The Untold Renaissance

Africans in the Renaissance? You bet!

For his Spring/Summer 2014 Ikiré Jones collection, Nigerian designer Wale Oyejide places Africans in the context of Renaissance art. I caught up with him to discuss what he has titled “The Untold Renaissance”.

Click here to read the interview.

The Unsung Antoine Roney

Antoine Roney’s name should be everywhere, yet it isn’t. His playing is superlative. He’s truly one of the living masters on the saxophone. Anyone who is serious about this music knows who he is. He’s played with the masters and he is one. Yet one rarely sees his name mentioned or discussed in the press. At least not to the level that a player of his magnitude should be discussed. Antoine got some buzz earlier this year for his Winter Jazz Fest performance, alongside his amazing 9 year old son Kojo who is no doubt destined for great things on the drums or whatever else he chooses to do. With a father like Antoine and an uncle like Wallace Roney, Kojo is being brought up in an environment rich in culture, tradition and heritage. It definitely shows.

I remember having a spirited conversation with an acquaintance about who gets coverage and who doesn’t. My acquaintance kept raving about Chris Potter. I later sent him some video clips of Antoine. Suffice to say, he now raves about Antoine Roney. That says it all, doesn’t it?

Here is a recent shot of Antoine performing an intimate set at Zinc Bar.

Hugh Masekela with Paul Simon and Sibongile Khumalo

Hugh Masekela celebrated his 75th birthday on April 4th at Lincoln Center. On hand to celebrate with him was Paul Simon and the incredible Sibongile Khumalo. Many were in attendance to witness this special occasion, including Harry Belafonte. It was a momentous and joyous occasion for a man who has contributed so much to the world. Here’s to many more birthdays Bra Hugh.

Thoughts on Fela and Abiola

A few months ago, I had a very long chat with Uwa Erhabor. If you don’t know who he is, Uwa is the author of Kalakuta Diaries. Erhabor was Fela’s close friend, personal aide and confidante who also lived in Kalakuta Republic. We talked about a lot of things. We discussed ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, afrobeat today, the misrepresentation of Fela and his beliefs, how his staunch Pan-Africanist ideals have been commodified for capitalistic gain and how the more it gets commodified, the less Pan-Africanist his image becomes. Fela Kuti’s music was subversive. Many of those listening to Fela are the children of those he was subverting who continue to maintain the structures he vociferously fought against. That irony is lost on them. Maybe it isn’t.

We discussed the fact some of the people who have gotten fat off Fela’s name were many of his adversaries. Those same people were instrumental in his persecution. All those “Ogas at the top” who played a role in the vicious beatings he endured, his prison sentences, the burning of his compound, the rapes of the women in Kalakuta by the military and police; they are now all singing his praises and getting money in the process. Those people spent a big portion of their lives trying to suppress and destroy everything Fela stood for.

We also discussed the American labels that wanted to sign Fela. A lot of people don’t know that Motown wanted to sign him to a record deal. They had been trying to court him for years. They came to Lagos and agreed to offer him a million dollars, which was unheard of in the 80s for a “world musician”. Unfortunately, the American labels also wanted shorter songs. Songs suitable for radio play, songs more palatable to a western audience. Fela wanted to maintain the integrity of his music, and that meant that the songs would be long and they would have sociopolitical critiques. He could have been a very rich man if he signed to any of these labels and altered his music as they required, but for one reason or another, he didn’t.

Fela was also rough when he had to be. A lot has been said about Fela’s relationship with M.K.O. Abiola. The song I.T.T. (International Thief Thief) was a scathing attack on Abiola (and Obasanjo). What isn’t really discussed is how afraid Fela made Abiola feel. Fela scared him tremendously, as in trembling with fear. In this piece, I talk about how Fela walked into a journalist’s (Sam Amuka) office and saw Abiola there. The exchange went like this.

Amuka: Eh Fela, how nice to see you.

Fela: Yeah Sam, I was just passing by and thought to say hell… (Sighting MKO), what is this thief doing here?

Amuka: Fela please don’t start any problems.

