Excerpt of an interview with Paula Nascimento in Luanda on August 17, 2018.
Addendum to The Return of the Rumba. “Franco, the Sorcerer of the Guitar.”
The role that mysticism, sorcery and divination play in the life of Congolese music and especially in the life and career of Franco—one of its prime progenitors—is what I want to prognosticate in this addendum. Rumours abound of his possible initiation into the occult. There can be no doubt that he received many blessings from Ngangas (priests and spiritual healers) across the continent. In Africa, ancestral worship via music as a medium has existed since time immemorial. Many of the Zairean musicians would visit Marabous/Ngangas as far afield as Senegambia and Benin to enact supernatural exchanges of empowerment—somewhat akin to the virtuosic guitar skills Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson displayed after he exchanged his soul with the devil (Oshun) at a Mississippi crossroads back in the early 20th century.
The prophetic Griot-like positioning of Franco as soothsayer and oral messenger of the multiple grass roots, ultimately welded his oft-controversial hegemonic bond with President Mobutu Sese Seko—Zaire’s despot dictator, who, after independence, oversaw the death of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Franco, under certain duress, was President Mobutu’s ultimate Authenticité propaganda machine. His spiraling, mesmeric guitar motifs tapped into ancient Sanza and Balophone frequencies, which, coupled with his Griotesque voice created an uncanny firebrand power of seduction and persuasion. Franco was an early exponent of Afrofuturism, with his close-knit community of musicians channeling and creating a unique fusionistic, panoptic blend of new Black African music within the confines of an ever-expanding collective. The band’s costumes and choreography perfectly fit in with the performativity associated with Afrofuturism, as did the lyrics, which often invited the participants to literally lose and surrender themselves in the kaleidoscopic realms of rhythm and dance. Liberation through dance was nothing new to Zaireans. The Kuba, Pende, Yaka and Suku—to name just four cultures of the region whose music has been documented since the advent of the phonogram machine—did exactly this with very large ensembles whose instrumentation included Balophones, various drummers, percussionists, singers and trumpets.
Even with the rupture of the cruel Belgian colonial project music accompanied every aspect of life: from giving birth, to hunting, to giving thanks for a plentiful harvest, to death. Franco’s chant-like choruses propelled his audiences into out-of-body nether regions without ever literally speaking on the topic of utopic outer-galactic theories propounded by the likes of Sun Ra. I very much doubt that Franco had even been exposed to Sun Ra’s music, and if he had, I’m not sure whether or not he would have appreciated it. As he often stated, he made music for people to dance to; he was all about the Sebene, the groove—he was a Shebeen dweller—but his was a uniquely Zairean Odemba groove, not to be confused with Afrobeat, Funk or Soul. On the occasion of the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Mobutu invited James Brown to play a concert at Zaire 74—the accompanying music festival organized by the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The concert took place in the Kinshasa football stadium. Franco and the T. P. O. K also performed. Franco attended the J.B. concert, but was apparently unimpressed with “The Godfather Of Soul’s” funk music and his accompanying deft footwork displays of the Mashed Potato and Camel Walk dances. Franco let it be known that he felt snubbed and somewhat insulted that J.B. had not shown any apparent interest in the local Zairean music scene or its personalities. But in actual fact, J.B. and Franco shared much in common in regard to being Sonic Healers, and both wore the crown of The Hardest Working Men in Show Business. During Mobutu’s dictatorship it was forbidden to listen to western music, though those with access to long-range radios obviously did. Furthermore, music from the African Diaspora was not categorized as western; hence, the line-up at the Zaire 74 music festival, which Mobutu expressed was intended to present and promote racial and cultural solidarity between African-American and African people. After more than thirty years of tyrannical rule and homeland pillage of Zaire’s natural resources, President Mobuto Sese Seko was overthrown by Laurent Kabila in 1997 and died in exile in Morocco of prostrate cancer, leaving behind a bankrupt country and a personal wealth estimated at somewhere between $1-5 Billion.
