Book programmes on TV usually involve a journalist putting on brainy frowns while talking to an author whose book hasn’t been read by most of the viewers and perhaps not even by the journalist himself, which is probably why such programmes tend to have purely testimonial viewing figures. Recently, however, a new book programme called ’El Negre de Banyoles’ appeared on TV3 Catalan public television’s flagship channel. The presenter was original, witty, and knew his literary onions. Even so, he had been given an all but impossible job: to make several 20th century Catalan language poets interesting – gripping, even – to a broad prime-time audience.
The man charged with this task was Daura Mangara, a 30 year old Catalan rapper and singer-songwriter from Banyoles. Every week he would kick off his show in a theatre in nearby Salt, the Catalan town with the highest rate of immigration (40%), with a phrase in Soninke (the mother tongue of his Gambian parents). Afterwards he would tell a couple of anecdotes about himself (sometimes surreally, as when he rapped to the rhythm of his mother’s old washing machine, brought onto the set for the occasion) and then launch into a passionate explanation of the poet selected for that week, reciting some key lines and giving biographical details before journeying out to significant places in that poet’s life and talking to that poet’s relatives or friends, all with a naturalness rarely seen on television. The key to the show – which made it, in my unhumble opinion, one of the best literary programmes I’ve ever seen anywhere – is that Daura’s completely personal approach eliminated the usual distance between presenter and viewers, thus allowing his enthusiasm for that week’s poet to effortlessly rub off on them. Then on March the 8th last, International Women’s Day, the programme was cancelled. The official reason was that the ratings were low. But there were others: seven years earlier, Daura had gone through a rough patch, when he felt frustrated and infuriated by his lack of anchorage in the country he was born in. His mind addled by alcohol and drugs (which he hadn’t used before), he got into push and shove fights, including with the police and on one occasion with his then girlfriend, in front of others. That got him a double conviction for domestic violence and assaulting officers of the law. He did prison time, three times over. He then actively sought out the help of feminist friends and went into therapy (he also spoke publicly about what had happened). By the time he went on TV, he was both rehabilitated and trusted, but a couple of online magazines dredged up his past, leading feminist critics who didn’t know him personally to attack him on social media: and off the screen he came. But he probably would have done anyway, due to those low ratings: it would seem that a mainstream (e.g. white) Catalan audience simply wasn’t ready to watch the exceptional and revelatory spectacle of a young black fellow countryman telling them about some of their greatest poets. Daura, however, is not fazed: he has recently been offered dozens of workshops with problem teenagers (’socially excluded children’ in pedagogical parlance) to whom he explains his experiences of prison life, among other things, while he teaches them how to rap and dance. Some of these often badly neglected kids start crying during these workshops, because they feel that finally, for the first time, there’s at least one adult who can understand them and really help. And the hell with the telly.