Format: DVD (widescreen, NTSC, all regions; 180 minutes + 5 minutes of extras)
Release date: November 18, 2016
What could be better for Black History Month than a new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet featuring a Black cast? The answer is a production supported by Black musicians. This recently released DVD from the Royal Shakespeare Company captures the first performance of this new production, live from Stratford-Upon-Avon on March 12, 2016. Directed by Simon Godwin, the cast features British-Ghanaian actor Paapa Essiedu in the starring role—the first black actor to ever play Hamlet in the history of the RSC.
Chief composer for this production is none other than Sola Akingbola, longtime percussionist for the British funk and acid jazz band Jamiroquai, who leads the musical ensemble on vocals and percussion. He is joined by Bruce O’Neil, the RSC’s Head of Music, who performs on keyboards, as well as Joe Archer on guitar and on keyboards; Dirk Campbell on woodwinds, nyatiti, and percussion; and Sidiki Dembélè and James Jones also contributing to the percussion ensemble. With the shift to a Black cast, Godwin also shifted the geographic focus of the play from Denmark to Africa, and Akingbola’s score perfectly encapsulates the action.
If you missed the live stream of the performance last summer, the DVD version is highly recommended. Teachers will find a wealth of information and classroom tools on the RSC website for the production.
Don Cheadle’s new movie is what amounts to a fictional bio-pic about Miles Davis, with parts of the portrayed biography being real but the central action of the movie being a creation of Cheadle’s imagination. In short, it takes a real person, Miles Davis, and elements of his real life, as portrayed by Cheadle, and sets in motion a series of incidents that never actually happened.
Given that setup, it’s not surprising that the soundtrack recording features snippets of Don Cheadle portraying Miles Davis between cuts of actual Davis recordings and additional music by jazz-hip hop artist Robert Glasper.
What is surprising, though, is that it works pretty well. There are only three complete cuts from Miles Davis’s albums: “Miles Ahead” from the 1953 Prestige compilation Blue Haze, “So What” from the 1959 Columbia classic Kind of Blue, and “Frelon Brun” from the 1969 Columbia album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The other seven Davis tunes are either edits or cuts, but offer a good flavor of the depth and breadth of Davis’s music. The Glasper cuts are Davis-esque, as are Cheadle’s spoken interludes.
Like the movie, the soundtrack album is an exploration of one man’s (Cheadle’s) ideas about another man (Davis). There are other views of Davis and his life, including his own autobiography, Miles. Keep in mind, Cheadle’s movie is a series of fictional events, and this soundtrack was created in service to that movie.
Although Sony’s press release suggests this album might be a good introduction to the music of Miles Davis, I highly recommend seeking out the original albums. Aside from the three cited above, check out the other sources of edited/excerpted cuts: Sketches of Spain, Seven Steps To Heaven, Nefertiti, Jack Johnson, On the Corner and Agharta.
On January 29, poet and performer Saul Williams released what will likely be one of the most challenging records of 2016. Williams is as much a literary figure as a musical one, and MartyrLoserKing is as novelistic as it is musical, following the inner life of a hacker living in Burundi, who’s screenname “MartyrLoserKing” is the source of the album’s title.
Unlike many “socially conscious” musicians that end up doing what is essentially the musical equivalent of “slacktivism,” Williams uses this album as a place to paint a complex and ambivalent picture of the current state of the world. He addresses the prevalence of uninformed fear on “Down For Some Ignorance,” the potential for internet-spread misinformation on the song’s musical and thematic sibling “Roach Eggs,” while expanding to more explicitly political issues including police brutality and systemic racism. Williams, an American expat, writes about the world as a terrifying postmodern dystopia, perhaps nowhere more evocatively than on “All Coltrane Solos at Once.”
The musical soundscapes match this lyrical bleakness, with drum machines that sound far away and collages of electronic bleeps and samples that are alternately disorienting and threatening. All of this leads to the tremendous effect of MartyrLoserKing, which suggests that any remedy to the myriad problems facing humanity must necessarily start with people developing their individual, social and political consciousness.