Bringing us back up to now, Transcultural music exchange in the Transnational African Diaspora and the continent of Africa is more plentiful in this our 21st century. The rapid access of information and knowledge sharing via technology has enabled digital collaborative practices to flourish. Within Afro-sonic navigational terms, we may permit ourselves to encounter imagined utopic planetary terrains, therein enabling the reinvention of past, present and future time-looped frequencies. I am arguing that Sonic Clairvoyance is in fact a musical form of ESP that can be used as an aid to visionistically dive into Black fantastical realms of hitherto unknowns.
The Return of the Rumba. “Franco, The Sorcerer of the Guitar”
Happy New Year to all of our dedicated Afro-Sonic Mappers – may 2019 bring you all that you desire and deserve.
In this century, any in-depth research on African music will require the researcher to travel to various locations in the Transnational African Diaspora. In this particular researcher’s humble opinion, the most fruitful locations are the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. A good example is the preservation of certain Congolese rhythm patterns by the Palenque in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. The Palenque, who were Maroons (runaway slaves) – the word Maroon comes from the Spanish word Cimarrón, based on a Taino Indian root – were, in fact, the first free Africans in the Americas. The Spanish crown issued a royal decree in 1691, guaranteeing freedom to the Palenque de San Basilio. The music of the Palenque is distinctly African; in fact, they employ drum patterns that we no longer hear on the continent. Their language, Palenquero, is influenced by the Bantu Kikongo languages of Kongo and Angola, as well as Portuguese and Spanish. African communities with a Maroon history are to be found dotted all over the Caribbean Basin. Some of these thriving communities possess living archives of African music genres that are often no longer found on the African continent. Another location in the diaspora where Africanisms abound is on the island of Cuba, where an entire Afro-sonic lexicon can be unravelled.
In this post, I would like to investigate the migration of the rumba by focusing on one of its preeminent pioneers: the illustrious and most highly respected, groundbreaking Congolese musician, François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi (1938-1989). Franco was born in the village of Sona Bata in Bas-Zaire, and was raised in Léopoldville – now known as Kinshasa. Franco cut his music chops as a young child playing Kebo party music on a homemade guitar at his mother’s stall at Wenze Ya Bayaka market – named after the Bayaka people – in Ngiri-Ngiri, in order to attract customers. He was seven years old when he had made his own guitar, and by age twelve he made his professional debut in a band called Watam (The Delinquents), whose bandleader was guitarist Paul Ebengo “Dewayon” – Franco’s early mentor. At age fifteen he signed a 10-year recording contract, waiting another seven years to become the bandleader, and eventually formed OK Jazz, later renamed T.P.O.K. Jazz – which stood for Tout puissant orchestre Kinois (The most powerful orchestra in Kinshasa). The ‘Jazz’ in the band’s name is an anomaly, as Franco’s music has no hints of the African-American jazz genres that most of us are familiar with. Yep, there’re no traces of Trane, Monk, Miles or Wes (Montgomery) in his music style – which is a Congolese rumba of the Odemba style, often comprised of three percolating guitars, a six-piece vocal section, a seven-piece horn section, bass guitar, a drummer and a conga player. All was led by Franco on guitar and part-time lead vocals. Although, like jazz, some of the compositions have a duration of over fifteen minutes, Franco’s music is mainly comprised of the verse chorus and seben format. The seben is an instrumental section in which the rhythm section stops playing, giving an open space for spiralling syncopated guitar riffs – which always put me in mind of Sanza (Kalimba) patterns. The seben is very much akin to the break in funk music. In the T.P.O.K. videos, Franco often wears a very stoic expression on his face; it is very apparent exactly who the boss is. I would go as far as to say, like James Brown, he might have fined his musicians if they played a wrong note or arrived late for rehearsals. Franco’s prolific output amounted to T.P.O.K releasing two songs a week over his nearly 40-year career, which ultimately comprised a catalogue of some 1000 songs.
