On Black Bodies of Resonance, Part 2: Music as a Socio-Political Weapon. A focus on Fela Anikalapo Kuti.

Still_Black_Lives_Matters
#Black Lives Matter. This is a still image from the upcoming film, “Cleopatras Chariot”, by Satch Hoyt and Jordane Maurs, which is currently being edited. This film will accompany the limited edition music performances of Satch Hoyt & Earl Harvin, to be premiered in 2019. The music was composed & played by Earl Harvin and Satch Hoyt.

In the historiography of Black sonics we have umpteen examples of music. In the role of initiator, motivator, propaganda tool and weapon, with its accompanying creators being beautified, martyrised, lionised and in many cases sacrificed, music is as old as humanity. The power of music in the context of rallying communities around a manifesto or creed reaches back to the resistance movements formed at the onset of Colonialism throughout the African continent and transported to the Transnational African Diaspora.

The osmosis of resistance due to insurmountable chapters of confrontation on the journey has amplified the canon of black sonicity to a degree not witnessed by any other marginalised cultures. The insurmountable decibels of violence meted out onto the black body from the onset of the Black Atlantic slave trade to the present racial profiling and constant police brutality has long done peaked the epic meter scale. In 2013, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the murderer of seventeen-year-old African American Trayvon Martins, the #BlacklivesMatter movement was formed. Black Lives Matter has raised a global awareness of the continuing mortalities befallen on Black folk by overzealous police departments in the USA and other geographical locations in the Transnational African Diaspora (there exists many other grassroots organizations combating the various violent problems that plague the community).

Black President
The catalogue of the 2003 exhibition, ‘Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’, curated by Trevor Schonmaker at the New Museum, New York, NY. This was a groundbreaking exhibition. I believe it was the first USA museum to host an exhibition on the art of a musician. In fact, at that time, many people were not aware of either Fela or his music. Two years prior to the exhibition, a weekly club called Jump and Funk was created, which was held at the Canal Room on Canal Street, Soho, where DJs like Rich Medina, DJ spinner and Babito, amongst others, acculturated a wide audience to Fela’s brand of Afro-Beat and other genres of music from the African continent, like Franco from Kinshasa, etc., plus a lot of underground funk and Hip Hop. I must say, this was the most enjoyable opening I have thus far attended. Many of my good friends were in this magical group exhibition – artists like Wangechi Mutu, Moshekwa Langa, Sanford Biggers, etc., just to mention a few.

This catastrophic systemic plantation violence has been passed down from generation to generation. Domestic violence and its various violent off-shoots are an ongoing subject in Black music genres from the Blues to R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall, Grime and Afrobeat. Which brings us to the other focus of this post: In 1977, the Nigerian military raided the Kalakuta Republic, the residence, recording studio and commune headquarters of Nigerian musician, vocalist, composer and activist Fela Anikalapo Kuti (1938-1997). The raid was in retaliation to the lyrical contents in the Fela Afrika 70 album Zombie, which was a smash hit and scathing attack on the Nigerian government and its military oppression on the Nigerian people. The property was ransacked, the on-site recording studio equipment and master tapes were burnt, Fela was severely beaten and his elderly mother, feminist-activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was fatally thrown from an upper-floor window of her house, which was situated opposite Kalakuta. Fela responded by sending his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Army Barracks, Lagos – the official residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo – and composing two songs: Coffin For Head of State and Unknown Soldier. The songs referred to the official inquiry that claimed the property had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.

Fela’s main axe, another name for a musician’s instrument, was the tenor saxophone. This was his weapon: the weapon with which he co-preached his Yabbies, along with his often caustic lead vocals cushioned by his female background vocalists – referred to as his Queens – who, resplendent in costume and face paint, chanted in circular call-and-response patterns. Fela’s saxophone style can be located somewhere within the King Curtis – Albert Ayler zone – not smooth like Curtis, but nonetheless wading in those R&B waters. His approach to Jazz was not of the Bebop or Straight-ahead styles, but more in the Crusaders, Roy Ayers camp. Fela’s tenor tone is a plethora of grating squeak spluttering fragility. At times his solos feel like they’re literally going to fall apart, but they don’t. This fragility becomes an integral element of his multiple strengths.