Fela: (Now facing Abiola) Oga Mr. Big man, now you look like a frightened rat. There is nothing that would give me more pleasure than to blow your fucking face. But I am going to let you be for my friend’s sake.

After Fela left, a frightened Abiola thanked Sam Amuka for saving him. Fela also once gathered 10 buckets of shit, and tossed it at Abiola’s luxurious home in Ikeja. Abiola and his family fled.

On another occasion, Fela and his crew stormed the Decca Records offices and chased everyone out. They took over the building. They did that because Fela had been cheated financially. Decca released 10 Fela recordings without a valid contract. Fela said they would not leave the building until they were financially compensated. Those were his conditions. The Inspector General and police told the label that they would have to pay Fela his money. Do you know who was in charge of Decca Records West Africa at the time? None other than Abiola himself. He had an axe to grind with Fela, but once again, Fela got the best of him. He had to pay Fela his money so that he could get the building back.

The thing about Fela is that he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked it. Many people don’t know the extent of what he endured and how revolutionary he truly was. He wasn’t just singing and dancing.

I’m not an Orisha Expert

Yoruba spiritual/religious systems are probably the most well known and practiced indigenous African faith systems in the west. This comes with a dilemma. Many people don’t see it as a Yoruba faith system in the west, but instead as an all encompassing Nigerian (or just plain African) faith system. I’m a Nigerian, but I’m not Yoruba.

The amount of people that come up to me to talk about Orishas or to learn more about it has increased over the years. When I tell them that I don’t know much about it, and that this is foreign to me, I usually get two reactions. The most common reaction is confusion. They can’t understand why a Nigerian doesn’t know these things. I explain to them that this is a very specific faith system, and that other ethnic groups have (or had) their own indigenous beliefs. I might as well piss in the wind, because I have a feeling that it doesn’t register. Westerners are used to homogeneous societies that speak one language and have one major religion. It’s very hard for them to fathom diversity on this level. How do you even explain that Nigeria has 250+ languages? With that came different cultures and different indigenous faith systems.

The other reaction is lecturing. It doesn’t happen as much, but it has happened a few times. They start their unsolicited teaching, like they’re doing me a favor. Westerners with a cursory knowledge of Orishas like to talk about it endlessly. This is solely a western thing. Adherents in Nigeria and Benin do not go around telling people about Orishas. It’s sort of like how some vegetarians in the west behave. A Hindu vegetarian isn’t going to make a big deal about their vegetarianism the way many westerners will, especially westerners who made the lifestyle change from being a meat eater. To a Hindu person who perhaps has been a vegetarian all their life, it’s just another day. It’s part of who they are, but that aspect of their life doesn’t define them. They won’t be wearing “pro-vegeterian” t-shirts and stickers like some of their western vegetarian counterparts. How does one know that a westerner is a vegetarian? You won’t have to ask, they will tell you. They will tell you everything. They’ll tell you about their gluten free diet that you never inquired about as well. If there is one thing westerners on specialized diets love to do, it’s telling you about their specialized diet.

Likewise, many western Orisha adherents (usually new converts in the US) are vocal about their Orisha beliefs almost to the point of being obnoxious braggarts. They go around chatting up Nigerians, typically to dazzle them with the knowledge of their ‘culture’, and Nigerians eat this stuff up. Nothing pleases some Nigerians more than when a non-Nigerian tells them something about or from Nigeria. Since there are a lot of Yoruba people in the west, these chats are entertained.

The most humorous exchange I’ve received thus far was from this “conscious” woman who took it upon herself to feel sorry for me when I told her that Orishas for the most part were foreign to me. She told me that I need to know my history, my culture and my people, and that I should ‘decolonize’ my mind. I didn’t take it personally. I know she meant well. I explained to her that these beliefs are specific to Yoruba people. In all honesty, I was just happy to see a “conscious” person not talking about Kemet. They all seem to be professional Egyptologists, and they are stuck there. Meeting one who ventured to another part of Africa was like seeing a unicorn.

I have a feeling that Yoruba faith systems are about to be the new Egyptology. Move over Imhotep, Sekhmet, Osiris and Ptah. Shango, Ogun, Obatala and Oshun are coming.

