that but its also maybe because we are keeping it open...our definition of what the collective is and we could work with is not per-say black. So we are having dealing with question... I would be for it claiming it… as a black women's collective but with in the context of France… in practice... the idea to go toward, but its kinda of like a love story... we met each other... and we enjoy working together and we don't want to yet open the collective to other people we feel like we need to grow...

... and to build a solid foundation.
Yeah now with like four people we a discussing where we wanna go... the idea was to go towards artists that are women of colour… and its true we don't formalise it in our write ups on the collective,but the question everytime we have a meeting...

In another light, 'white boys' clubs don't specify that they are white boy networks, they just are...
Exactly. And for us also, its partly that- it is not something we necessarily need to adverstise, but more than that we are trying to keep it open, fluid.

Why is there so such a high incidence of isolation among artist who are women of colour? Why are we isolated?
We spoke about this yesterday... I think this something we have all kinda learned as women- that to do your thing you have to be a strong independent and isolated woman you know, and its gonna come, but you have to work hard on it, and you can do it on your own type of thing... and I think you know we all kinda fall for that.. a lot of us, but the reality is that everything is about network and is about support-- about evolving in circles and evolving with people, with other peoples' energy. I think it is one of the most destructive myths that a lot of women actually live with (that we must work alone). And black women, I mean obviously we have it even worse, because in and of itself we are excluded from networks, under those two bases of discrimination (colour/sex). Also I think, within the French context and perhaps the European context in a way, more specifically French, there is a real paradox, because at the same time there is this imagery of the black singer, and its really personified by African American women, who, perhaps had this influence on France When u think of people like Josephine Baker, they exist strongly in peoples minds. Black women always have to be exotic and France is very oblivious to the fact that there are French Black women. To a very big extent, for example in the training, I am doing there is this professor who is working on discrimination and equality in politics. And so she is working both on gender and on diversity. Even her, she was giving a class, and kept making the mistake. She kept saying this is about French women and I had to raise my hand twice and say hey, you know what—French women are not all white. There is this un-thought out territory regarding the reality of France which is very multi-cultural very diverse in its appearance... the way way people refer to France, and refer to what it means to be France in terms of skin colour… you can see that in the paradox...a lot of black women make it to being accessible and heard… but they have to be exotic...

Well exotic in a way that they cant be French you know like Asha and Ayo (both born in Nigeria). There are also those who are afro European who have to go to another country. The Nubians are a good example, they are from Bordeaux, and they had to go all the way to the US, get signed there and all of a sudden their music is accessible in France, but no record label wanted to sign them here. Another example is this singer who was featured on this popular French Show, Nouvel Star, Miss Dominique. She is completely French but she put on this Black American persona, in her gown and boa, singing with a Black American accent and people were comfortable with her doing that- putting on a persona that had nothing to do with who she was or where she comes from.
The year after, there was this mixed girl, who was an out lesbian but she was like the girl next door... she looked like any other French girl that u see everyday that is a little bit butch and has some stuff in her hair, million miles away from the girl with her gown and boa people kept going on about how she was so different... and her universe is so different....and like she is such an atypical artist... and it made me think it interesting how … the only difference was she was not white, because she is French and its interesting to see that someone you would see that is completely familiar to France is cited as different while the other one, in gown and boa, who was was seen as something familiar.

So is it that African American people come over here because that is the only way they can make it big?
No I don't think that's the case, two of the women in the collective are african american, but they didn't come here because they would be considered exotic, they came here because they had to, because they needed to, because they wanted to have the space to get on with what they wanted to do. I mean artists travel. I mean what frustrates Afro Europeans is our invisibility, and I mean you don't take it out on African Americans, for instance, or foreigners that come, you take it out on the system. Its important to talk about the erasure of women's work, because even when women are included, which is not that often, and they are spoken about… and their work becomes secondary.
For example, Liz Wright… I was looking at several articles on her new album which is really daring but all they could comment on was her appearance what she was wearing on the cover, or how beautiful she is -or how sultry her voice is... its a standard point to keep women invisible to keep there work invisible to speak about everything but their work... and we have to be vigilant to make sure journalist don't do that because its a very obvious way of erasing what we've done.

So what's the future for Caona?
We have been doing it for 2 years... we evolved faster and better through what we did, but right now I think we kinda need to take some time to re-evaluate. I mean we put on several successful shows... we just built this community that didn't exist before, keeping in mind I had been friends with most of these people for years but when you work on something together it is very different. So now we have Keepers of Ka, which a new project that was born out of Caona. Now it's getting to a point were we need to have meetings to speak on on what we should do next and how we do it, because now we now we need to take that time... because most of the time we are individually recording albums, doing many other things so we need that time.

Thank you for the interview.

Cae Massena, artist/musician/academic and co-founder of Caona.
Jamika Ajalon, artist, musician, poet
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