The Shrine
‘The Shrine: The 27 Brides of the black President’ is a work I created in 2002 in New York for the groundbreaking exhibition, ‘Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’, at the New Museum, New York, NY. The shrine was the very first sound capsule I created. The concept was to create an isolated space for the viewer to contemplate and experience a sonic journey in sound. For the shrine, I created two separate Sonic Texts (soundscapes): one is built on the foundation of Fela’s brilliant composition, ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’, which I interspersed with “Message to The Grassroots” — a Malcolm X speech delivered in November of 1963 at the King Solomon Baptist Church, probably his last speech prior to his order of silencing. I played some flute, and it also included an excerpt from Misa Luba, which is a 1958 recording of the Sanctus Benedictus Latin Mass sung in a Cathedral by a forty-eight member Luba Congo male Catholic Choir accompanied by percussion. On what I termed the ‘altar shelf’, I placed twenty-seven small oval portraits of the twenty-seven women Fela married in 1978 at the Parisona Hotel in Lagos — an audacious act against the Obasanjo regime. Fela mentioned that it was to stop statements that many of the women were prostitutes when, in fact, many were his singers and dancers. The second Sonic Text comprised the voices of the twenty-seven women projected from twenty-seven speakers inserted in the interior front wall of the capsule. A twenty-inch bass speaker was inserted into the floor, so the viewer was literally immersed in sound.

Fela was the principle pioneer of the music genre Afrobeat, a term he coined in 1968. Afrobeat is a fusion of Fuji, Highlife, Jazz and Funk music. In 1958, Fela’s parents sent him to London to study medicine, like his sister and two brothers, but he opted for music and attended the Royal college of Music in London, studying trumpet. On his return to Nigeria he moved to saxophone, he also played electric keyboards. On stage he was accompanied by a large ensemble of musicians and dancers and the majority of his songs were sung in Pidgin English, enabling most Nigerians and a larger global audience to understand the messages in his lyrics. He remained a Pan-Africanist and militantly outspoken opponent of marginalisation of the underprivileged and the politically oppressed. In 1978 he created his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People) and in 1979 audaciously attempted to run for president of Nigeria, but his candidature was refused. Four years later, Fela stood for president once again but was prevented from campaigning by the police, who raided his home, beating and imprisoning many of his friends and followers.

Fela, like Robert Nesta Marley and others in the canon, epitomises the Black musician, vocalist, activist who composed music as a socio-political weapon. Outspoken, resonating Black bodies of resistance, rallying against oppression, the ongoing oppression which is firmly rooted in colonialism.

‘Coffin For Head of State’ (1981), Fela Kuti. From the LP Coffin For Head of State (CD release 1997). http://fela.net/discography/. As posted on Fela’s official YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/fela).

 

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.

Black Resonance Matters

 

The Sona sand drawings from the Tchokwe people of Northeast Angola are part liturgical songs and ancient ritual – a kind of Mnemonic language endured by oral tradition and depicted on sacred objects. Images: Mario Fontinha, “Desenhos na Areia dos Quiocos do Nordeste de Angola” (Instituto de Investigação Cientifica Tropical: Lisboa, 1983).

The long-winding epistemological path of Afro-Sonic Mapping often leads to multiple crossroads. Crossroads are symbols that hold manifold meanings. A towering example of this immediately comes to mind: Eshu Elegba, the divine trickster, the Yoruba flute playing Orisha God, who sits at the crossroads in all his dualities; followed by Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson – the mythic bluesman who, as legend has it, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for musical prowess. Could the devil at the crossroads be Eshu? I’m simply trying to connect the dots, to let the navigational cosmic compass spin, point and highlight the timbres within which our ordained genius sonic resonators chose and still choose to reverberate. My sketching in the latitude and longitude guidelines is an attempt to decipher and present both the ancient and contemporary resonators. The decoding of this, I firmly believe, will unveil and reveal the keys to many of our unsung narratives. Slaves on the Black Atlantic crossings were acting as human portals – portals that carried a mnemonic sonic lexicon, a complex network of varied sounds. Along with the sounds came designs of musical instruments imbued with magical and religious values, various singing styles of the human voice and the sounds of their quotidian habitats and natural environments. Those palimpsest partitions and newer asphalt-concrete urban-layered scores continue to exist in the genres of our contemporary music of today. They have been created both on the African continent and in the transnational African Diaspora all within the context of what I term “The Eternal Migration of the Afro-Sonic Signifier.”

Sanza
This Sanza from the Kongo people is one of many in my personal collection of African musical instruments. Lamellophones are found all over the continent of Africa, sometimes referred to as thumb pianos. The thin strips of metal are plucked with the thumbs. The size of the resonator, which amplifies the sound, varies with some versions. The resonator is a detachable gourd.