Like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Franco owned his own nightclub, named Un Deux Trois, which – like Fela’s club, named The Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria – became the epicenter of music in Kinshasa. Franco redefined African dance music with his unique style of rumba, Soukous, and transported it all over the African continent. Kenya deserves a special mention as a country that wholeheartedly embraced Franco’s music. Zairian musicians often toured there and some even emigrated there. Orchestra Super Mazembe was a Kenyan band whose members all hailed from Zaire. Their song, Shauri Yako, was an international hit. In the 70s and 80s, all of the Kenya clubs swayed to the sounds of the Congolese rumba and Soukous music. Some of the T.P.O.K. musicians moved to Nairobi, creating their own bands and attaining individual success. When I lived in Mombasa, I experienced Franco’s music at both the Sunshine Club and the Florida Club, where I sometimes played with the house band.
Franco’s relationship with president Mobutu Sese Soku is laced with controversy, as he dually courted and criticised the government. For Mobutu, Franco was a shining example of Authenticité, also known as Zairianisation, the official state ideology to promote African values and institutions. Franco sang his songs in Lingala1, a hybrid language; his music had a distinct Congolese-African folkloric sensibility, especially in the vocal melodies and in the syncopated guitar lines. He also wore non-western attire, even though he did not adopt the Abacost, which was a Chairman-Mao-style tunic that Mobutu urged all Zairian men to adopt – inspired after a 1972 visit to Beijing. Zairians were also urged to drop their colonial Christian names in favour of African names. An overall mental de-colonization was prescribed in the total exorcism of King Leopold’s ghost and Belgian colonialism. Franco was also the master of allegorical lyrics; his use of Mbwakela – the art of criticising without being easily understood – was a mainstay in his oeuvre. In 1966, he released Luvumbu Ndoki, a threnody for the victims of Mobutu’s public executions, which had been carried out in that same year. This was a clear rebuke against the ruling regime and, resultantly, throughout his career, certain songs of his were censored.
Within the folds of his many-layered, shape-shifting persona was his conversion to Islam. In the throes of the illness that led to his death, he reverted back to Catholicism. In tandem with these shifts, he went through various name changes over the course of his lifetime, moving from his Christian name, indigenised as L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi, and, in accordance with his conversion to Islam, adopting the name Aboubakar Sidiki. In addition, he was referred to by many nicknames; among them, the Sorcerer of the Guitar, as well as Le Fou (the Crazy Kid), Franco de Mi Amor (Franco My Love), Officer of the National Order of the Leopard, Grand Maître of Zairean Music, the Balzac of African Music, Grand Maître, and Yorgho (Godfather).
Which brings us full circle to the origins of the rumba and the oft-touted proclamation by certain writers and critics that Congolese music is Latin based. In fact, before the 1940s, Afro-Cuban, or rather (shall we rephrase that) Congolese music, found its way back to the Congo after a long hiatus due to the Black Atlantic slave trade; the interlocutor being the shellac/vinyl phonograph record transported by African sailors returning home via Matadi – the main port during the Belgian Congo colonial rule.
