Sunday, June 10, 2007

Remembering the Ancestors

I'd gotten in late the evening before, but I got up, threw on some clothes and after packing some books to share with those gathered headed over to Lake Merritt Saturday, June 9, 2007, for the libation for our African ancestors who died during the European slave trade.

The day was unbelievably warm and as the morning progressed grew even hotter. I found a great parking space on Bellevue Avenue and walked up to the pier to see if anyone had come. As I was driving I called people on the cell phone to wake them up and remind them to pour libations at 9 a.m. When we spoke later, all said they had. I wish I'd had more time to call others but I stopped at 8:55 a.m.

The boathouse pier was busy. Lots of people were taking vessels out. I hiked up the trail a bit for solitude and took my bottle out and began calling names once my cell phone alarm went off indicating it was time to begin. As I looked over the body of water I thought about my African ancestors whose legacy I was indebted to. I called the familiar names and then began to call others, like my family and friends who'd crossed over.

A friend of mine in Vallejo who'd been at the ceremony last year called me back to ask if we were pouring exclusively for those ancestors who died in the triangle of death or for everyone--historic figures and family and friends. I told her we were remembering everyone.

My bottle still full, I was amazed at how fast I was finished. I stood there and read from Funk Lore by Amiri Baraka, then from Black Pearls of Love by Eric Copage. Black Pearls had great stories and sayings about how to attract loving relationships; it also had some great African folktales. I then opened the book on Harriett Tubman, a recent book (2004) which Marcus Shelby used to as a resource to write his opera on her life. My last book looked at kinship groups during enslavement, the chapter I flipped to was called, "But he was my cousin," or something like that. Oh, I also read from Chinosole's book about famous African Diaspora autobiographies and read the chapter that compared Assata Shakur (Assata) to Harriett Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)as I walked back to the pier and sat down.

I walked into a tree branch. Luckily I'm short and it just scraped my forehead.
Considering how quickly I'd grabbed these materials, it was amazing how apropos they were.

I'd called Brother Alaman earlier because I knew he was coming to tell him I wasn't arriving early, but just before 9. I called him back to tell him I'd moved up the hill. After I poured and read a bit, as I said I went back to the spot we'd agreed on because I didn't want to miss anyone who'd come late.

A father with two children arrived on the pier, and others walked by me. A man without fingers asked me to secure his padlock. And then I read some more. I left Harriet Tubman for last. Then Ebun called and said she was in the parking lot of the boathouse and where was I. I got up and walked over so she could see me. Sister Linda was with her. Both were dressed ceremonially in all white, as were Linda's three children, two boys and a girl.

Linda had her djembe, but for some reason she left it on shore when we went onto the pier which we imagined was the slave ship. As the deck moved beneath our feet --swaying gently on the water, the idea was an easy thing to do.

It's funny how I'd never really looked at the pier before. I'd chosen it because Sister Makinyah has a celebration for her parents on her birthday in July yearly here and I thought most people would know the site.

But there was a wooden door that looked like it could be the "Door of No Return." Padlocked and made of heavy wood, it wasn't far from a chain attached to a board--sort of like a noose, which put one in mind of an auction block.

It was erry.

There are no accidents and the ancestors whose will I was following don't make mistakes. So there we were the sisters, children and I...spirally back in time. Ebun's cries whispered, while Linda was more audible, the older children anxiously waiting their turn to pour.

As I was pouring and talking about my experiences earlier and who I'd forgotten like the children who died by handgun violence and the blade, here and elsewhere--the Black Holocaust we are contributing to daily throughout the world, Brother Alaman rolls up. It was perfect. Our elder, he blessed the occasion.

He said he hadn't had time to bring along guidelines for pouring libations, but when doing so, he said we don't want to call those whose disturbance would be troublesome.

After we finished, we took photos of each other. I wanted a photo near the Door of No Return. I tried not to smile since this was serious and not a happy occasion, but then again it was: we were here together. We'd survived and that in itself was a blessing.

Ebun announced she was about to go to Ghana for the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade, then onto Nigeria. Sister Linda was a world traveler before becoming a mother, so I listened in awe. Ebun and I had both gotten an email from Carol Yates about her wonderful time in Egypt and Nubia with Brother Manu. I hope they were pouring libations with us there as well which would have been about 5 p.m. the night before.

I thought about Osei Terry and the brothers and sisters in Charleston, South Carolina, Augusta, Georgia, Long Island, New York, Panama, West Indies, Cape Coast, Ghana, Richmond, Vallejo, Oakland, and San Francisco, California, pouring libations at the same time, the names in certain instances--depending on the historic linkages, the same--others different, and felt great when the sisters had gotten into their cars and took off and Brother Alaman and I parted ways to begin our day.