Black resonance matters have held utmost importance in the cartography of our existence and ongoing evolution on this planet, from the un-named Tchokwe Kisanji player to George Bridgetower’s virtuoso violin playing, which so caught Beethoven’s attention that he invited Bridgetower to collaborate in the Kreuzer Sonata. Fast-forward to today and we have Childish Gambino’s protest of gun violence and racial profiling oratory in his song (with 418,299,493 views) “This is America”. Now, like never before, Black resonance matters are impacting areas that until now dwelled in amnesic denial. When we reflect on relevant incidents in our lives or our frequent mundane daily meanderings, they are more often than not complemented by sound – ever-changing soundtracks imbued with melodies and rhythms, noise and cacophony. We are, in fact, vessels that house complex narratives. The many voices we possess are located in different parts of our mortal coil; this human body is an acoustic resonator continuously emitting sounds and vibrations, both audible and silent.

Malcolm X was one of the world’s most powerful orators and typifies the essence of radical Black resonance. I highly recommend you listen to both of these speeches, especially in light of Brazil’s recent election result.

“The human body is the ultimate source of musical articulation. According to the Bakongo people of Lower Zaire, Angola, and the Congo Republic in Central Africa, music is a living entity as vitally present as a human body. Thus, images of the human body, when added to Kongo musical instruments, symbolize the life of the spirit in patterned sound. Bakongo also believe that musical instruments are human beings invoking the people from wherever they may sound.” 1

No Muhammad Ali boxing victory would have been complete without his adroit foot shuffle and chant-like, woke prose. Great orators, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fully understood the complex power of Black vocal resonance; they understood the science of the human sonic resonator; and they understood in which areas of the body to place, resound and to project the voice from.

Up to three thousand Woodaabe gather to celebrate the Geerewol festival. The Woodaabe live in Central Niger, parts of Nigeria and Cameroon. They devote enormous care to their appearance for the Geerewol and the young men in particular spend hours decorating themselves. The Woodaabe believe that they have been given the greatest beauty on earth. Images: Angela Fisher, “Africa Adorned” (William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1984).

Within a colonial and post-colonial context the Black body has been inflicted and, for centuries, has been forced to endure insurmountable thresholds of discomfort. Above and beyond any discourse in victimization its recipient souls have repelled, rebelled, rejoiced and eternally reinvented ways of deflecting the negative force of power-wielding global oppression. Culture, namely music, dance, the visual arts and theatre holds a pivotal position in the attempted cohesion of splintered, displaced cultures. The African diaspora is the perfect example of a transnational entity that exists in states of constant reinvention, pulsating in networks of complex re-imagination within which Africanisms are dually embraced and repelled. It is that stereo space between identification and alienation that enables us to resonate and realize our true social selves. To wade in Afro-futuristic waters for a moment, I believe some of us wear spiritual cloaks woven from finely tuned harmonics, which in turn, like a cosmic radio, tune us in with supernatural frequencies. We are, in fact, reflective sounding forms with untapped sonic capabilities. In this highly capitalistic material world, priorities have shifted. Due to an obsessive overdrive for material gain, we have created the Anthropocene. In spiritual matters, we are neophytes as yet to realize our full sonic-spiritual potential. But lest we forget, in this current incarnation some of us will take the opportunity to become liberated, self-realized, conscious souls.

1 Robert Farris Thompson, “Body and Voice: Kongo Figurative musical Instruments”, in Sounding forms: African musical instruments, ed. Marie-Thérèse Brincard (American Federation of Arts: New York, 1989).

Sound clip: “Luanda Crush”, featuring MC Chris on vocals and deft guitar playing from the legendary Teddy N’singui. Here’s a rough mix teaser from one of the eleven tracks on the Afro-Sonic Mapping album. I’m now doing overdubs and fine-tuning with Henk Heuer in his Berlin studio. This is the sixth recording studio that I have worked in on this album. Recording started in Sacerdote’s Museque Sambizanga studio in Luanda, Angola, then in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil and Lisbon, Portugal – where I will return next year for more research, etc. Listen out for more short teasers til the final mixed and mastered version is available.

