If you were around Lake Merritt this past weekend, you might have heard a lot of commotion and wondered what, exactly, was happening. No need for alarm; it was only dragons.

Dragon boaters pulling hard

Dragon boaters pulling hard

Dragon boats, to be specific. The tradition of racing dragon boats—elongated canoes which hold 20 or more paddlers, decorated with a dragon’s head at the bow and a tail at the stern—originated in China’s Pearl River delta some 2,000 years ago as a friendly competition among neighboring villages.

In 2009, a dragon boat team called the Oakland Renegades partnered with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the Pacific Dragon Boat Association, to bring the sport to Lake Merritt, which now hosts an annual Dragon Boat Festival. Several bay area squads have emerged, including Bay Area Dragons (B.A.D.), Dragonmax, and the San Francisco Dragonhealers, a Kaiser Permanente-sponsored team. On Saturday and Sunday, those crews competed with dragon boat teams from Portland and San Diego in all-day heats on the lake, a regional qualifier for the International Dragon Boat Federation’s World Club Crew Championship, to be held in 2014 in Italy.

The coxswain drums to set the rowers' pace

The coxswain drums to set the rowers’ pace

Dragon boat racing is fast and furious; the 40-foot boats race 500-meter distances in about two minutes, and the races require both physical strength and coordination, as teams must work together, in rhythm, to successfully outpace their opponents.

Dragon boats race 500 meters in an average time of two minutes.

Dragon boats race 500 meters in an average time of two minutes.

The sport, though rigorous, is also fun, and open to a wide range of participants: there were youth teams, senior teams, all-female teams, etc. There’s also a spiritual element at work, which differentiates dragon boats from crew racing. By taking a seat at the paddles, team members manifest the dragon–the only mystical creature in the Chinese Zodiac–through their combined efforts. The proceedings were interesting to watch, albeit a bit repetitive, but the most enjoyment was had by the dragon boat racers themselves, whose strenuous exertions during the quick heats were loudly cheered by onlookers.

Bay Area Dragons team lets it ride

Bay Area Dragons team lets it ride

The Dragon Boat Festival is just another example of Oakland’s cultural diversity in action; it’s an event which supports community-building, as opposed to the elitist bent of the America’s Cup races. Unlike that event, dragon boat racing is open to all. Interested parties can sign up for ongoing practice sessions, which take place at the Lake Merritt Boathouse throughout the year. More information is here.

Dragonmax members prepare for their heat

Dragonmax members prepare for their heat

“Matatu” is the Swahili word for the colorful passenger buses that are ubiquitous to urban areas–an East African variant of the Jeepneys of the Philippines, the tuk tuks of Thailand, and the Caribbean minibuses–representing inexpensive public transportation for the masses.

As coined by the Broaklyn Theater Co., Matatu is also a film festival: one that brings stories of the people of Africa and the African Disapora to Oakland audiences. Over three nights at the New Parkway, the film festival screens six films: four documentaries and two fictional tales. Also included as part of the Festival are a live performance by Afro-Europop singer Zap Mama, and a DJ set by Rich Medina (both at the New Parish).

In advance of the festival, Oakulture had the opportunity to preview two of the selected films: Dear Mandela and Stolen Seas. Dear Mandela is a 2012 documentary, set in South Africa, which details the struggles of Abahlali base Mjondolo (the “people of the shacks” in Zulu) in a post-Apartheid society. This is a deep film, which relates how the revolution that toppled the Botha regime and brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to power has been a mixed blessing for black South Africans. It recounts how ANC policies and failed promises–most notably, to provide new housing for the shack people, who live in hand-built corrugated metal dwellings–have prolonged the disenfranchisement of the poorer segments of South African society (many of whom supported the ANC during their historic campaign for equality and dignity), resulting in what one activist calls a “second Apartheid.”