Photos by Wanda Sabir

Slaves who died at sea being honored By BRUCE SMITH, Associated Press Writer
Sat Jun 9, 6:06 AM ET

Eighteen years ago, Tony Akeem organized a ceremony in New York City to honor the millions of Africans who died crossing the Atlantic during the slave trade. Similar observances have since spread around the world.

On Saturday, offerings of water, honey and rum were to be poured along the shores of South Carolina and elsewhere for Middle Passage Remembrance Day. The remembrance is held the second Saturday in June.

"We must, we must, honor our ancestors," said Tony Akeem, who has been organizing an observance at Coney Island, N.Y., ever since a 1989 conference on the slave's brutal trip was held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he works as a photographer.

The observances have spread from Philadelphia to San Francisco and from Brazil to Ghana. Most were started by people who have attended the New York event, Akeem said.

Saturday marked the 10th year South Carolina was participating in the remembrance. As many as 100 people were expected at a Fort Moultrie dock on Sullivans Island near Charleston.

The first slaves arrived in Charleston in 1670, the same year the Carolina colony was created. Historians estimate nearly 40 percent of the millions of slaves brought to what became the United States passed through Charleston. Many others died at sea.

"The stories run pretty strong that there were people who realized they were enslaved and would rather drown than be enslaved and when allowed up on the decks, would just jump into the water," said Fran Norton of the Fort Sumter National Monument, which includes Fort Moultrie. "It commemorates those people who gave up their lives for freedom."

Just how many perished in the slave trade will never be known.

"We know that many died of disease because they were packed in the ships like sardines," said Osei Terry Chandler, a project director at a Charleston education facility who is helping organize the South Carolina memorial.

Participants at the ceremonies in New York and South Carolina planned to drizzle water, rum and honey into the waves Saturday. Some were to toss flowers into the coastal waters. Some were to beat drums.

"Pouring libations is simply to venerate your ancestors," said Bill Jones, who helps organize the Coney Island ceremony. "It gives the ancestors a cool drink of water, or a little bit of gin or a little bit of rum, whatever you pour the libation with.

"In African spirituality we believe we are in constant contact with our ancestors. They are not someplace in heaven, they are right here with us."

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited

Tuesday evening, Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited were in top form. When I arrived at 9:30 Ashkanez was full of fans and folks out for a good time. Mapfumo didn’t translate anything, so it wasn’t until the two sets were over at 12:30 a.m. that I found out that that great music was an indictment against the president of his country. Sung in Shona, I didn’t understand a word, and though Mapfumo speaks English, he didn’t use the gig as an opportunity to educate his audience about his southern Africa nation.

Lancelot Mapfumo, Thomas’ brother was playing the heck out of his congo drums. Song after song, he and the Zimbabwean and American musicians –bass and second guitar, kick drummer, had their leader’s back as Lancelot’s rifts on the keyboards or Gilbert’s solos on lead guitar and vocals enhanced the already high energy performance. Two other musicians – one African, the other American, played mbira, Zimbabwean’s national instrument. Housed in gourds the two men were integral to the solid instrumental ground Mapfumo crouched into each time he sang. Lancelot would give folks the clave rhythm to clap so the percussion interplay between band and audience was palatable—I felt like I do at flamenco performances where the music is driven by this interchange, only in those setting the band claps not the audience. This time it was the reverse.

Mapfumo was fired up and one could see by the enthusiasm, he was getting as much from the audience as they were getting from him. It was hot and when Mapfumo introduced his last song—there was no way his fans were going to let him get away with that. It was like: "One more."

This must have been the plan because the men hadn’t moved.

Between the two sets the deejay was spinning a selection of house rap and world music that didn’t necessarily grab one’s attention except for a Antibalas single which caught my ear and the Bob Marley standards he had on while the band was packing their gear as they got ready to leave.

I felt really special as Mapfumo smiled at me several times during the performance when I moved into the light and danced in front of the stage –yes, I think he was really looking at me. I’d spoken to him earlier and given him a copy of the interview I’d published in the San Francisco Bay View and on my website (May 30).

I found myself twirled around by these really cool African men, a first for me. One brother in his sober moments asked me if I was from Africa and when he found out that I hadn’t been personally, told me he does tours. It was really high energy. This same man was snapping photos all night of his idol. "I am a Mapfumo expert." He claimed. "I have everything he has put out since 1996." He stated confidently when I asked him if he was taking photos for the band or for himself. I was surprised that there weren’t more Zimbabwean brothers and sisters in the audience. Kelly of KTO was there. Congratulations are in order. She was married a few weeks ago! Usually I’s see a lot more Southern Africans integrating the largely white Ashkenaz audience. This audience was more typical—lots of single black women dancing alone or with each other and brothers, the few, dancing with white women. I was there with my friends Marty and Tiyesha, and then I saw another friend Ashoke when they left and we both played dance-dodge with the same very inebriated brother as he stepped on my foot and bumped into me, in his attempt to stay in front of the stage.