The Embodiment of Sound

IMG_0039
Baga A-tschol. A-tschol shrine figures from Guinea, Niger River region are displayed at celebrations for a successful harvest, worn as horizontal headpieces at dances associated with male initiation and appear at funerals. When not in use, a-Tschol are kept in shrines, sometimes located in the houses of elder members of the lineages. As guardians of the lineage, a-Tschol assume a protective role. (Provenance: Satch Hoyt collection)

The entrenched connectivity of sound to objects—and to forms that create sound—is imperative in attempting to map early African music, which has hitherto been relatively undocumented. Take, for example, the abstract planes employed in classical African sculpture—those that so enamored the modernists to the point of plagiarism. Those sculptures, resplendent with their bold planes, can be read as unfixed musical scores—coded slabs of rhythmic syncopations. Exposed to these forms, the eye literally bounces off one plane and glides to the next. Sound is complicit/integrated in this proposed viewing experience. What is rendered in this hearing of a form is, in fact, multiple imagined, unfixed sound scores. In the performative act of creating the sculpture, the sounds of the metal tools, complicit in the rhythms employed by the carver who sculpted the wood, were very much part and parcel to that. The sonic reverberations are therefore still imbued in the form, somewhat akin to a portal. So, in both of these conscious states of aesthetic viewing and improvised listening, multiple fluctuating sounds can be experienced from the said integrated form. Music, whether composed or improvised, is the trace or record of a series of listenings and of acts of forming that are informed by these listenings. Without opening up the question of form itself, we can say that the cumulative density of listenings, and their inscription in sound, traces out an emerging and developing subjectivity. We sense that the sonic presence of an intelligence is not only there to be retrieved from the music as a kind of “content”, but to be actively engaged with by the listener. This is already suggestive of something that could be meant by the idea of active listening.1

‘Negro Prison Songs’: recorded by Alan Lomax at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1947. right: excerpt of text by Alan Lomax from the back sleeve liner notes.

Even in the various phonograph archives, the distorted imprints of the digitized wax cylinders are lacunae. Unfortunately, they therefore only partially convey the complete sonic tapestry that was being sewn at the moment of the performance. This begs the question: if the phonograph machine was the slave of the anthropological master, what was the role of the African performer and under which duress was the performance performed? Phonograph recordings were limited to a time span of two minutes. We know from various sources—one being Swedish anthropologist and missionary Karl Laman, who spent much time in the Congo region—that some of these performances lasted for several days and that most were ritualistic and of a supernatural nature. I therefore argue that the performances were mere sketches, and hasten to add that, in some cases, they were, in fact, part minstrelsy—sans black face. We witness the aforementioned duress in many of the fetishized photographs of the period, which can be read as colonial mug shots. The imposition of technology, i.e., miracle-making machines, hand in glove with zealous missionary-led Christian fundamentalism, plus the European epic grand entrée into Africa on ships with sophisticated sextants, telescopes and cannons, played a colossal role in the psychological convincing of Africans that Europeans were the supreme race. Furthermore, these late 19th century stolen performances remain authorless in exactly the same manner as the collected artifacts exhibited in museums throughout the world. Many of the wax cylinders in European sound archives have as yet not been translated or digitized.

Music is not produced in a vacuum; it responds to the conditions in which the composer/performer finds themselves. Hence, a pragmatic understanding of music’s societal impact plays a pivotal role in understanding the evolution, sophistication and spiritual matrix embodied throughout the various transformations and migrations of Black music. Sound in and of itself is the firmament on which all creativity is built.

The Embodiment of Sound-IMG_0024
African-American churches are, in fact, organological structures, resounding amalgamated music mash-ups that hail from the African and European continents, and include First Nation influences from many different regions. Denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development and political activism. Serving as school sites in the early years after the Civil War, taking up social welfare functions, such as providing for the indigent, and going on to establish schools, orphanages and prison ministries. As a result, black churches have fostered strong community organizations and provided spiritual and political leadership, especially during the Civil Rights Movement.


1 Tim Hodgkinson, Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Toward a New Aesthetic Paradigm (MIT Press: 2016).

Guents Dy Rincon – the Cape Verde Band


Lusotropicalism is a word one could aptly use to describe Portugal’s flawed ideology of hybridisation. Miscegenation continues to be a central topic in their conversations on colonialism and post-coloniality. The Cape Verde community is the largest African community in Portugal and their musics, such as Morna and Funana, gained popularity long before the music from their other African colonies did. I was blessed to discover Guents dy Rincon busking one afternoon on this Lisbon plaza near Barrio Alto.

