“One of the main points of the Herskovits book is that most of the attitudes, customs, and cultural characteristics of the American Negro can be traced directly, or indirectly, back to Africa. And while I am inclined to accept this view, with whatever reservations my individual concepts propose, I would also have to insist that the African, because of the violent differences between what was native and what he was forced to in slavery, developed some of the most complex and complicated ideas about the world imaginable. Afro- Americans (by whom I mean the first few generations of American-born black people, who still retained a great many pure Africanisms), and later, American Negroes, inherited all these complexities with, of course, whatever individual nuances were dictated by their particular lives. But the ugly fact that the Africans were forced into an alien world where none of the references or cultural shapes of any familiar human attitudes were available is the determinant of the kind of existence they had to eke out here: not only slavery itself but the particular circumstances in which it existed. The African cultures, the retention of some parts of these cultures in America, and the weight of the stepculture produced the American Negro. A new race. I want to use music as my persistent reference just because the development and trans-mutation of African music to American Negro music (a new music) represents to me this whole process in microcosm.”—Amiri Baraka (Blues People: Negro Music in White America)
“You are black... which means you lived too close to the sun. Black is evil." "You are white... which means you lived too far from the sun. You have no color... no soul." These are equally logical arguments. The twist is that if you are black and believe in the supernatural [...] the circumstance of finding yourself in a culture of white humanist pseudo-Puritanical storekeepers must be revolting. And if you are the slave of such a culture, your sorrow must be indeterminable. ”—Blues People by Leroi Jones
The point is that because of the lifting of the protective “folk expression” veil from a Negro music, the liberal commentators could criticize it as a pure musical expression. And most of them thought it hideous. Even the intellectual attacked the music as “anti-humanistic”; poet and critic of popular culture Weldon Kees said of bebop: “I have found this music uniformly thin, at once dilapidated and overblown and exhibiting a poverty of thematic development and a richness of affectation, not only, apparently, intentional, but enormously self-satisfied.” Kees then goes on to say, “In Paris, where Erskine Caldwell, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, are best-sellers and ‘nobody reads Proust any more,’ where the post-Picasso painters have sunk into torpor and repetition, and where intellectuals are more cynically Stalinized than in any other city in the world, bebop is vastly admired.” A wild piece of sophistry!
“the modern scene” // leroi jones (amiri baraka) // blues people
not genre, life
Of course, before the Renaissance, art could find its way into the lives of almost all the people because all art issued from the Church, and the Church was at the very center of Western man’s life. But the discarding of the religious attitude for the “enlightened” concepts of the Renaissance also created the schism between what was art and what was life. It was, and is, inconceivable in the African culture to make a separation between music, dancing, song, the artifact, and a man’s life or his worship of his gods. Expression issued from life, and was beauty. But in the West, the “triumph of the economic mind over the imaginative,” as Brook Adams said, made possible this dreadful split between life and art. Hence, a music that is an “art” music as distinguished from something someone would whistle while tilling a field.
Richard Bona - The Ten Shades of Blues
As writer Amiri Baraka once said: “Blues playing is the closest imitation of the human voice of any music I’ve heard”. By the same token Richard Bona’s new release, tracing a vestige of the genre in different world cultures, reiterates the same concept: wherever there is humanity, there is the blues.
This album is not some philological essay on the blues scale as its title might suggest, rather a journey revolving around the blues perceived as ‘a feeling’. Under such auspices he gathers worldwide musicians to help shape his signature fusion of musical heritages: this time from India, his native Cameroon and adoptive US.
The geography of Bona’s inspiration is not new. John Coltrane looked to Africa and India to build a vocabulary beyond the western notational discourse, closer to his need for vocalised expression – which makes jazz so deeply indebted to blues. Joe Zawinul (with whom Bona collaborated during the Syndicate years, and to whom this project is in part indebted) played a pioneering role in fusing elements of jazz and worldwide music.
