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Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz In Revolutionary Times

This Wednesday evening, Chris Heim features one of the artists profiled in Robin D.G. Kelley's book Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz In Revolutionary Times.

Heim's review of the book:  

It is a truism of American jazz that its roots are in African music, yet few jazz artists until more recently explicitly studied and incorporated African music as it is actually played on the continent into their work. That was not the case, however, for four pioneering performers that historian and Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley profiles in this small, but information-packed and fascinating book.

Kelley begins with Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren, an artist clearly and powerfully ahead of his time, while still managing to have an outsized notion of his own importance. The book, in fact, takes its title from a Warren album, an early example of his effort to play jazz with a distinctive African rhythmic sensibility.

Guy Warren - "Africa Speaks" from his 1956 album, Africa Speaks/America Answers: http://youtu.be/RmJfp1ypWMg

Then there is the magisterial Randy Weston, the Brooklyn-born jazz lion of the Fifties who was profoundly changed by his sojourns in Africa and in turn profoundly changed American jazz. Weston's own 2010 autobiography, African Rhythms, goes into greater detail, but Kelley captures the essence of Weston's art, while using his experiences as a jumping off point to explore African politics during the era of independence.

Randy Weston with the title track of his 1964 album, African Cookbook: http://youtu.be/BIhNNGUux08

Perhaps the most interesting discovery here is bassist and oud player, Ahmed Abdul-Malik. With credits that included work with Weston, Monk, and Blakey, he already deserves a place in jazz history. But his fascination with North African and Middle Eastern music and his use of the oud made him a true pioneer in both jazz and world music.

An example of Abdul-Malik on oud with "Sho-Habebe" from the 1963 album, The Eastern Moods of Ahmed Abdul-Malik: http://youtu.be/JhCfMYwlZnI

Finally, Kelley tells the story of South African singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, and the challenging intersection of racial and gender politics she faced in apartheid South Africa. American jazz was long revered in the townships of that country for the freedom it represented. Yet artists found their opportunities first diminish and then vanish. And if you were a woman, particularly one whose personal style leaned toward mainstream jazz and balladry, and on top of that, you were married to one of the most high profile artists (the driven, brilliant, and, as drawn by Kelley, seemingly self-absorbed Abdullah Ibrahim ), your career would largely remain in the shadows.

Sathima Bea Benjamin sings Billy Strayhorn's classic, "Lush Life," from her album Sathima Sings Ellington: http://youtu.be/jwRFozKULro

Kelley's portraits are rich and compelling. Even more impressive is the way he weaves into these personal sagas larger issues about music, politics, and modernity. The Fifties and early Sixties were far more "revolutionary times" than we sometimes realize, with pioneering and powerful artists like the four profiled here pointing the way to music and a world we are still only beginning to see realized.

Robin Kelley talks about Africa Speaks, America Answers: http://youtu.be/DW2gVNex2hs