Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

I think the first time I saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on television during the whirlwind Graceland tour. It was on a KQED special and all the groups who were a part of this historic celebration of South African music were interviewed, plus viewers were privy to behind the scenes coverage. I don't remember anything about Paul Simon, but I knew he was the one who once again "discovered" something. The difference between him and Columbus was at least he got out the way once the initial minutes of fame passed. Ladysmith Black Mambazo have now become a household name internationally, especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area where after so long touring the university beat, they have now crossed over into the realm of jazz.

Tonight at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, the all male ensemble literally strutted their stuff, legs flying, arms in the air...balancing multiple tasks as they never missed a note. It was just as amazing to watch as it was when I saw them the first time many years ago in San Rafael or just last year in Berkeley.

With a Grammy nominated album, Long Walk To Freedom, a collection celebrating their 40-plus years as a group, and 20 years touring they have much to reflect on, so for this special project they looked at their extensive repertoire and thought about their fans and what songs are in the top ten--songs they have to sing no matter what the program or many fans leave very unhappy. TAfter making a list the men brainstormed a list of artists whose music they enjoyed who they wanted to invite to the party.

All the artists responded well, and those who couldn't make it to Johannesburg for a studio recording -- and that was most of them, responded to the electronic audio file with a recording of their own, which was mixed in Mambazo studios -- the result an album that is the score to heaven, the range of work here and the artists who join the ensemble is outstanding.

I need not have worried that I'd miss the guest artists. The smaller, more intimate venue allowed the audience to establish a closer relationship with the men. And they were wonderful, each taking turns introducing the songs some from the latest recording other not. The themes ranged from fun love songs to songs acknowledging how far their country has come in 12 years.

One of my favorite songs from the album is a medley: Amazing Grace with Nearer My God to Thee. For the encore, the men opened the piece with Nkosi Sikelel 'IAfrica. All of them standing at the mics in a semi-circle, even the leader of the group was standing with the men instead of out front. Joseph Shabalala's voice hovering slightly above the others.

When I spoke to one of the members, Albert Mazibuko, he told me that though the men will continue to tour, they might be slowing down a touch when the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Hub is completed. This school will be a place where music students and others interested in the indigenous music of South Africa will have an opportunity to study with scholars and teachers, many of whom are getting older now.

The performance was playful, yet serious, the road to freedom frought with much sorrow and hardship. The men are smiling but South Africa has a long way to go yet to be a place where everyone is truly free.

I'll have to ask my friend Albert when I see him again how he can stay up when so many of his countrymen are in need of help and support.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Count Down to 2007

“The King is Dead. It’s the end of the world,” comedian Paul Mooney kept saying Friday night at Black Rep. “The King is dead!” Never mind that the comedienne’s dad had just died, and calls from family kept interrupting his show:

Yes, do this that or the other…..
Um hum.
I’m on stage doing a show.
Call me back later, okay?
No one ever calls me when I’m off stage, then the minute I’m in the middle of a joke…
Where was I?

An audience member supplies the line
Oh yeah…blah blah blah
It has to be the end of the world, how else would….

Mooney traversed world history the way news anchors and television talk show hosts wished they were savvy enough to find the thread linking historic precedent with its current staging. The show under new management, for its new season. Remember Ayi Kwei Armah’s 2000 Seasons (1973)? This nation is barely into its syndicated reruns…a replay of the civil war just opening up for cable subscribers…Tybol they call the newer technology…watch it in real-time or pause it and pick it up later...when you have more time to watch.

“I didn’t know I’d live long enough for spinach to kill…long enough for a 6 foot chicken, mad cows, weather cold/hot. We’re in the last days. Bush is the devil –666.”

Mooney then proceeded to show us how the president’s name each part numbered six: GEORGE (6 letters), WALTER (6 letters) BUSH plus JR. (letters) –666.

“I hate Bush and his brown girlfriend— Gas is high…there’s a reason why there hasn’t been as many drive-bys.”

He spoke about black Scientologists: Brandy, Forrest Whitaker…I thought only white folks were rich and bored. He spent time analyzing the candidacy of Ms. Hillary and Barrack Obama, grandmother’s wisdom: An old broom knows where the dirt is.

Mooney only slipped once; really twice …he said he was being fined. I don’t know who was collecting but considering his reputation, two slips was pretty darn phenomenal. It didn’t stop his flow either.