Detroit’s Jessica Care Moore—a reknown poet, playwright, performance artist and producer—has achieved success through a wide variety of ventures: as a five time winner of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” competition; as the author of poetry collections including The Alphabet Verses The Ghetto, God is Not an American, and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes; as a performance artist in The Missing Project: Pieces of the D and Black Statue of Liberty; as a returning star of Russell Simmons’ HBO series “Def Poetry Jam;” as CEO of Moore Black Press; and as host, writer and co-executive producer of the poetry-driven television show “Spoken” on The Black Family Channel. But throughout her career, Moore has also indulged her passion for music. Her poetry was featured on Nas’s Nastradamus album and Talib Kweli’s Attack the Block mixtape, and she’s led the Black WOMEN Rock! concert series since 2004. So it should be no surprise to learn that Moore has long been yearning to record her own album.
Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James, Moore’s official solo debut on wax, features notable jazz, soul, techno and hip hop musicians and producers who bring Moore’s vision to life. That vision is more reminiscent of the lilting “jazz poetry” of Langston Hughes than the Black Power era recordings of The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Imamu Amiri Baraka, or the half-sung, half-rapped sprechstimme of her contemporary, Saul Williams. Moore emphasizes the purity and strength of the spoken word with poems that recognize the central role of music to the Black experience, but she relies solely on the band and backup singers to weave in the musical accompaniment. A number of featured guests contribute to this effort, including Imani Uzuri, Roy Ayers (vibes), Talib Kweli, Jose James, One Belo, Ideeyah, Ursula Rucker, Alicia Renee, and Paris Toon. The band is led by pianist Jon Dixon (Underground Resistance), with Nate Winn on drums, Ben Luttermoser on bass, De’Sean Jones on sax, and Nadir Onowale (Distorted Soul) on the mixing boards.
Black Tea opens with a spoken introduction—the legend of Moore’s alter-ego, Jessi James: “she is his reflection, a city-country girl, a gold horse kissing his black . . . she was waiting for him to call her name – Jessi James of Detroit, of Brooklyn, of Southern blues, of Harlem, of Colorado mountains . . . Detroit jazz, poet outlaw – sometimes the tea is spiked.”
Following are several jazz-based tracks, including “Walking Up 150th Street” featuring Chris Johnson on trumpet, “Pieces” featuring Detroit rock-soul singer Ideeyah, “Deep Breath” featuring alt-rapper One Belo, and “You Want Poems” with Roy Ayers and Jose James. On “It Ain’t Like We Didn’t,” the music shifts from jazz to an acoustic Delta blues style, with Moore riffing on the importance of the genre: “We die for the blues ‘cause we’re born with it . . stone rolling blues runs deep in these veins . . . know your place brown girl . . .”
An acoustic Spanish guitar opens “I Catch the Rain,” with ethereal background vocals provided by Imani Uzuri and Ursula Rucker, while Moore speaks of “this earth keeps pulling back to this place where I buried my wounded heart, countless times, this land of broken promises, this nation of liars, I will not give birth surrounded by all this fear . . .”
Ideeyah returns on “Wild Irish Rose,” singing the chorus “stay away from women with stems extending far beyond their flowers” between verses of Moore’s poem: “If I leave a seed on every corner maybe my people won’t forget me / I know God sent me, or the wind might have dreamt me / So many spirits sitting on top of Motor City, but I got to do something with the power my ancestors leant me . . . Another garden gone, won’t be long before Black girl doesn’t get to sing her song, ‘cause Daddy and the greenhouse disappeared at dawn.
Another highlight is “Catch Me if You Can,” a tour de force alternating between Moore’s reverb soaked verse and Talib Kweli’s rapid fire delivery, backed by acoustic guitar and trumpet.
Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James is Moore’s lush and provocative HERstory, a shape shifting fable rooted in the cultural experiences and music of the 21st century Motor City. This album is especially recommended for those who enjoy contemporary poetry, and for libraries collecting sound recordings of poetry set to music.
Rebirth of a Nation was DJ Spooky’s (i.e. Paul D. Miller’s) first large scale multimedia piece, made in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and premiered in 2004 at the Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Weiner Festwochen, and the Festival d’Automne á Paris. It has since been given some fifty times as a live performance, and the studio recording of the soundtrack heard here was made in 2007, but this combined CD/DVD release from Cantaloupe Music marks the first time the full musical score has been available as a separate entity. The film Rebirth of a Nation is a re-imagining, or “remix,” of D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation, which—with apologies to Al Gore—truly may be the most ‘inconvenient truth’ in the history of cinema. The radical cinematic style, three-hour running time, sense of grandeur and the relentless publicity machine that fueled The Birth of a Nation’s prosperity spelled doom to the lowly Nickelodeon and paved the way for ambitious film epics of all kinds, and American film history cannot dispense with it. But its corrigenda of the Ku Klux Klan as the salvation of the American South in the post-Civil war period, and its vilification of African Americans, helped to revive a sleeping Klan into a new round of vigilantism that flourished into the early 1920s. Although Griffith’s centennial was widely observed and celebrated in 1975, in the years to follow screenings of The Birth of a Nation were picketed and often cancelled, and Griffith’s name was removed from the Director’s Guild of America’s Award in 1999.
