Saturday, 4 February 2012

"Make the Suckers Back Back": An Amiri Baraka Music Compilation

01 // New York Art Quartet - Black Dada Nihilismus (3:39)
Album // New York Art Quartet (ESP 1004, 1964)

02 // Sunny Murray - Black Art (6:35)
Album // Sonny’s Time Now (Jihad 663, 1965)

The connection between modern poetry and music – specifically, jazz – was obviously not one that started with Amiri Baraka, but it was brought to a kind of fruition in his work that can be argued in some way to have sparked an entire generation and style of doing the poetry-and-music thing which has its legacies in – among other things – the hip-hop and slam poetry movements, and the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Kain, Wanda Robinson, The Watts Prophets, Sara Webster Fabio, Jayne Cortez, The Last Poets, et al. Whereas, in earlier collaborative efforts (witness Kenneth Patchen or Jack Keroauc's recordings with musical combos), poetry had tended to sit on top of a jazz background, easily rolling along on its atmosphere – the jazz restricted and smoothed down by having poems in front of it, the poetry similarly smoothed down and, perhaps, distracted from by the jazz combos – Baraka's aim was for a kind of synthesis in which the two – music and poetry – were placed in active dialogue. The energies that Keroauc tries to replicate in spontaneous pieces such as 'Old Angel Midnight' find themselves pushed back down, rather than dialogically or even dialectically invigorated, by accompanying music; and though a little-known poem such as Ray Bremser's 'Drive Suite', a sequence dedicated to Cecil Taylor, and purportedly written underneath the piano that Taylor was playing in a club, has a visual and textual energy intended to reflect the energy and multi-directionality of Taylor's music – suggesting exciting mutual influences, inter-disciplinary encounters and endeavours – it's not, it seems, until Baraka' first recordings with musical groups during the mid-60s, that those energies and potentialities are liberated into fused or excitingly tense and crashing encounter, poetry and music sharing performative space in far from token, genuinely exploratory fashion.

That said, Baraka's reading on the first track, 'Black Dada Nihilismus', is restrained and quiet, even hesitant – which suits the sombre mood perfectly, no doubt influencing the contributions of the New York Art Quartet as they play around and under him. It is not the rhythmically-thrusting, angrily energised thing it would become later on (a change also reflected in Baraka's solo reading style, without music – compare the available recordings from 1964, say, with the readings from the 1979 film 'Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds'), but a threat all the more sinister and urgent for being understated. 'Black Art', released as part of a Sunny Murray album put out on Baraka's own Jihad record label, ups the ante – Albert Ayler's staggeringly wide vibrato, Don Cherry's inquisitive, pithily constant melodic investigations and Sunny Murray's freed-up drums force the poet out of that place of quietly terrible contemplation into active exhortation, the gleeful, horribly gleeful vocal imitations of aircraft, machine guns, police sirens setting off a chain of similarly multifarious, emotionally complex responses from the horns. The words are, finally, as shocking as the music, the music as shocking as the words; there is a sense of something on the cusp, of a moment of potential transformation which is longed for and even revelled in, but also shocking and violent, involving intense personal, as well as more broadly social and political ruptures that are embraced almost against themselves.

03 // Jihad Singers - Beautiful Black Woman (3:19)
04 // Jihad Singers - Nineteen Sixty Something (4:29)
Album // Black & Beautiful, Soul & Madness (Jihad LP1001, 1968)