Remembering Dr. Yusef Lateef

I was around 16 when I heard Yusef Lateef for the first time. He was a sideman on Grant Green’s ‘Grantstand’ record. Back in those days, I used to shop at a store called Nobody Beats the Wiz. They had great deals on CDs from Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse records. They had specials that ranged from $3.99 to $6.99, and if you bought 4 CDs, you would get the 5th one free. Those were the days when Sam Goody was charging $16.99 for a CD, so The Wiz was a godsend.

Upon hearing Yusef Lateef on the sax, I immediately knew I wanted to hear more. At that time, I was getting into Cannonball Adderley, and I had recently picked up the ‘The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York’ album. I was thrilled to see that Yusef Lateef was a sideman on that record as well. Keep in mind that back then, you had to do some legwork and research music. You just couldn’t look it up online. I didn’t consider this as “work”. That’s just how it was, and it wasn’t something that I viewed as an inconvenience. I learned about musicians back then from their sideman work. If I liked a sideman on a record, then I would pick up one of their records as a leader. I would also go to the library and look up musicians on their database. Google didn’t exist. People used Alta Vista primarily. There was also Excite, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo Search and a few other search engines, but it didn’t matter because there wasn’t much on the internet about this music anyway.

There weren’t many internet forums either. You had to go to Newsgroups, and those were full of white supremacists, so it was a terrible space for a black teen. A friend of mine resorted to pretending he was white online just so he could use Newsgroups without the headaches. I didn’t have time for BS like that. Not to mention, the internet was also dial up, and it was connected to the land line. It was slow and using it meant that the house couldn’t receive phone calls. The internet at home was essentially useless, so it was the library for me. What I would do was search for musicians based on instruments. So if it was the tenor saxophone, then Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley etc would show up. I would then look up the sidemen on their records.

That’s how I discovered the music. Plus, some knowledgeable people who showed me the way later on and via word of mouth. That was invaluable. Talking to people who knew these musicians was a lot more meaningful than reading an op-ed piece in the NY Times or books from white men who knew nothing about the people they were writing about and were far removed from black musicians, black people, and black culture. They could only interpret the art and what they wrote to the best of their ability, or get second hand information. Whereas when I spoke to people who knew these musicians or were part of the culture, it wasn’t an interpretation. It wasn’t analytical. It was like they were giving you a piece of themselves. They were the art and the culture. They were one with it. It reminded me of an excursion I took to the Lee Morgan shrine in Harlem where I heard elder musicians like Harold Mabern, Larry Ridley and Louis Hayes talk about the life and times of Lee Morgan. They talked about a person they knew. They talked about their friend. They could intimate things that many Morgan biographers couldn’t. I know, I have read the work of the biographers, and as insightful as they may be, they always seem distant and cold. They read like an investigative report. When it comes to narratives, I place the utmost value with the bearers of the flame. Likewise with Dr. Lateef, I much prefer to hear from people that knew him.

When Yusef Lateef came on my radar as a teen, I went on a binge of his work for a good 6 months. The more I learned about him, the deeper respect I had for him. Even though some of his records didn’t connect with me, I still wanted to know more about him. The fact that he moved to Nigeria in the 80s made me even more fascinated with him. He also taught at Ahmadu Bello University. He later released a record called ‘In Nigeria’.

I have such a profound respect for Yusef Lateef, and many of his contemporaries. Black musicians in the US like Lateef identified with the independence struggle of Africans from European colonialism in the 50s and 60s. There have been many songs written in solidarity with African Nationalism movements of the 50s and 60s. My favorite is the Sonny Rollins composition titled ‘Airegin’. It’s Nigeria spelled backwards. The 1st Miles Davis Quintet performs the best version in my opinion.

I wasn’t deeply saddened when I heard that Yusef Lateef had transitioned. I’m thankful for his contribution to making the world a beautiful place. He was 93, so he lived a long and fruitful life. He was a scholar and an educator who cultivated and shaped many young minds. He left an indelible mark of positivity in the world, and while I was never a student in any class he taught, he took me to school with his music.

R.I.P. Dr. Lateef.

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