I wondered why with the King dead Bush Jr. wasn’t declaring a national day of mourning for him Tuesday, January 2, instead of Gerald Ford, known as the president who pardoned a crook and lost an inherited war. He was the only president at that point in American history who hadn’t been elected; he was appointed…the then speaker of the house. Funny how his cabinet found its way into Bush Jr. White House pantry.

It’s the end of the world…the King is Dead, Mooney proclaimed and certainly as we toasted the start of the new cycle…at East Side Arts Alliance, the Freedom Now Band gave the King a funky salute…with David Murray on sax…led by the drummer Ranzel Merritt who sang Brown back to life…the floor full of revelers dancing and singing. I guess it was the East Bay’s second line moment, a moment repeated throughout the country and the world as the impact of James Brown's demise was felt.

“Damn…baby, the King is gone. It has to be the end of the world.”

Mooney talked about the British family, the only monarchy honored here. Why America honors its former slave master…colonizer…it seems like we would want nothing to do with them, yet….

Gerald Ford’s demise following that of the King of Soul reminded me of Ray Charles' death so close to that of Ronald Reagan and governor Swartzenegger’s call for a day of mourning for another enemy of the people.

It would have been more fitting to mourn the death of Charles, just as much as it would do us well to honor the King of Soul…remember the lessons he sang so well as we look to immortalize his legacy with a stamp, a monument, and other public markers.

He is the man who had black folks singing about pride and respect, honoring their women and remembering the values which made us a strong people—black men and women side-by-side…it might be “a man’s world, but he is nothing without (his woman).”

As I was standing next to my dance partner about 1:30 a.m., he’d stopped to witness Murray play one of his many solos on tenor saxophone, (alternating with the bass clarinet) that evening, this one special for his friend Don Pullen. Murray recorded Long Goodbye: A Tribute to Don Pullen (1998).

“You’ll never see this again in this life.” He said. “This is history,” then proceeded to tell me about another moment he’d heard about in Houston when Dizzy Gillespie was playing a gig.

On stage with his son…20 year old Mingus Murray on electric guitar, Howard Wiley on tenor also, Geechie Taylor on trumpet, drummer Ranzel Merritt, Muziki Robeson on piano, Dennis Smith on electric bass…plus a wonderful vocalist Courtney Knotts, another young drummer ten year old Denzel Merritt and his older brother, saxophonist, Ranzel Jr., plus Korean drummer Dohee Lee. Many of the pieces were interpreted by choreographer and dancer Tracie Bartlow…it felt like home.

Bobby Seale was signing books and reflecting on his life as a civil rights activist, Black Panther Chairman…his wife and daughter seated next to him as he signed books and DVDs….He said what he was most proud of in his forty year career as an activist was his work with youth…creating jobs, something he is going to be expanding in the near future with EastSide.

Mildred Howard, Woody Johnson, Raymond Saunders…Derethia DuVal, Hadiah McLeod…Shukuru Sanders, Mujah Shakir were in the house, as were Aldon Kimbrough and his sister were up from LA…a new show of theirs just opened at the African American Cultural Complex gallery…a series of Jazz posters. The list of Bay Area literati and special guests was long and well the East Side party was where it was at -–folks just as comfortable on the floor listening to the Freedom Now Band, as they were hanging out in the back of the Center talking and eating Bobby Seale’s birthday cake.

I missed the countdown.

I was talking to playwright Robert Alexander about his latest project, a screen play on Billy Strayhorn. His son Robert Jr. is a new counselor at the College of Alameda where I work—small world.

Opening the evening was Tacuma King’s dancers and drummers. I was in the back sampling the wares of Oshun Kitchen with Brother Tahuti who was back after a year in Alabama, as in Mobile. Midway through the evening Marcel Diallo recited a poem with the band. Then everyone took a break before the countdown. Deejay music filled in the space created when the first set ended, and the second one started…Hardknock’s Wayland and artist Favianna were hooking people up at the refreshment table…vegan food for a nominal price. Everything was “bring your family out and celebrate with us.”

Greg and Elena’s vision had been finally realized…EastSide a space where the political meets the cultural.