Put against these two recordings, the doo-wop songs recorded for an album credited to the 'Jihad Singers' (or ‘The Spirit House Movers’) might seem rather tame: certainly, they don't possess the same lyrical strength, tending to exhortation rather than complication, striving for a kind of declamatory urgency of utterance that sometimes falls flat in unintended bathos: "The white man / at best / is corny!" A piece like 'Beautiful Black Women' pushes a notion of idealised femininity in which women must be entirely beautiful (the fat, ugly and old have little place in Baraka's rhetoric of this period, except as occasional targets of ire and scorn) and exist entirely to support their men in what is essentially, a reinforcement of the heterosexual family model (with added polygamy – for men only, of course). Such idealisation combines with notions of racial purity that we might find equally problematic - and, lest we forget, round the corner from this, Baraka’s virulent misogyny of this period ("the world cant beat you/ and my slaps are love") and the anti-Jewish, anti-Irish, anti-Italian slurs (however based the latter are, in, say, economic conditions relating to store ownership (cf. James Baldwin's essay 'The American Negro is Anti-Semitic Because He Is Anti-White'), useful methods of ensuring there is no inter-racial co-operation between different groups of oppressed people). Nonetheless, the way in which all these problematic hatreds fuse with more progressive notions of throwing off oppression is, undeniably, incredibly uncomfortable and hard to untangle, and it certainly should not be apologised for. All that said (of course, 'Beautiful Black Woman' is hardly the most despicable example available), I've picked the piece because its combination of Baraka's spoken word with a version of Smokey Robinson's 'Oooh Baby, Baby' seems a potent example of the concept Baraka would go on to articulate in his 1967 essay 'The Changing Same', in which R & B, free jazz and the Black Arts movement are seen (I should say, heard) as part of a continuum of Black expression, the related urges of the sacred and the secular (made earlier explicit by Ray Charles' use of gospel stylings for secular lyrics, of course) generating and embodying, encouraging and being encouraged by a revolutionary potential, the constrained desire and physical oppression and repression that threatens to burst out into social upheaval. As Baraka points out in his liner notes to the album's reissue, the music might have "seemed a classic R&B du-wop send-up," though at the same time "we also had a clear vision of what we wanted to say regarding the Afro-American struggle for equal rights and self-determination[...]we thought of ourselves as cultural workers, revolutionary artists 'pushing the program' as some of our cultural nationalist comrades were wont to say." That element of parody would thus appear to be poised somewhere between the intentional and the non-/unintentional; certainly, the lo-fi sound quality and the somewhat rough-and-ready nature of the performances (particularly Russell Lyle's saxophone playing, which can be at times rather undirected) are nowhere near the level of actual R&B big-sellers like The Impression's 'Keep on Pushing' or Martha & the Vandella's 'Dancing in the Streets' – tracks with the potential to inspire socio-political ferment through the hidden codes or meanings which their ostensibly harmless lyrical and musical material secretly contained, or could be adapted towards.

05 // Wha's Gon Happen? (7:43)
06 // Who Will Survive America? (3:06)
07 // It's Nation Time / Pull the Covers Off (4:13)
Album // It’s Nation Time (Black Forum/Motown Records 457, 1972)

That ‘changing same’ impulse finds perhaps its finest expression in Baraka’s recorded output on his next release, the 1972 album ‘It’s Nation Time.’ This time the record label is Black Forum, a Motown subsidiary who also put out various Black Power related speeches, attempting to give that kind of ethos a slightly more mainstream availability, perhaps. Given this, the recording quality is higher, the band – or, I should say, bands – seem better rehearsed, and the whole forms a kind of two-part suite which plays very nicely as a record, rather than as a raggedy collection of separate numbers. The poetry is mostly from various pamphlets put out around this time, in which Baraka’s Black Nationalism is at its most assertive (though, paradoxically, this pushes them formally closer to Beat Poetry than to anything else – they’re certainly a far cry from the carefully tortured, almost Creeley-esque placements of the poems in ‘Preface to a 21 Volume Suicide Note’ and ‘The Dead Lecturer’); as their sentiments go, they’re fairly reprehensible (no “crackers” or “old people” will “survive America”), and faintly absurd – the fantasy, on ‘All in the Street’, of a kind of retro-futuristic African city seems almost to be posited as a genuine political programme (intriguing though it is to view it in relation to Afro-futurism, and, particularly, the work of Sun Ra, a close associate of Baraka’s for a time). That said, the combination of an R & B group, a ‘New Music’ group (playing not-quite-free jazz, but something approaching it, particularly in the vocalized and sensuously slippery stylings of Gary Bartz, who made several Black Power-tinged records of his own around this time which still hold up pretty well), a chorus of male and female voices, and a group of African drummers – these various groups sometimes uniting, sometimes playing on different songs – remains remarkably cohesive and satisfying, the occasional hesitancy in transition (which could easily have been edited off the finished records) only a momentary slip. If nothing else, the sheer urgency and street-toughness of ‘Pull the Covers Off’ still packs some punch today (“attack attack, make the sucker back back”), even if the sensation of listening to commands to “put some on your cracker / put some on your devil” is inevitably somewhat masochistic for all us 'honkies' out there listening...

