Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Africa, New York

Ladji Camara was one of a few prominent West African musicians in the US in the 60s and 70s, a group which also included the griot and kora player Foday Musa Suso, and drummer Babatunde Olatunji. His name is less familiar than those others, I think, because his practice of music wasn't primarily performative. His bent seems to have been more towards pedagogy, the teaching of music as a practice embedded deeply and in particular traditional ways with life and culture. As a performer, his mastery allowed him to associate with many famous musicians in the Sixties and Seventies, but he didn't often record and tour on his own, because he was too busy teaching Americans how to play music from West Africa and how to integrate African culture with their modern lives.

This album, Africa, New York, bears the description "Drum Masterpieces", and it is heavy on the drums, but the pieces are anchored by melodic vocal passages and foule, a bamboo flute. It jams out. It's a recording of a 1975 live radio set, and the performers, except for Ladji himself, are all Americans. The notes on the cover about the pieces (as told by Camara to the producer, Verna Gillis) emphasize their function in ritual and tradition, highlighting that this music has function beyond, or perhaps opposed to, its situation on a record or in a concert.

One piece, "Saa", is "a social dance for two close girlfriends who seem to be like twins because of their closeness. The dance they do resembles the movements of a snake." Ok, that's just beautiful, right? In America, do we have something like that, where we can express physical and spiritual closeness to each other, that isn't all creepy and sexualized? Pinky-swears, maybe? Um not so much. It's cool how ritual can acknowledge and express complex, difficult aspects of human existence.

Another piece, "Nofoule", "is a protest song of slavery during the period of French colonialism in Guinee. After independence of Guinee this song became a folk song and is now performed in the cities by the young people." Hey wow. The function of music as communication and commentary enables resistance to power and injustice. Its acceptance as ritual empowers it.

Ritual. The word has a whiff of the exotic about it, no? Take "ritual" and add "Africa" and all of a sudden you're in some 1950s filmstrip, gawking at "natives". The word, in our cultural milieu, seems to invite a "looking at" or an "observation" rather than a shared experience. Something other people do for painfully unenlightened reasons. Take away "Africa" and there's still a bit of the primitive in there, the "rituals" of the church, physical actions whose physical effect is literally useless, actions which exist and are repeated solely to symbolize something outside the world. Something we're not supposed to believe in. Something that's not important. Something that will not advance us in the institutions of the day. Then there's the "daily rituals" we engage in, the stop at the coffee shop on the way to work, the half hour of TV and the wine. Closer to home, with reasons understood, the necessity becomes apparent. But when it's us doing the useless shit, the application of the word feels kind of ironic, humorous, no? A concession to our primitive nature.

This is what I think: rituals exist to check progress.

Some years ago, I went to see the Gyuto Monks perform at Symphony Hall in Chicago. You know, the throat-singing guys. They did their thing. No other way to put it. No other thing like it. If there is another world, these guys are partly in it, and if you are in this world where they are, you can maybe feel some of that too. It wasn't really like going to a show, though. They weren't "performing" "music". They were actually just doing an excerpt of their daily rituals. They are monks. They live, they breathe, they eat, and presumably, they have no value for progress. As someone who lives in a world where progress is everything, and who has noticed that the chief product of progress is anxiety, I confess that I see the appeal of the lifestyle. Wake up, work, eat, chant, sleep. Ignore pain and discomfort. Render it irrelevant. Chant. Work. Chant. Work. Sleep.

But why were those guys chanting on a stage in Chicago? If the lifestyle is so self-sufficient, I mean. Probably, they needed money for one reason or another. Maybe politics were involved. Progress. For whatever reason, they took their life and made of it a performance by chanting an excerpt of their chants.

So Ladji Camara. Djembe master, born in Guinea. Capsule bios here and here. From the liner notes by Verna Gillis: "Ladji has become an important cultural resource for New York City. His lack of commercialism made him readily available to the black community seeking closer ties with traditional African culture." Ladji's mission was to offer a living culture to a part of the world (America) wounded by genocide, slavery, and the erasure of history and identity. Progress. Check.

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