Saudade

Grandes Viagens Maritimas Dos Portugueses 1482 - 1660 map
Grandes Viagens Maritimas Dos Portugueses 1482 – 1660 map at the Lisbon Geographic Society (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa).

Well, here I am on the third leg of this, my first Afro-Sonic Mapping journey. Currently, I find myself in a city that I am familiar with, but am now forced to view from a completely different prism. This is the result of having recently spent time in Luanda, Angola and Salvador, Bahia, Brazil – two of the eight countries once held captive in the net of Portugal’s colonial empire. Lisbon, the city of seven hills, is indeed a beautiful city. Though I’ve already got a long relationship with the city, visiting many times since 1996, I fell in love with it all over again last week. Lisbon, adorned with all its heraldry, is strewn with bronze statues singing praises to doers of despicable deeds. The ghosts of its colonial past float over the buried debris of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which erased most of the architecture from its Age of Discovery. The ensuing tsunami, still the largest to hit European shores to date, left a devastating death toll of 30-40,000 people and destroyed 85% of the city’s buildings. The history books inform us that Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquês de Pombal – then prime minister and prime player in the country’s colonial expansionist pursuits – gave the order to bury the dead and heal the living. The city was rebuilt in the architectural style termed Pombaline after the Marquês.

Marquês de Pombal statue, at Marquês de Pombal square, Lisbon, Portugal.

A huge, towering statue of the Marquês, posed and resplendent with an African lion by his side, is situated at the centre of the city’s largest crossroads and is circumnavigated daily by thousands of cars. But alas, amongst all of the statues scattered around the city, there is not a single monument erected that acknowledges the outstanding deeds performed by Africans. Surely the 17th century Angolan Queen Nzinga (baptized Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande), a military tactician extraordinaire, deserves to be hoisted high on a plinth for all of her heroic deeds in one of Portugal’s provinces – yes, Portugal referred to their colonies as provinces. To date, there is not one memorial to the African victims of slavery. Why is that? Is it because the Portuguese insist on perpetrating the fallacy that theirs was a soft, benevolent colonial model? This is what comes up time and time again when one opens up conversations on the subject. But let’s face it – every form of colonialism is oppressive. No one volunteered for a slave ship cruise in order to work on a plantation for nothing.

Ann_Zingha,_queen_of_Matamba
An illustration of Queen Nzinga. François Villain (lithographer). Image: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1800 – 1899). Ann Zingha, queen of Matamba. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org.

Deep within the Portuguese psyche there is something quite melancholic, slightly broken – call it Saudade, if you will. Even the Portuguese dialect is somewhat whiny and depressed, very unlike the sing-song, melodic Brazilian version. Unconsciously, there is a weight imbued in every syllable delivered, which by the way, is extremely prevalent in Fado music (more on that subject later). All of those centuries of trade, conflict and flag-planting abuse do reap national karma/trauma. When I lived in Paris conversations about the Portuguese categorized them as the one-time great discoverers relegated to the concierge and chauffeur level. This is a country that was colonized by the Moors from 711 to 1249 and in turn colonized no less than six African countries – namely Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe. Portugal’s colonial African empire was the world’s longest, from 1483 to the mid 1970s, subjugating an estimated 5.8 million Africans to slavery. So how do they justify such a small handful of token black people on TV and in ads on billboards? The absence of black people in power positions is mind-boggling; in case you didn’t know, Helder Amaral is the sole black member of the 230-seat parliament. I would argue that the lack of black people in business managerial positions and elsewhere speaks volumes to the so-called benevolent coloniser fallacy. The greater percentage of the Portuguese black community is disenfranchised and lives in social housing projects. The constant barrage of racial profiling and police brutality is at long last receiving media coverage due to a brutal assault in Cova da Moura, a black suburban neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. In February 2015, Rap artist and sociologist LBC Soljah and three associates were forced to endure six hours of what has been described as torture in a police station. The case is still pending a verdict.

Wall mural by Carla Soussa at Cova do Vapor
This wall mural is at Cova do Vapor, a black neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. Photo by Carla Soussa.