08 // You Was Dancin' Need to Be Marchin' So You Can Dance Some More Later On (4:09)
09 // Better Red Let Others Be Dead (3:47)
Album // 45" record by The Advanced Workers with The Anti-Imperialist Singers (Peoples War JPU-1001 (1976))

The two tracks released as a 45" six year later on People's War make up the recorded legacy of a band – full title, ‘The Advanced Workers with the Anti-Imperialist Singers’ – which apparently gigged around Newark, fusing funk with Baraka’s declamatory, some might say strident, Marxist sloganeering. While the music is fine – certainly better-played and better-sung than the rather rough-and-ready doo-wop of the Jihad singers record (which is no surprise, given the participation of musicians from Parliament, Funkadelic and The Commodores) – one might argue that the blend between form and lyrical content misses precisely the subjective urgency – which is inextricably political – that Baraka had earlier identified in the blues. I should say that 'subjective' here does not imply merely, say, the solitary individual self-pity of the suicidal singer-songwriter strumming away in their room – the kind of mythology that Nick Drake's early death, say, might play into – but an often collective undercurrent of emotions provoked, constrained and released by social and political factors that are always entangled with questions of love, sex, death, and oppression. Once a more stable notion of community is organised out of fracture and individual alienation – the move made by Baraka some time in the mid-60s, as he entered his Black Nationalist phase, accompanying the decisive break from Greenwich Village – the attempt to speak to a 'we' becomes an over-riding concern which might seem unpleasantly hectoring. Indeed, there are real problems here; a sense that the pudding must be constantly over-egged, that the community must be exhorted, verbally forced, to actually exist, let alone to act. Somewhat schizophrenically, this can lead to Baraka both praising the inherent, natural goodness and beauty of the black man as already existent (see the photo captions in 'In Our Terribleness'), and invoking that goodness as un-realized potential which must be invoked and summoned up. The problems of putting such poetry into practice might be best illustrated by the footage from Jean Luc-Godard's abandoned 'One AM' (later refashioned by D.A. Pennebacker as 'One PM'), in which we see Godard and the crew travel down to Newark to witness a performance by Baraka and cohorts, in the street outside the Spirit House. Godard hangs around the fringes of things, looking as if he doesn't quite believe what he's seeing – the detached, amused outsider, a Gallic cigarette hanging from his mouth; while Baraka, for all his reputation as an artist who could actually in some way also function as a community leader, facilitator and negotiator with those in political power (the alliance with mayor Kenneth Gibson), hangs back, hesitantly striking a xylophone, leaving it to others in his group to move in and out of centre-stage (or road), blowing 'ethnic' flutes and improvising generic Islamic-tinged Black Arts lyrics. The social contradictions manifest here are almost too many to name: the simultaneous sense of gleeful performance for the white cameramen and women (perhaps Baraka's awareness of this contradiction is why he holds back) and barely-disguised suspicion and hostility towards them (after the performance, the 'musicians' troop back inside; there is no suggestion that Godard & co. will be invited back in with them); the emphasis on African roots finding its expression only in a kind of dabbling (it's clear they don't really know how to play the ethnic flutes) which is arguably as unconsciously racist as the appropriations practiced by the likes of Picasso earlier in the century; the fact that, for all the claims to creating communal art (which were, to a certain extent, true, it seems – read, for instance, the passages about the Watts Riots in Horace Tapscott's autobiography, ‘Song of the Unsung’), the street is deserted save for Baraka & co. and Godard & co., and the faces that we do see, peering out from behind windows are simultaneously amused and apologetic – an old woman and a child, both equally baffled by the whole occasion. Given all that, and given the harmful separatist notions which perhaps prevented the kind of coalition that could have caused genuine revolutionary change in the United States at a certain point in the mid to late 60s (the direction Malcolm X was heading in before his murder by, shall we posit, a combination of black separatism / religious extremism and something between government approval and active involvement), Baraka's embrace of Marxism, his entry into the left that he earlier seemed to flirt with in the fairly early essay 'Cuba Libre', would seem a step in the right direction. But his insistence on doctrinaire preaching, on pushing a form of Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-Tung thought of a sloganeering variety, would hardly seem the best way to enter into the third world liberation, women's rights, and class struggles that he does endorse; though perhaps it contrasts positively with the widespread vagueness elsewhere of left-tinged peace and love sentiments that one might see as regrettable hippie hangovers. The fact that Baraka's analysis often seems borrowed from an earlier time, something even approaching that Communist Party line which Ellison satirised in 'Invisible Man' – his active admiration for Stalin, his notion of the 'black belt south' as a separate nation which should seek independence – could not have helped matters, though the legacy of the Black Arts has continued to inform his writings on music and collaborations with musicians – the latter actually increasing in the last twenty years – serving to prevent mere doctrinaire haggling, his poems becoming performative, near-musical things in themselves in ways which might dialogue with rap or with slam poetry (see his appearance on the TV programme 'Def Poetry Jam', or his collaboration with 'The Roots', included in this compilation). And it's hard not find the People's War tracks exhilarating, to enjoy the perversity of their combined slogans and funk (even as Baraka perhaps doesn't see that perversity), even to be exhilarated and inspired by the conviction with which those slogans are delivered, the hopes that they contain.