Shutting down screenings of The Birth of a Nation doesn’t make the film go away, and suppressing it only prevents younger generations from seeing how prevalent and mainstream white supremacy was a century ago. DJ Spooky feels that some of the complex, painful and malevolent themes in The Birth of Nation still connect with America as it is in the twenty-first century, and utilizes digital editing, graphics, inserts, narration and a hip hop music track to render the hundred-year-old film into a commentary on itself. Collaborating with the Kronos Quartet, DJ Spooky’s work has a strongly post-classical feel and largely avoids nostalgic gestures that would normally play to the subject matter, save samples of wailing harmonica and occasional banjo-like pizzicati from Kronos. The character sketches, such as “Stoneman” and “Cameron,” seem the most successful from a purely musical standpoint, as if the persons connected to these names in the film elicited the most involved responses from the composer. Nevertheless it is difficult to appreciate the music without its visuals; some of the pieces are very restrained, and are understated even for film music, which is normally a little under the action. Rebirth of a Nation, the film (2008), runs about half the length of Griffith’s original and even that is a lot of screen time to cover; given that there is narration, but there’s also no direct dialog from the actors—the soundtrack has to be wall-to-wall. Without the visuals, the score comes across as partly inspired and partly padded.
Rebirth of a Nation is nonetheless an interesting investigation into William S. Burroughs’ idea that by cutting something up, you may be able to reveal the truth in it, neutralize it or at least recast it into another context, and there’s every reason to experience this project in the form that Cantaloupe Music has packaged it in; DVD and music, whereas before there was only a downmarket DVD and the music was only available as excepts.
Premiered in 2009 at Carnegie Hall as part of Jessye Norman’s Honor! Festival celebrating the legacy of African American musicians, Laura Karpman’s masterful Ask Your Mama is finally available on CD.
Karpman’s composition is an original musical setting of Langston Hughes’ epic poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Pieces for Jazz, written in 1960 while he was attending the Newport Jazz Festival and published as a book of poems in 1961. One of the notable features of the book is Hughes’ marginalia describing the musical soundtrack running through his head, which he describes in the “Dedication” (track 1):
“This poem was written in segments beginning at Newport, at the Newport Jazz Festival in fact, two summers ago. And I suppose that is why, as I wrote most of it, I could hear jazz music behind it. And so when I gave the first reading of some segments of this poem, they were read to jazz. However, the poem may be read with or without music, of course. But for the benefit of those who might like to hear the music that I heard in my mind as I wrote ‘Ask Your Mama,’ along the margin of the book there are little musical notations. And the leitmotif of the poem, the Hesitation Blues, the old-traditional blues, and the little break that is used between some of the verses, ‘Shave And A Haircut, Fifteen Cents,’ those are reproduced musically at the front of the book. And then in the back of the book, as if it were a record, I have a series of liner notes for the unhep, that is, for those who may not quite understand what the poem is about.”
Crossing many genres, Hughes’ musical references range from cool jazz and post bop to German lieder, patriotic songs, spirituals, blues and African drumming. Karpman, a notable Hollywood composer, weaves all of these strands together into a compelling new work. Also woven into the mix are many samples drawn from earlier recordings—most notably segments of Hughes’ reading of the poem (presumably from the 1970 Buddah release)—as well as fragments of Louis Armstrong, Leontyne Price, Pigmeat Markham, Cab Calloway and perhaps others (regrettably the liner notes don’t cite specific recordings). This sampling lends a distinctive hip hop influence, juxtaposed with a classical foundation provided by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan. Other performers include classical singers Janai Brugger, Angela Brown, and Tesia Kwarteng; jazz vocalists Nnenna Freelon, Monét Owens, Erin McGlover, and Taura Stinson; in addition to Black Thought, The Roots, Medusa, and other instrumentalists.
The tracks follow the original order of the 12 sections of the poem: 1. Dedication; 2. Cultural Exchange; 3. Ride, Red, Ride; 4. Shades of Pigmeat; 5. Ode to Dinah; 6. Blues in Stereo; 7. Horn of Plenty; 8. Gospel Cha-Cha; 9. Is It True?; 10. Ask Your Mama; 11. Bird in Orbit; 12. Jazztet Muted – Show fare, please.