International Comedy at La Peña
Saturday night I’d gone to the international comedy show at La Peña, hosted by Sia Amma. It was irreverent and fun and extremely heady stuff, especially in the end when artists brought out notes and music stands and checked their notes to make sure…I guess that they’d covered all their bases. Sia even invited a guest from the audience—a young Sounth Asian women who’d just completed law school. The last comic was also an attorney. I was amazed at the variety of kinds of humor employed by the artists, most men.

All the comics were hyphenated Americans, whether that was Asian raised around blacks and Latinos, an Iranian guy who didn’t look it, a nerdy bi-racial Asian guy who told jokes about chess most of the audience could follow, or a Lebanese Catholic woman who was so heady she kept complementing the audiences’ intelligence.

Sia Amma lost her mom in August and is still trying to survive after such an integral person to her life is gone. 2006 was hard for a lot of folks. I can count on multiple fingers the people I called to wish a Happy New Year who’d just lost a parent just days before. One friend was just returning from a funeral when I called him Monday.

I found out two days later, he’d lost a close friend that same day, Brother John Bowman, one of the Panther brothers from San Francisco, who'd relocated to Oklahoma. He’d been indicted by the San Francisco Grand jury (topic of the new film by Freedom Archives premiering 1/28. Check Freedom Archives for details).

Monday found me back at the movies. I rented four: The DaVinci Code, the Architect, Idlewild, and Last Dance. I don’t recommend any of them. The DaVinci Code was too bloody. I couldn’t get beyond the opening scenes. The book is much better; it leaves the self-mutilation to the imagination. Idlewild was just stupid: the plot went nowhere; the choreography was nice, but I don’t enjoy watching black people shoot and murder other black people. Last Dance was about a brother going somewhere—he was accepted into Georgetown University, with a white girl and leaving the sisters behind. Messed up premise. He even taught the girl how to dance and helped her get into Julliard. Do not spend your money on Last Dance 2. They’ll probably get married. And The Architect, I didn’t care enough about the characters to care that the architect who designed these cheap housing projects’ which one resident had made into a personal mission to have torn down. The artchitect’s son was questioning his gender—yes he liked boys and his little sister was picking up truck drivers, while mom was having angst and acting crazy because she couldn’t find meaning in her life—while black boys were throwing themselves off these same buildings where the story sort of pivots and collides.

What a waste of time.

I think I finally felt like I was on vacation…one where you veg the day before you have to be back at work.

My mom’s birthday, daughters and granddaughters birthdays are how I keep my calendar: three are in January. I go back to work on Bilaliyah’s birthday, January 11.

The close of 2006 found me seeking solitude, not a lot of noise. I wanted to hear my thoughts. Listen to the rhythm of my own internal mechanisms. I wanted to finally set my pace by the beat of the muscle within…the center my life around certainty rather than chance moments where space to breathe is not always a guarantee.

2007 I want to not have to hold my breath. I want to breathe through the year gaining strength from the exercise if not pleasure from the encounter.

Gee’s Bend Quilts
Earlier on Saturday, Dec. 30 my brother and I went to see the Gee’s Bend Quilts at the deYoung Museum one more time. My brother asked an interesting question: What do you think these people will take away from the exhibition—how colorful the patterns, how beautiful the work, or how resourceful and creative these women were who literally created something from nothing, who found something useful in the scraps they were forced to live with?

Gee’s Bend more than anything else was a celebration of family. My brother loved the audio tour as much as the quilts because there the women were able to tell their story, one not necessarily evident from the finished product…despite the numerous plates. The women spoke of stitching quilts because their children were cold and they needed to keep them warm, of walking miles to vote when the county closed the ferry to Selma where the polling places were.

Not deterred, they walked.

Years later when Hancock country reopened the ferry line people were driving cars and needed better roads. No one took the ferry anymore. “It was a waste of taxpayer money.” The women explained at the talk they gave at the deYoung last October or November.

Necessity was and still is the mother of creativity. Fashion wasn’t what shaped the designs rather frugality when one woman used gabardine pants no one would wear and designed a quilt.

“Waste not want not,” was a practical motto.

I ran into many friends Saturday afternoon…Mary from the NCCAHL Trustees and Rashida, another friend whose short hair reflected the spiritual retreat she’d just returned from recently.

There was a companion exhibit at the deYoung of the African American Quilters organization that meets at the West Oakland Branch Library. It was really nice, their work more fine arts and decorative than craft or folk art. I couldn’t see their quilts on beds; they were more like paintings with thread and fabric rather than beautiful blankets.