At the risk of chronological confusion, please note that in 1555, ten percent of Lisbon’s residents were black – some slaves, some free. They were enterprising, working as market vendors in many different sectors, and some held positions of great trust in the royal courts. Paintings from the renaissance period depict black nobility cutting a figure on horseback (For current images of the genre, see Kehinde Wiley paintings). Fast-forward to today, race relations in Portugal are sorely lagging behind its European neighbours, especially those that contain large ex-colonial black communities. But let me interject: unfortunately, many countries that participated in the slave trade throughout the European continent and elsewhere have been slow to offer apologies for their colonial pursuits. Notable is the UK’s recent Windrush scandal, which scores very high in shame points.

Lisboa Arte Pintura Rua Nova dos Mercadores aut desc sec xvi 00 ed
Praça do Pelourinho Velho and part of Rua Nova dos Mercadores. Flemish painting of 1582 (?). Image: Society of Antiquaries of London. Paintings from the renaissance period depict black nobility in all sorts of poses. Here we see them cutting a figure on horseback. For contemporary images of the genre, see Kehinde Wiley paintings.

More on Saints in Afro-Brazilian Religion

Candomblé is a syncretic religion, many of the Orixás (Orishas, or deities) are also represented by Catholic saints. The Virgin of the Rosary and Saint Antony of Catagerona are situated in the main church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People in Largo Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia.
Depiction of Escravia Anastasia
Depiction of Escravia Anastácia in a vitrine in a chamber in the Pelourinho Salvador Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People. Escrava Anastácia is a popular saint worshipped in Brazil. A slave woman of African descent, she is venerated in the Umbanda religion.
Escrava_Anastacia (1)
Escrava Anastácia by Jacques Étienne Victor Arago – Souvenirs d’ un aveugle : voyage autour du monde / par M. J. Arago 1839 from Wikipedia. Read more about Escrava Anastácia in The Vintage News.

Axe Axe Axeeeeee*

terreiro-de-candomble-salvador-bahia
‘Salvador has about 150 Terreiros benefited with tax exemption’. From article by Mathias Jaimes on TVServidor.com.br.

Roughly a quarter of all Brazilians identify as Protestant. Christian Nationalism is on the rise, globally, and Pentecostal religions have fast-growing political power. In fact, Evangelists hold 85 of 513 seats in Brazil’s lower house of Congress. People of African descent make up more than half of Brazil’s national population, yet they account for only eight percent of the lower house of Congress and only two out of 81 senators are black.

The increase in religious hate crimes appears to coincide with the spread of Evangelical Protestantism in Brazil. Today, of the 100 faith-based organizations subcontracted to run social programs in prisons, 81 are Evangelical churches. This has led to a swell in Evangelical gang leaders who, in Favelas, wield tremendous power of conversion and demonize Afro-Brazilian religions. A hotline dedicated to tracking religious intolerance reported that more than 30 Terreiros (Candomblé places of worship) were destroyed in fewer than 20 days during September 2017. This latter-day crusade by the Evangelists has openly demonized Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, citing them as devil worship. In the past, Candomblé practitioners would say they were Catholic in order to avoid persecution.

As promised in a previous post, I will attempt to give a brief overview of Candomblé – as this, to me, is where the Afro-Sonic Signifier is most exquisitely located. After three weeks in Salvador, my mapping of Afro Sonics has brought me to the firm conclusion that Candomblé, amongst other African-rooted religions, has acted as the incubator and preserver of the sonics that I am tracing. I am arguing that African religion is instrumental in the promotion of interethnic alliances, which have led to innumerable cultural exchanges. This is the case in Brazil, as well as other slave-migration regions of the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. Due to slavery, Brazil has the largest Black population outside of Africa: more than half of Brazil’s national population identifies as Preto (Black), Pardo (mixed race) or Negro (Black and mixed race). Another group consists of both Preto and Pardo.