Karpman’s musical setting breathes new life into Langston Hughes’ text, together referencing the entirety of the African American experience through a diverse range of musical genres and vernacular traditions such as children’s rhymes and signifying.
Note: Those interested in a different interpretation of the work might be interested in Dr. Ron McCurdy’s The Langston Hughes Project, which claims to follow Hughes’ own plans for a multimedia project, and the related CD.
Even if they don’t realize it, most people have probably encountered the legend of John Henry, the “steel driving man,” at some point in their lives, whether it is in the form of a folktale, a Johnny Cash song, or the Disney animated version featuring James Earl Jones. One of the lesser known versions is the score for a musical about John Henry composed by the great jazz saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley during the last years of his life (he died on August 8, 1975).
Cannonball Adderley is most well-known for his 1966 single “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” as well as his work with Miles Davis. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry shows that Adderley’s talent ranged far beyond jazz, encompassing many other genres: soul, funk, blues, folk, gospel, and Afro-Caribbean music. Originally released as a two-LP set in 1975, Big Man featured music from many other artists, including his brother Nat Adderley, George Duke, Roy McCurdy, Airto Moreira, and Carol Kaye. Real Gone Music’s reissue marks the first time the album has appeared on CD, and features extensive liner notes by Bill Kopp.
The album includes both musical numbers and separate dialogue, with characters voiced by Joe Williams (John Henry), Randy Crawford, and Robert Guillaume. On “Gonna Give Lovin’ a Try”—one of the six full musical pieces that are presented as standalone tracks—Randy Crawford sings her heart out, her smooth voice backed by a large string section. Big Man was her professional recording debut, recorded when she was only twenty-one. “Next Year in Jerusalem” has more of a funky sound and is sung by Joe Williams. His scratchy voice drives this upbeat song and adds some deep soul.
In a message from Nat Adderley included in the liner notes, he says that “Cannon considered Big Man one of the most important projects of his whole career.” Composing the score for a full-scale musical certainly was a challenge to take on, but Cannonball had every reason to be proud. Forty years later it still is a masterful “folk musical” featuring beautiful songs and a powerful storyline about the interplay of class and power.
Most known for their raunchy comedy discs, Laff Records was an independent West Coast record label that started in the late 1960s and produced comedians such as Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page, and Wildman Steve. When the first successful label for black comedians, Dooto Records, began declining in the mid-1960s, it allowed Laff Records to pick up many of their party records and popular acts, such as Redd Foxx. Though Laff Records closed in the mid-1980s, with their last hit being Kip Addotta’s “Wet Dream,” their legacy lived on through their records and the success of their artists, both in comedy and on television.
Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection is a compilation of work from the label’s most famous and successful comedians, from LaWanda Page to Jimmy Lynch. The set was produced by comedian and actor Darryl Littleton, also known as D’Militant, who offers extensive liner notes that provide the history of Laff Records. Speaking of his own experiences growing up, Littleton says that “modern comedy owes its due to Laff Records…Had it not been for the pioneering efforts of Laff Records, it’s doubtful there’d have been a Def Comedy Jam or BET Comic View.”
The first disc starts with the 1972 release Back Door Daddy by Skillet, Leroy and LaWanda, an uncensored set that mainstream critics at the time called a “30 minute ultra-raunch session.” The original LP was hugely successful, and it marks an upswing in LaWanda Page’s career—she starred as Aunt Esther on the hit television show Sanford and Son the same year. She soon became known as the “Queen of Comedy” among party record circles, and disc one goes on to feature her 1973 Pipe Layin’ Dan—a classic, especially for lovers of blue comedy.
Next featured is Jimmy Thompson, a nightclub comic most well-known for King Monkey. The compilation features his slightly later album Jo-Jo Gun, which is full of rhymes and clever riddles. The first disc closes with Slappy White, former partner of Redd Foxx. Elect Slappy White VP is a politically-charged record released after White performed with Steve Rossi for President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969.
The second disc features Dap Sugar Willie, Jimmy Lynch, and Wildman Steve. Dap Sugar Willie was best known for his role as Lenny in the sitcom Good Times, but the 1973 LP Ghost of Davy Crockett showcases his true talent on the standup stage. Jimmy Lynch’s bum persona “Funky Tramp” made him a party record star, and his work featured in this compilation includes his usual sketches that unabashedly talk about race. The second disc wraps up with Wildman Steve’s “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin.”