10 // I Love Music (3:12)
11 // Class Struggle In Music I (5:25)
12 // Class Struggle In Music II (6:43)
Album // New Music, New Poetry (India Navigation 1048, 1980)

‘New Music / New Poetry’, from 1980, sees Baraka move into the position which he’s pretty much held to this day – that of a kind of guardian of the African-American tradition, somewhat like a less-conservative Stanley Crouch (Crouch initially beginning as a poet very much influenced by Baraka, though his lectures and rants tend to outweigh the actual poetry he manages to read – see the album ‘Aint’ No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight’). At this time, though, both were championing the same breed: a generation of ‘young (or not so-young) lions’, including the likes of Arthur Blythe and David Murray, whose rough-edged fire still gave their music a free jazz ferocity, even as the forms they adopted moved closer to the regressive models that Wynton Marsalis and Co. would enshrine and turn into museum pieces at the Lincoln Centre (with Crouch’s support). Here, the combination of Baraka’s strong delivery, his confidence in the musical potential of poetry that has been very specifically crafted, as notation, to foster that kind of delivery, Murray’s roaring saxophone (sometimes restricted to repeated melodic figures, sometimes leaping outside that restriction) and McCall’s complementary drumming, mostly works well – though the repeated backdrop to ‘Dope’ actually smooths over the incendiary, bitingly satirical power that Baraka imparts the poem on an exceptional solo reading from around the same time. Lyrically, we are presented with a mixture of celebrations of black music, sarcastic and crude insults thrown out at various real or perceived enemies, and directions on the correct political line to take: ‘I Love Music’ is perhaps a lesser piece than the more famous Coltrane poem ‘AM/TRAK’, but Baraka’s howled imitations of Coltrane’s multiphonic squalls are intense and even frightening, while the moments when he locks in with McCall’s drum pattern on the first ‘Class Struggle in Music’ would seem to indicate poets and musicians working off the same (invisible) page.

13 // The Roots - Something In The Way of Things (In Town) (7:04)
Album // Phrenology (MCA, 2002)

14 // William Parker Ensemble - People Get Ready (12:080
Album // The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield: Live in Rome (Rai Trade, 2007)

There have been numerous live projects with the likes of Murray since then, including a jazz opera, but we have to skip forward into the next century to hear the next substantial recording, in which Baraka, taking on, in context, the kind of wise old griot role he had played in Warren Beatty’s film ‘Bulworth’, intones a poem of urban despair and dread, suitably backed up by the Roots’ gloomily atmospheric soundscape. Baraka is here very much as ‘poet’, rather than as rapper or even proto-rapper, but the symbolic significance of his appearance on a hip-hop record should not be underestimated, even if it took a decade or so since the original, radical explosion of hip-hop as global phenomenon for such collaboration to happen. It would seem, in the main, that Baraka’s musical heart still lies with jazz and R & B, rather than with hip-hop, in any case, even if he recognises the music’s historical, social and political importance. Both genres are combined in William Parker’s intriguing ‘Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield’ project, in which that ‘changing same’ principle is once more explored, Parker’s aim being to unveil the energies within Mayfield’s songs, look at them from new angles, unlock their still-relevant potentials. Baraka’s words serve both to connect to that Black Arts tradition which saw, for instance, David Henderson write a poem called ‘Keep on Pushing’ about the Harlem Riots, and to keep things in the present – however tenuously – with curses rained down on the likes of Berlusconi (the concert was recorded in Rome). If the music doesn’t, I don’t know, ‘match up’ to the originals, that’s because it’s not supposed to – it is something different, and whether wholly successful or not, it suggests a level of thought and engagement with cultural and political history that manages to avoid the recuperative and stultifying tactics of the jazz neo-conservatives. No longer at the forefront of proceedings, Baraka nonetheless does not seem extra baggage, an unnecessary guest: his shouts and recitations energise the music, providing punctuation or encouragement and giving some sort of purchase which can act as focus and rallying point: and the screams with which he ends a purposeful ‘People Get Ready’ indicate that he’s not easily slipping into a comfortable old age. We’d expect nothing less.

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Anonymous said...

For a compare-and-contrast exercise (radicalism from a different perspective), I recommend a book called 'It's All Good' (a John Sinclair reader), which includes an audio CD. Mentioned here because I have seen so many documentaries in which Baraka and Sinclair both appear among the talking heads.

Anonymous said...

Wow !! Thank you very much !!!

William said...