oxum-xango-oxossi-oxala-orixas-statues-candomble-traditional-african-saints-dique-do-tororo-salvador-bahia-brazil-nov-91412453
Oxum, Xango, Oxossi and Oxala Orixás. Statues of Candomblé traditional African saints in Dique do Tororo – Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Candomblé, like its sister Santería, which is practiced in Cuba, is a syncretic religion; many of the Orixás (Orishas, or deities) are also represented by Catholic saints. Each Orisha has a colour: red signifies fire and fury; white, peacefulness and tranquility; yellow, wealth and prosperity. The roots of Candomblé are clearly Yoruba, although it contains Congolese, Angolan and indigenous Amerindian elements, as well. These elements differ according to the type and location of the Terreiro in the country; there is Angola-Congo Ketu, Gege-Nagô, and Ketu–Nagô. Ketu, which traditionally uses Ifá – a sacred oral text – is the most prominent in Bahia. The core of the religion arrived in the 15th century with the Oba Babalawo priests on the Portuguese slave ships from Nigeria. The Nganga priests, meanwhile, came from Congo and Angola. The predominant African language used in ceremonies is Yoruba, though at times, depending on the branch, Mbundu and Kikongo words are also employed. The Yoruba believe that all life is sanctified by proximity and sacrifice to the essential emblems of the major deities: the clay pillar of Eshu-Elegba; the thunderstones of Shango; the bow and arrow of Oshosi; the irons of Ogun; the river stones of the goddesses Yemoja, Oshún and Oya; and the cowrie crown of Dada Bayonni appear on altars in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yemoja is the great mother of all the Orishas. Sometimes portrayed as a mermaid, she is responsible for fertility and procreation and is the Orisha of the sea. Candomblé seeks harmony with nature; it is a religion that has no Bible and teaches tolerance of all sexual persuasions. I met quite a few gay and queer practitioners whilst in Salvador, some very high on the initiation ladder, who had their own Terreiros. It should also be noted that there is an equal number of priestesses and priests.

Umbanda Branca is another Afro-Brazilian religion, which was created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s by Zélio de Moraes. Like Candomblé, it also adopts the worship of Orishas. Umbanda ceremonies are accompanied by practitioners dressed in white, chanting to Atabaque drums. Likewise, Candomblé ceremonies are also accompanied by many types of drums – played both with the palms of the hand and sticks – and instruments such as bells and claves are part of the percussion ensemble. The priest’s assistants continuously ring bells for the Orishas – some of which have four tones.

Oblations are poured and sometimes animals are used in a sacrificial ritual called Orò. The species and their mode of sacrifice are supported by beliefs and myths associated with the religion, and depend upon the preferences of the Orisha. The colour of the animal also corresponds to the colour preference of the Orisha to whom it is offered. As the myths and practices associated with Candomblé originated in Africa, some of the animal species used in sacrificial rituals either occur in parts of Africa, or are substitutes for African species. The principal reason for sacrifice is to please the Orishas in order to keep life in harmony. This is accomplished by feeding them, in a spiritual sense, through sacrifice – thereby maintaining a perfect link between mankind and the gods, and a connection between the material world (called Aiyê) and the supernatural world (called Orun). The participants, predominantly dressed in white, wear many necklaces made from materials such as glass beads, shells, mini calabashes and feathers, which correspond to the colour of their particular Orisha. The congregation continuously chants in Yoruba, escalating to otherworldly crescendos, during which the participants enter into states of ecstatic possession; in fact, possessed by their own Orisha, with whom they become one. They are then led out of the main room of the Terreiro, dressed in the garb and bedecked with paraphernalia befitting of the Orisha. At some point, Ogun’s bread, contained in a large basket, is distributed to the congregation.

Gantois
Terreiros of Candomblé: ‘Ilê Iyá Omi Axé Yamassê, also known as Terreiro do Gantois, was founded in 1849. It has become a reference for the spiritual advice that Yalorixá Mãe Menininha (1894-1986) offered to artists, officials, intellectuals and anonymous people, which helped to disclose the Gantois to the entire country and also internationally.’ As featured on Salvadordestination.com.br.

*Axe is pronounced Asche. This Yoruba word meaning Soul, Light, Spirit is used in Candomblé. It is also used as a greeting, meaning Peace Be With You.

They Don’t Really Care About Us

Michael Jackson - They Don't Really Care About Us (Still)
Still from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

After enduring nearly three weeks walking past the Michael Jackson casa, situated just a stone’s throw away from Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People) in Pelourinho – which can be seen 23 seconds into Jackson’s video for They Don’t Really Care About Us – I finally got over all the tourists taking selfies and group shots with drummers, all the trinkets, souvenirs and the out-and-out commodification of the house as enterprise, and started to analyse, in this present moment of social and political unrest in Brazil, just how loaded Jackson’s act of shooting the video for They Don’t Really Care About Us for his 1996 album, HIStory: Past, Present, Future, was at that time – and still is now. Jackson embraced and empathized with Brazilian Blackness at the height of his lightness. His brief sonic migration to Brazil to make a socio-political statement of that magnitude remains extremely relevant today. Jackson’s gift of giving global visibility to Brazil’s racially stratified, class-based society that continues to lock black people in Favela poverty where social injustice remains in the hearts of those impoverished Brazilians, is deserving of big accolades.