Mantan Moreland, better known as Birmingham Brown in the 1940 Charlie Chan detective films, opens disc three with his “Tribute to the Man ‘Tan,’” followed by Reynaldo Rey, who started his comedy career touring with the O’Jays. Part three ends with a diverse selection from Leroy Daniels, one half of Skillet & Leroy, featuring sketches that range in topic from sexual encounters to a preacher with a bad habit of stealing.
The final disc features one of Laff Record’s most famous comedians, Redd Foxx, and his nightclub act from 1978, “I Ain’t Lied Yet.” His sketches typically have either sexual or racial themes, though he also provides some clever definitions, such as “frustration: finding out for the first time that you can’t do it the second time.”
The last comedian featured is Marsha Warfield, a Chicago native who’s 1981 LP was recorded by Laff Records as a single track set that features a variety of topics, from church gossipers to the weaknesses of men. Warfield went on to become well-known for her role as Roz, a bailiff on NBC’s Night Court, and even had her own talk show for ten months.
Though these tracks have been featured on individual albums, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection is the first compilation of this sort. It’s a great collection of party records which have historical significance and represent an important era of blue comedy by black comedians.
Language: In Sango, Akka, French and English, with English subtitles.
Release date: October 28, 2011
Title: OKA! (Soundtrack)
Artists: Chris Berry & The Bayaka of Yandoumbe
Label: Oka Productions
Release date: October 25, 2011
OKA! is a film based on Louis Sarno’s memoir Last Thoughts Before Vanishing From the Face of the Earth and combines dramatizations of his experiences among the Bayaka over the course of two decades with fictional content. Although the film soundtrack compilation (now available on CD) does include a few Afro pop recordings, for the most part it was created and performed by the Bayaka or co-composed with Chris Berry and accompanied by Western musicians. The Bayaka characters are played by members of the Yandoumbe community.
In OKA!, independent ethnomusicologist Larry Whitman is diagnosed with liver failure. Rather than waiting around for his transplant, he heads off for one last trip to Africa in search of the molimo, the final instrument needed for his collection of Bayaka music. Upon returning to Yandoumbe in the Central African Republic, he discovers that the Bayaka have been driven from the forest by a new sawmill and by the efforts of the Bantu mayor to introduce Western bureaucracy. The mayor even hatches a plot to pin elephant poaching on the Bayaka so that they’ll lose further control of their ancestral land and future to the government. Against the mayor’s orders, Larry enters the forest seeking to unite with Sataka, the Bayaka’s shaman. Fearing what fate may await their inexperienced American friend, the Bayaka follow him and, in doing so, return to their traditional way of life.
Following is the official trailer:
In the words of director, co-writer, and producer Lavinia Currier, the primary purpose of the film is to celebrate “a people who are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, and who, despite the extreme remoteness and dangers of their forest home in Central Africa, always find opportunities to express their humor, joyfulness, and musical genius.” As a result, the story isn’t fleshed out in great detail, but rather serves as a framework for exploring the Bayaka’s daily lives and soundscapes. The first, shorter portion of the film explores the community’s marginalization and is dominated by the sounds of the sawmill and various genres of Afro pop. Once Larry and the Bayaka are reunited with the shaman, however, the film switches to a series of musical performances interspersed and interwoven with the sounds of local birds, animals, and insects. Among the featured genres are social dance songs, women’s songs (including water drumming), children’s games, mask dance songs, and the sounds of a healing ritual. These are also included on the CD soundtrack along with the co-composed pieces, tracks from previously released field recordings of Bayaka music, and ecological soundscape recordings.
For anyone studying the representations of indigenous music and culture by the media or the use of media for the empowerment of endangered culture groups, Oka! is a must see film and will undoubtedly be the source of much conversation among ethnomusicologists and anthropologists in the months to come. It’s also a beautiful film and thoroughly enjoyable for anyone interested in Bayaka culture or traditional African musics.
Oka! is currently showing in selected cities; no DVD is available at this time.
This holiday season Tina Turner has presented us with a spiritual offering. Raised in the Baptist faith, Turner was first introduced to Buddhism in the early 1970s. Three years later she converted and has since become one of the most high-profile practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese branch of the religion which focuses on building a better and more peaceful world. Her new album, Beyond, “explores the oneness of religions through music with Buddhist and Christian prayers.”