"We’re usually not invisible to each other," my friend stated as I side-stepped this man as he danced near-by. I ignored him as my foot stopped throbbing and I put my back to him, a less vulnerable part of my anatomy to hit if he decided to move unwisely.

I finally felt like my semester was over. I was so tempted to go to Davis the next evening to see the brothers again, but the dynamic would be different, maybe different good, I don’t know. Mapfumo played Santa Cruz the evening before. As the band was leaving I met Mapfumo’s son, nice brother also. I was happy to see he was black.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Appropriation of Jazz Music

There has been a lot of discussion about the theft of black music, especially that genre called jazz. But the current face of this music: its promoters and practitioners as non-African is nothing new. When the music became popular and more importantly a money maker, all of a sudden was adopted by the hecklers as their music. It happened to blues and it's child with the "r" in it's name (Rhythm...), so why not "jazz," a label most "jazz" artists don't acknowledge, the term a derogatory one. But who looks at the etymology of words or the events they spawn anymore? For the most part, instead of preserving our heritage, African people react.

So onto the current controversy: the San Francisco Bay Area's decline in work for the people who made jazz music possible, black artists. There have been several great discussions hosted by radio host Doug Edwards, on his Saturday evening show: Ear Tyme on KPFA 94.1 FM ( last month. There was also an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle on page 1 (visit, and there is a meeting Sunday at the Oakland Conservatory of Music, Angela Wellman's place on Franklin and 16th Street in downtown Oakland at 3 p.m., for Black Musicians and those concerned about the preservation of the culture to meet and discuss next directions.

It's always good to meet black people who are doing positive things, but why in response to Yoshi's Jazz Club issuing their first compilation on Concord without noticing that there are no black musicians on the roster except Pancho Sanchez, who doesn't identify as African although he is certainly a brother? This is disheartening.

At the meeting last month, many in the room hadn't known the Oakland Conservatory existed, though most of them obviously knew each other, many in the audience famous folks. It felt like the gathering one has after a funeral where people say, "We should really try to get together at times other than these to catch up."

We really should.

I spoke to a brother yesterday who wanted to develop an infrastructure to respond to the Chronicle piece. Why do we need to respond other than tell the writer and the paper: well done. The writer accurately identified the problem, interviewed many of the key people involved in addressing the issue, read the email conversations and listened to Doug Edwards' last show.
Its great documentation. We can clip the article and move on.

What we need to do is support institutions like the Oakland Conservatory, SF Noir a presenting organization, Sankofa Cultural Institute, and develop other vehicles to produce, market and create opportunities for black cultural exchange and preservation.

Black people who never go to Yoshi's were upset by the release of the Concord CD; black people who never go to a jazz festival, whether it's free or paid, were upset. After the meeting at the Oakland Conservatory, where there was a recital, not many artists stayed behind to hear the children perform.

Some of the kids were black.

Linda Tillery spoke about why she started the Cultural Heritage Choir. She said it was to document our music, our treasures and to pass it on to the next generation. Well the same has to be done with jazz. If there are not opportunities for black people, especially children to learn about their culture and legacy then popular culture will shape their development and we know what that means: miseducation.

Last Thursday, Marcel Diallo hosted a free concert and community discussion at his Black New World on 8th and Pine in Oakland. This event which featured from New Orleans, the ReBirth Jazz Band, just off the plane from Paris, David Murray and Taj Mahal, Berkeley resident, was exactly what needs to happen more in black community.

Sometimes people think you have to travel out of the country for a cultural exchange program. You can cash in your frequent flier miles right here at home. We need to facilitate cultural exchange between African people here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our people are acting up here in the Bay because they don't know where they come from. Some of the more enlightened youth talk about "back in the day." They need to know that it's not that far back and that black people are still doing great things right in their own neighborhoods. These social entrepreneurs just don't get the props or accolades or notice they deserve so they remain unknown.

But many of us know these people and its time we start working to reconnect the disconnected--plug into what's out there which is working and create avenues where they don't exist.

Note: Today, Saturday, June 2, on the front page of the Chronicle is the headline: Yoshi's Shamed, Pulls CD, or something like that. The word, "shamed" is the operative word, but really it was public pressure and good economic sense that went into this changed attitude because in another article the tone or view of Yoshi's was--it's a done deal folks, there is nothing we can do about it. Certainly the Chronicle is to be applauded for keeping the issue in the forefront. I think the club felt the ripples of the earthquake in their purses and decided the ire of African Americans in the San Francisco Bay was not worth defending a product former record producer and jazz historian, Orrin Keepnews said wasn't even that good in the first place.