Stills from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

Musically and visually, Jackson also entered into a Transnational African Diasporian dialogue with the activist bloco-afro drum collective, Olodum. It gave them massive exposure, not only garnering worldwide success, but also facilitating their educational and social programs in Salvador. To drive home the point and give the project more political weight, he hired activist filmmaker Spike Lee to direct two videos for the song, which was the fourth single on the album (the second video was shot in a US state prison and featured inmates, as well as archival images of historic police brutality towards African Americans).

Fifteen hundred police officers and fifty locals were hired to cordon off the filming location in the Santa Marta Favela in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government was strongly opposed to Jackson shooting the video there, as it exposes Brazil’s slum conditions to the world. State authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the production of the music video. In fact, Ronaldo Cezar Coelho, then state secretary for industry, commerce and tourism, demanded editing rights. A judge had even banned filming entirely; however, the ruling was overturned.

Michael Jackson - They Don't Really Care About Us (Still)
Still from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

To summarise the video, we first hear a woman’s voice softly state, “Michael, Eles não ligam pra gente”, which is the title of the song in Portuguese. In the juxtaposition in the opening shot of the famous open-armed Jesus monument above Rio de Janeiro, Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), and Jackson’s outstretched arms at the window of the Salvador house, I clearly read an activist plea, delivered with angry, provocative desperation. Thirty to forty seconds into the video, a muffled, near-inaudible voice is heard, which sounds to me as though it’s coming from a police intercom. Jackson first exits through a doorway; raising his arms, he gives the finger to the military police, and continues to make that statement throughout the video. This is, no doubt, the most politically engaged song in Jackson’s entire oeuvre, which, twenty-two years after its release, in today’s Black Lives Matter epoch, remains a timeless anti-racist anthem. The lyrics and imagery percolate into an audacious, subversive, abrasive amalgamation of all the genres of music that Jackson was embracing at the time, seamlessly adding quasi-militaristic Olodum samba drum patterns to the mix. Jackson was relentlessly defiant and jumped hurdles to enable the world to see Favela disenfranchisement – which could be lightly compared to parts of his pre- Jackson 5, Gary, Indiana upbringing. Michael Jackson flaunted his world-star position to tell the continuing narrative of race and class disparity and police brutality, which is still prevalent in contemporary Brazil and the Transnational African Diaspora at large. At the last dinner I attended in Salvador, I was informed that 37 black males were shot in one week by the Salvador police force: RIP Marielle Franco; RIP King of Pop.

Michael Jackson - They Don't Really Care About Us (Still)
Still from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

They Don’t Really Care About Us [Verse 3]

Skin head, dead head
Everybody’s gone bad
Trepidation, speculation
Everybody, allegation
In the suit, on the news
Everybody, dog food
Black male, blackmail
Throw your brother in jail

Session at Dande Recording Studio

Cello Dut in the Recording Studio
Celo Dut delivering his original vocal lines on an Afro-Sonic Mapping track at Dande Recording Studio in Salvador, Bahia. It was a mellow process; Celo and I discussed the concept of the project at his home and in his home studio. I explained my vision for the direction of his collaboration to the composition and we were both very happy with the results. Thank you, Celo – I hope there will be more collaborations in the future.
Cello Dut in the Recording Studio
Celo’s music was introduced to me by Cassio Bomfim, a visual artist and fashion designer. Celo is a 22-year-old Salvadorian vocalist/guitarist who has a unique style of rapping and singing.
Listening back to the vocal tracks and making decisions. Throughout the Afro-Sonic Mapping album process I have disciplined myself to make fast edits so as not to end up with loads of tracks. This is the third recording studio, folks, which means at least another three to go.
Suya Nascimento in the Recording Studio
Suya Nascimento fine-tuning the direction of the noise and drones.
In Dande Recording Studio
Suya Nascimento’s music was introduced to me by visual artist and fashion designer Cassio Bomfim. Thank you, Cassio. Suya and I share a love of experimentation. Suya studied music and spent five years in Oakland, California. To my relief, she speaks perfect English with a soft Cali accent, which made communication between us so smooth – it’s rare to find people who speak English in Salvador. Suya played some very beautiful, haunting, layered guitar parts and recited my poem on “The Black Madonnas Bled” track. She is currently in the German language course at the Goethe Institute, Salvador, Bahia and will soon be spending time in Berlin; so watch out for her there.