On Black Bodies of Resonance: Part 1

Resonant bodies in full swing
Resonant bodies in full swing: “Mr. Johnsing, Turn Me Luse!” is the title of this photograph taken at an early social gathering circa 1897 by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Image from the front sleeve of Donald Byrd’s album “Black Byrd”.

Within the context of the previous post, titled Black Resonance Matters, I would like to delve deeper into the subject of carriers, or portals – resonant repositories of sonic information: the multifarious forms that both house and transport the Afro-Sonic Signifier. From earthly geographical locations to intergalactic outer space destinations, we have many examples of vessels with binary functions that also act as metaphoric heavenly bodies. Intergalactic transportation has been and remains an important topic in Black history and its various associated spiritualities. Numerous references can be found in gospel spirituals, i.e. Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which is a code song. Coded songs made it possible for slaves working on the plantation to sing resistance songs and share the dream of freedom openly with one another. The lyrics appeared to have non-threatening meanings to the slaveholders. Go Down Moses (Let My People Go) is another Negro spiritual with visions of liberation and metaphorical ascension, coupled with references to Egypt and the Pharaoh. Harriet Tubman (in 1869) was quoted as saying Go Down Moses was one of two code songs used by fugitive slaves to communicate when fleeing captivity in Maryland.

Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the epitome of the Black female body of resonance and resistance. She stalwartly remained on her spiritual path throughout her lifetime, constantly refusing to sing or record secular songs no matter how tempting the offers were. Known as the queen of gospel and the angel of peace, Mahalia was born in New Orleans. She moved to Chicago in 1927, at the time of the Great Migration. No one floated the upper room like Mahalia Jackson did. Jackson was a world-renowned singer and Civil Rights activist, who was active from 1956 until her death. Dr. Martin Luther King said a voice like hers comes but once in a millennium.

The jazz musician extraordinaire, Sun Ra, was obsessed with spaceships and outer space travel; the quest for a utopian reality for the Black race was his prime, lifelong focus. Composing and arranging for his Astro Infinity Arkestra, Ra pioneered his manifesto of Astro Black Mythology. He was able to keep a large ensemble band together for nearly 40 years, releasing over a hundred LP albums, the majority of which are on his own label. Space Is The Place is one of the many gems in Sun Ra’s outer-space-conscious oeuvre. Parliament’s Mothership Connection album is another example of Afrocentric space ship travel. George Clinton, the founder and leader of the band and its various offshoots, such as Parlet and Funkadelic, was another African American visionary that pioneered space travel and the betterment of the Black race through his individual P-Funk brand of funk music mythology. In his 1970 Chocolate City composition, he sung ruminations on installing a Black president and Black first lady into the White House and painting it black, thirty years before the election of the first Black/mixed-race president, Barack Obama.

Sun God Ra
Image of the Sun God Ra steering the soul through the underworld on the Holy Barque. This image is from the nameless hieratic papyrus 3024. It has been placed in the “Intermediate Period” between the Old and Middle Kingdom (2500-1991 BC). The papyrus can be viewed in the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin. Image from “Rebel in the Soul: A Sacred Text of Ancient Egypt”, translation and commentary by Bika Reed (London: Wildwood House; Sydney, Australia: Bookwise, 1978).

Within this trope of vessels of migration, and a major pinnacle of inspiration to all the above, is the Egyptian god of the sun, Ra, who – amongst his litany of otherworldly qualities – guides the Holy Barque through the underworld, beyond nature and the fear of dying, steering it towards the new dawn. This image is very poetically depicted on the nameless, hieratic papyrus 3024, which is to be found in the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin. Some scholars have placed it in the “Intermediate Period”, between the Old and Middle Kingdom (2500-1991 BC).

The notion of liberation through geographical and spiritual migration is an ever-continuing phenomenon found in many displaced and disenfranchised communities, as well as in the Transnational African Diaspora. The search for home and utopian resolve is an ongoing, often violent life quest, as we clearly witness on a daily basis from the Mexican-USA border, to the Palestine-Israeli border, to the life-threatening ocean crossings made between sub-Saharan African countries and various EU borders. These varying resonators can be viewed as interlocutors, housed in sonic bodies from which a multiplicity of invocations emanates. Last Friday I was very fortunate to attend the Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s concert at Jazzfest Berlin, led by Roscoe Mitchell – one of the original founding members and co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). In its various forms, this large ensemble has been in existence for fifty years and continues to perform eclectic experimental music that seeks to challenge, deconstruct and broaden all former incarnations of itself and other experimental music genres. Firmly committed to the social, political and cultural uplifting of the black community through grassroots sonic-academic interventions, it exists in a constant state of evolutionary Black resonance. The institution of large-scale Black music ensembles has a long history, commencing in Africa. In the case of Angola and the Congo region, Portuguese archives date back to the 15th century, but we can safely assume that they were in existence way before that. In reference to African American big bands, which were, in fact, dance bands, the first bandleader to achieve USA national notoriety was Fletcher Henderson in the mid-1920s, whose band featured Louis Armstrong on trumpet. Internationally acclaimed bandleader Duke Ellington, whose band contained some of the finest virtuoso icons of jazz musicianship, was an important personality in the Harlem Renaissance. The Duke elevated jazz to the respected art form that it is today. He and Billy Strayhorn collaborated for three decades, co-composing many of the classic jazz standards, like Take the A Train and Lush Life. Add two other innovators to the list: the Count Basie Big Band and Chick Webb, who gave Ella Fitzgerald her first break. These orchestras contained dedicated individual innovators spear-headed by visionary leaders who collectively broke new ground. Many had witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the Jim Crow south; blackface minstrel tropes were still being performed in certain parts of the country.

Art Ensemble of Chicago
This is the original lineup of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. From right: Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Maghostut, Lester Bowie and Famoudou Don Moye. Their brand of improvisational music was accompanied by tri-performativity: note the costumes and face paint. The photo is from the back sleeve of their 1980 album “Full Force”. The current lineup is a seventeen-piece, large ensemble, the sole original members being Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye.

In my 2017 Savvy Contemporary – documenta 14 Radio Program, Unpacking Sonic Migrations from Slave-ship to Spaceship, I presented a wide trajectory from the canon of Black music, a certain percentage of which was played on vinyl phonogram records. Vinyl records are in and of themselves codified epistemological objects associated with cerebral, olfactory and tactile rituality; the album and its housing/sleeve represent a myriad of personal associations that encompass everything from archival tropes to sentimental memorabilia. They are repositories of sonic information. Before the advent of the internet and the likes of YouTube and SoundCloud, information was received at a much slower pace. The vinyl record played the role of the ancient messenger, the carrier pigeon. It was a perfect medium to transmit subversive messages; a great number of the speeches given by revolutionary leaders were recorded and distributed on vinyl. Compounded with this, the aforementioned big bands, leaders and visionaries often contained within can themselves be seen as mythic arks, bodies of resonance in which sonic information is both guarded and seminated – proverbial floating vessels, within which people composed, played and visualized the future they yearned for.

Duke Ellington Album Sleeve
Photo from the sleeve of Duke Ellington’s 1958 album “Ellington Indigos”.

Stay tuned for On Black Bodies of Resonance: Part 2, which will include Ma Rainey, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Franco.

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