Each tune breeds a carnival of musical quotations. Gluing it all together is Bona’s silky, deeply intense voice – centre stage from the start in the a cappella opener Take One – and his talent as bassist and multi instrumentalist.
Shiva Mantra, an Indian born and bred track, is lightly infused with African and bluesy insertions. Kurumalete is perhaps the tune that owes most to Zawinul, both timbre wise and through its hectic rollercoaster of cultural quotations, while with African Cowboy Bona is back to a closer offspring of the pentatonic scale, country music. It’s an African rendition, Bona singing in Duala, perhaps to remind us that the banjo, after all, comes from the ngoni lute. The only traditionally recognisable blues number on the whole album is Yara’s Blues.
Above all, the Motherland is still the real protagonist, as a direct influence (Souleymane, Sona Moyo, Camer Secrets) and in Bona’s native Duala. Like with Bona’s previous releases Tiki and Munia: The Tale, The Ten Shades of Blues is a boundary-crashing work, perfectly packaged and enormously enjoyable.
Review: Blues People: The Negro Experience In White America And The Music That Developed From It
Blues People: The Negro Experience In White America And The Music That Developed From It by Amiri Baraka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“This book should be taken as a strictly theoretical endeavor. Theoretical, in that none of the questions it poses can be said to have been answered definitively or for all time, etc. In fact, the book proposes more questions than it will answer.” ~ Amiri Baraka from the Introduction to “Blues People”
There are some moments when I find myself reading a subject of historical analysis that I am filled with a desire to ask the author if they would provide a multimedia study guide to follow along with the text itself. One has the work citations and the bibliography, but what I am considering is a chapter matched outline of books, films, and albums that one should study in order to garner an even deeper understanding of the material that is being discussed within that chapter.
Baraka’s writing in this text has the flow of a great uncle who finds it particularly irresistible to not dispense forth a stream of history when he has access to even a single listening ear. At certain times, it has the language of a diatribe as Baraka decries the varying periods of blues and jazz innovation which inevitably lead to mainstream acceptance and the eventual commercialization which eliminates the emotional nuance of a formerly “negro music”. At other times, it reads as a doctoral thesis with Baraka casting forth a jargon heavy exultation of the changes brought by the geniuses of strings, woodwinds, and keys that gave birth to blues and jazz movements in ragtime, dixieland, brass, swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, avant garde and other musical forms of that ilk.
When you are finished, you won’t be an expert on the subject of blues or jazz music, but he does manage to fill you deeply with a sense of ownership and responsibility for holding and transmitting the history. I had an initial criticism of his coverage of “The Modern Scene” at the time of reading because the chapter was so voluminous compared to how neatly Baraka had broken down the other chapters, but I had merely to remind myself that when the book was composed, he was awash in the fresh memory of that modern musical movement whereas I am looking at the work of Coleman, Coltrane, and Rollins with an eye towards the past as one of the new antiquities of music.
For lack of a film directly from Baraka himself, I would offer up for analysis the documentary series “Ken Burns’ Jazz” though for a different reason than you might think. Ken Burns’ perspective on jazz music and the criticism that his documentary received actually serves to highlight one of the issues that Baraka covers in the text. It stands to portray that where initially the newer innovations made in jazz music are derided and given little appreciation, they are in time shelved and then rediscovered to be given their glory in the future.
In a sense, the present era keepers of jazz classify certain forms as “anti-jazz” and toss them aside only to have the future keepers of jazz say “Hey. That was genius.” It is an exercise described throughout the book that I might classify in accordance with the title as “negro music navel gazing”. Only the cool that was cool yesterday is acceptable to the mainstream when initial innovators have already moved on to something new.
In that respect, the attention give by Burns to the swing era and more classical Dixieland styles, his lack of attention to more modern and progressive forms is symbolic of this sort of navel gazing in practice. That does not mean that the documentary is without historical merit, but one should always be aware the everyone has an angle and even when they are trying to be objective, they inevitably shine the prism brightest on the corner of the room which they like the best.
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