The film chronicles the legal battle to prevent the bulldozing of the dwellings and forced removal of the shack people communities, a fight punctuated by strident activism from committed youth organizers and disinterest, incompetence, and/or complicity by government officials, as well as political violence. Two of the shack people are killed and several injured in a raid following a constitutional challenge to the legality of the forced removals, a reminder that African politics remains rooted in tribalism. Yet the shack people score an impressive victory at the end, which raises hopes that the freedom the ANC fought for, for so many years, will one day trickle down to all South Africans.

Watching the film’s depiction of South African officials, Oakulture couldn’t help but think of hypercritical anti-bureaucracy Fela Kuti songs like “Government Chicken Boy.” At the same time, the heroism and bravery displayed by the young activists who challenged systemic inequity raised positive comparisons with martyred activists Chris Hani and Steve Biko. Dear Mandela isn’t exactly a feel-good movie, but it is one that shows the complexities of African politics and the post-colonial reality, while paralleling the debate over land and housing rights that were recently brought to the public’s attention during the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland movements.


Stolen Seas is another film well worth seeing, and one that will expand your perspective on the rather complicated issue of Somali piracy. The documentary tracks the capture of a Scandinavian freighter by Somali pirates, depicting the hostage-taking, negotiations, and eventual outcome of that incident. To its credit, Stolen Seas provides additional context beyond the sensationalized Western media narrative, which has vilified the pirates, yet explained little about why piracy is happening in the first place in the Gulf of Aden.

The documentary’s strong suit is the background it covers, from the U.S. and Soviet Union’s Cold War machinations—which militarized the region, making automatic weapons readily accessible to Somali farmers and camel-herders; to the ill-advised U.S. bombing of 70 religious leaders—which catalyzed the events depicted in Black Hawk Down; to the Somalian economic shift from traditional agrarian production to fishing; to the dumping of toxic waste by European ships into Somali waters; to the emergence of the pirates, whose bold exploits have functioned as a de facto economic development initiative for one of the poorest nations in the world–one which has had no central government for more than two decades. While the criminality of the pirates, and their often violent methods, might find moral objection within some viewers’ minds, their motives are at least made clear.

The boomerang effect of globalization becomes an ironic link between the featured characters of Stolen Seas: a shipping executive and a hostage negotiator, who are on opposite sides, yet find common ground throughout the months-long ordeal. By the time K’naan’s Somalia, and its hook, “so what you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?” plays onscreen, viewers will feel like they know a whole lot more than they did before the movie started, no matter which side they sympathize with.

matatu FF

screen shot from “Stones in the Sun”

Other films presented at Matatu include Tey, a Senegalese film about a man with one day to live; Stones in the Sun, which tackles the experience of Haitian refugees; God Loves Uganda, a documentary about the importation of Western Christianity to East Africa; and Touba, a documentary about a pilgrimage to a traditional Sufi shrine in Sengal.


The Coup's Boots Riley

The Coup’s Boots Riley

OMG, the OMF (Oakland Music Festival) has been announced, and all Oakulture can say is, it’s about freakin’ time. The festival lands Sept. 21 at Jack London Square, but music acts have already been confirmed, and the bill puts the indie rock and electronic-focused Treasure Island Music Festival (to say nothing of Noise Pop) to shame. Local artists booked include The Coup, Bang Data, J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, Latin Soul Brothers, Trill Team 6, the People, 45 Sessions, James & Evander, and Trackademics & HNRL. As the date draws nearer, be sure to check the official site for more info. Best of all, tickets are just $15 and can be copped here.


This Week’s Picks:

Derrick Hodge w/ Kev Choice, DJ Nina Sol, 8/14, 9pm, $17-$20, the New Parish, 579 18th.

Zap Mama, Naima Shalhoub, DJ Leydis, DJ Julicio, 8/15, 8:30 p.m., $22-$25, the New Parish, 579 18th.

45 Sessions “Cold Rock Rap” edition, 8/16, 9 p.m., $5-$10, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph.

Broun Fellinis, 8/16, 9 p.m., $5, Disco Volante, 347 14th.

Rebelution, Matisyahu, Collie Buddz, Zion-I, 8/17, 6:30 p.m., $39.50, Greek Theater, 2001 Gayley Road, Berkeley.

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.