“The mid-1950s really saw the birth of Congolese music as a vital entity. African music had been introduced on to Radio Congolia (later Radio Congo Belge) as late as 1942-43, and after World War Two it was also played on Radio Brazzaville, a powerful, 30Kw station, set up as a long-range propaganda medium by the French government-in-exile which had its base there during the war. The dance music proved popular not only with Africans but also with European listeners. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that the Belgian colonists not only tolerated, but actually enjoyed African music to an extent which never occurred in other colonies. This was no doubt due to the undeniable charm and sensitivity of the music, as much as any quirk of European culture. African musicians would be invited into the white neighbourhoods to play at European dances; many years later, when reminiscing on the early days, Franco reprised the popular Victorian waltz, After the Ball, as an example of the kind of melodies they had been expected to play for the whites.” (Congo Colossus: Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz, Graeme Ewens, 1994:57)
I am arguing, in fact, that Franco was a chief proponent in reintroducing, reinventing and commercializing the rumba. In a personal interview given a few years before his death, Franco responded to the question of the Latin influence in Congolese music as follows:
“Some people think they hear a Latin sound in our music… It only comes from the instrumentation, trumpets and so on. Maybe they are thinking of the horns. But the horns only play the vocal parts in our natural singing style. The melody follows the tonality of Lingala, the guitar parts are African and so is the rumba rhythm. Where is the Latin? Zairian music does not copy Cuban music. Some Cubans say it does, but we say their music follows ours. You know, our people went from Congo to Cuba long before we ever heard their music.” (from Congo Colossus: Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz, Graeme Ewens, 1994:74)
Here, Franco is clearly defending the Congolese roots of rumba. I argue that, in order to trace African aural histories, we are absolutely obliged to look at the Afro-sonic signifiers that accompanied the black bodies in the forced migrations of the Black Atlantic slave trade. In this particular case, it was the Congolese slaves transported by the Spanish that introduced the rumba in Cuba. The same applies to the Mambo, Cha-cha-chá and Salsa. The reintroduction and the various amalgamations forced or otherwise via musical instrumentation and socio-political constructs throughout the centuries continue to play an extremely important role in the perception and cultural positioning of music in African and African diaspora communities. The roots of most Afro-Cuban musical styles were formed in the Cabildos – self-organized social clubs for the African slaves. The Cabildos were formed from separate ethnic groups, i.e., the Yoruba from Nigeria; the Calabar from Cameroon; the Fon from Dahomey, Benin; Senegambians; and a percentage brought from the Sudan by Arab Slavers, known as Kikiribu Mandingas. The Congolese were most probably the largest community; they remain a major influence on the formulation of Cuban music.
“The topic of Afro-Cuban music is particularly revealing because it represents a form of cultural practice that is expressly African and yet profoundly cosmopolitan. Afro-Cuban music was so attractive to Congolese musicians and audiences not only because of the way that it sounded, but also because of what it stood for. It provided urban Congolese with an alternative to a particular form of cosmopolitanism – Belgian colonialism – that was strict and stiff, if not cruel and in many ways anti-cosmopolitan.” (Congolese Rumba and Other Cosmopolitanisms, Bob W. White)
Franco was one of the first African musicians to highlight the AIDS epidemic when it stormed the continent. His song “Attention na SIDA” was a 15-minute call for caution in sexual relationships and a plea for government intervention. Franco fell ill and died shortly thereafter, in 1989, at the relatively young age of 51 in a Belgian hospital. Back home, his death was met with national sorrow. His body was flown to Zaire, and President Mobutu ordered four days of state mourning. Hundreds of thousands of people thronged the streets. He, like Fela, was a continent-wide influential personality and also, like Fela, is rumoured to have apparently died of an AIDS-related disease. RIP Franco.
1 “Lingala, Ngala is a Bantu language that belongs to the Niger-Congo language family. It is spoken in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Republic of the Congo. here are also Lingala speakers in Angola and in the Central African Republic. It is thought that Lingala originated from Bobangi (Bangi), a language that has historically functioned as a trade language along the Congo River. With Belgian colonization of the area in the latter part of the 19th century, Bobangi spread into other areas. The colonial administration needed a common language for missionary and administrative purposes, and Bobangi fit their purpose. This common language was called Bangala, as distinct from Bobangi. Catholic missionaries attempted to standardize the language and expand its vocabulary. In the process, the language was renamed Lingala, a term that first appeared in 1903.” (Lingala, Irene Thompson)
On Black Bodies of Resonance, Part 2: Music as a Socio-Political Weapon. A focus on Fela Anikalapo Kuti.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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 phonogram 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.