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Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

By putting the lives of Thelonius Monk veteran Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Transatlantic fusion band leader Randy Weston, Ghanian African music visionary Guy Warren and South African composer Sathima Bea Benjamin under the microscope — Africa Speaks, America Answers brings overdue insights into a musical cultural exchange that took seed in the 1950s, bloomed in the 60s and continues today.

Many European, Africans and Asians without background or experience in the English speaking regions of North America, find it difficult to understand the passion and energy some Americans place in the process of discovering or re-discovering their roots.

In the case of African-Americans well into the 20th century, other than the memes transmitted, and cultural traits transmuted in families and communities, information about (and communication with) Africa was far from common place. Compared to other diasporas and immigrant groups (ie. English, Irish, Italian, German, Slavic, Jewish), African traditional literature and central texts were not readily available. As anthropological/ethnography texts emerged in the late 19th century by Europeans, its remarkable that the majority of these were not written in English but instead appeared in French, German and Dutch.

This all adds drama and poignancy to the events Kelly documents; when during the 1950s and 1960s a powerful and heady confluence of the US Civil rights movement and the liberation of African colonial states provided increased opportunities for communication and collaboration.

Despite the utopian possibilities realities that enfolded during that time did not always deliver their initial vast promise . A background of events including European African colonies pivoting into dictatorships and the assassination of Martin Luther King dimmed hopes on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile Africans and African-Americans who crossed paths were often confronted with less than instantaneous mutual appreciation, approval and agreement. As Kelly says in the books prelude…

“Artists constantly bumped up against the claims of authenticity. Critics, fans, record producers, even the musicians policed the boundaries between what they believed was “real” (in other words, traditional) African music and “real” jazz. Self-proclaimed experts alike questioned whether African Americans were capable of mastering “traditional” drumming techniques, or if Africans could “swing” or play authentic jazz. Arab music aficionados questioned whether jazz musicians could play an Arabic scale, or maqām, correctly. The hybrid and global character of the music generated many questions about its authenticity that mingled issues of race, class, and politics. Is homegrown jazz in South Africa authentically “African,” or is it merely an import foisted upon a people by the American Empire? Should we question the authenticity of popular music in West Africa, such as highlife, because it draws on so many styles and genres throughout the African diaspora and Europe itself?”

Such points of view confounded artists and made for less than an evolutionary statement in the mainstream marketplace. This is especially evident in the first chapter which looks at the problematic career of Ghanaian composer Guy Warren [AKA Kofi Ghanaba].

Warren/Ghanaba’s progressive vision of African music fused jazz with a West-African folklore sources that reached far beyond polyrhythmic drums. His work included complex juxtapositions of processional chants, rhythms with melodic interludes of piano and saxophone, that sought graceful currency not just as “African music” but as contemporary art.

Warren was capable of playing and arranging Beethoven symphonies for drums, transcribing go-go bells to expansive piano parts, and driving horn players to alliterate singing concha shell parts. While Warren was a solid analogue to the artful Jazz pioneers of the late 50s and early 60s in the US, the recording industry as Kelly says found Warren’s musical approach “did not fit easily into the then-dominant stereotype of exotic, ecstatic, highly sexualized African rhythms and dance’ and did not “not evoke the jungle or savagery, or the ancient pagan ritual”

It is with no shortage of chagrin and disappointment that Warren returned to Ghana after a short and less than successful recording career in North America. All the while watching artists he considered amateur at best such as the Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji better fit the market places expectations of African tradition as an upbeat drum dominated stereotype.

While Warren’s story may be the most symbolic, Kelly’s chapters on Randy Weston and Ahmed Adbul-Malik demonstrate 2 New York artists ultimately finding their musical path bounce off of West Africa only to be better fulfilled in North Africa.

While Randy Weston would embrace a set of inspirations spread between Nigerian High Life and Moroccan Gnawa, Ahmed Adbul-Malik focused on a Jazz expression to match his liberal Moorish-American inflected Islamic cosmology. As Kelly quotes from a 1963 interview in Downbeat.

“People think I am too far out with religion… How can you play beauty without knowing what beauty is, what it really is? Understanding the Creator leads to understanding the creations, and better understanding of what you play comes from this.”

Kelly completes the book with a chapter on the South African composer singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. As Kelly chronicles, Benjamin offered to the world a voice that gained her critical acclaim on both sides of the ocean but little popularity during her prime. For instance her 1963 recording with Duke Ellington ‘A Morning in Paris’ was not placed on the market until 1997, as well Kelly sadly points out Benjamin produced sessions that could have been the first Jazz LPs produced in South Africa – but they were never released.

Kelly’s chapters are packed with well researched and documented facts shedding light on the colonial, marketing and political forces that shaped both helped and hindered the careers of these 4 exceptional artists. Their rich legacies of these creative personalities serve well to illustrate and illuminate current and recent events — while leaving the musically curious reader with a variety of musical impulses to further explore. Jazz aficionados, who over the years have been enjoying works like John Coltrane’s Africa Brass, should run not walk to seek out Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s Jazz Sounds of Africa. World-Music listeners who over the years have regarded Olatunji has the premier champion of African music in the 20th century North America, should give Guy Warren a chance to re-write narrower definitions of contemporary African music.

The paths to discovery in Kelly’s Africa Speaks, America Answers are diverse and the context of the book is not limited to the effective careers of the inspiring artists mentioned in this review. Kelly provides detail of many of the other formidable players in the movements and scenes. A scene populated and informed by; pioneers of the early 20th century Harlem scene, Art Blakely, the NYC Caribbean music artists, the early African field recordings of Harold Courlander, and the philosophical dialogues between writers such as James Baldwin and Aimé Césaire.