Collaborating with Turner on the album are Dechen Shak-Dagsay (a native of Tibet and daughter of the spiritual leader Dagsay Rinpoche), who composed the music for the Buddhist prayers, and Regula Curti, who contributed original compositions for Christian prayers. Readings and chants are provided by Turner, who leaves the singing to her two collaborators.
In the official press release, Turner provides a fuller description of the project. “I’m very happy to be a part of the BEYONDProject that was initiated by Regula Curti and Dechen Shak-Dagsay, both amazing singers, individuals and philanthropists from two different cultures—Christian and Tibetan. This project has taken on a life of its own and has expanded and attracted other artists of various faiths who will be involved with us in subsequent albums as this continues to grow. As a collaborator I’d like to make very clear that the Project is not about me or Tina Turner the rock star. It’s about being part of and supporting a movement for the awareness and acceptance of different religions and spiritual paths to awaken the truth of ultimate oneness within us all. This is a movement that goes beyond the three of us and has already been embraced by many people, including the Dalai Lama, the Abbott Martin Werlen Osb, and Deepak Chopra. The BEYOND Project is an invitation to open up a space where it is possible to include each individual to contribute to this vision. We are all the same, looking to find our way back to the source.”
In addition to the timely spiritual messages, the beautiful, meditative songs and music provide a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life and will surely help listeners achieve inner peace. Furthermore, all artist proceeds from the recording will go towards supporting their own non-profit organizations that focus on the welfare of children: The Dewa Che Foundation, The Seeschau Foundation and The Tina Foundation.
Following is the official promo video (courtesy of New Earth Records):
Catalog Number: SJR CD 214
Release Date: September 29, 2009
The period of the late ’60s and early to mid ’70s was a time of social change in America, when previously marginalized and ignored groups were making their voices heard. Coinciding with this change in the country at large was a drastic economic change within the motion picture industry. With revenues plunging, companies pursued previously unexplored avenues of revenue, one of which came to be known as Blaxploitation films. Featuring largely black casts and often primarily black crew members, these films brought out black audiences en masse. This was the first time Black Americans were able to see themselves on screen in non-subservient roles outside a few films here and there. Black audiences flocked to theaters to see stories told from their perspective, and heroes with features (and problems) akin to what they saw and experienced daily.
Another extremely notable aspect of Blaxploitation films was the music accompanying them. Artists like Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Willie Hutch provided music scores that in many cases have held up stronger than the films themselves. Can You Dig It?, a two-disc set released by Soul Jazz Records, brings together a generous offering of music from a wide selection of films produced during the Blaxploitation era. While songs like the themes from Shaft and Superfly are infamous and have been played and heard consistently since the ’70s, this set offers selections from other films with lesser known soundtracks. Tracks include Joe Simon’s “Theme from Cleopatra Jones,” Dennis Coffey’s “Theme from Black Belt Jones,” Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” from Hell Up in Harlem, Willie Hutch’s “Theme of Foxy Brown, and “Sweetback’s Theme” by Brer Soul (a.k.a. Melvin Van Peebles) and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Following is the official trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Courtesy of Xenon Pictures):
There are no real misses in this set as all of the songs have stood the test of time. The set also includes offerings from R&B/soul acts not known primarily for soundtrack material such as Martha Reeves, Solomon Burke, and Booker T & the MG’s. Overall, the collection offers a sampling of the era’s best musical works and serves as a good starting point for those interested in Blaxploitation era music.
Ironically, the real star of this set is not the music. As with many Soul Jazz releases the true gem is the liner notes by Stuart Baker that accompany the discs. Can You Dig It? comes with a 96 page booklet that speaks to the socio-political climate in Hollywood that produced these films and soundtracks, giving a much needed perspective that helps us understand why the works themselves are so significant. The booklet also provides profiles on the actors/actresses, crew members, producers and musicians who were instrumental in creating the soundscapes that accompany a very unique (and regrettably) all too brief period of cinematic history.
A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale!: The Oratory of Frederick Douglass is a 5-track CD comprising speeches, written between 1852-1888, of the former slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Although present-day admirers usually come to know Douglass through his three autobiographies and other writings, during his life the orator’s fame centered on his passionate delivery rendered towards describing his experiences as a former slave.
Douglass’ voice was never recorded and the vocal enactment of his speeches in A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! isdelivered by actor/Civil Rights activist, Ossie Davis. With his deep resonant voice, honed acting abilities, depth of understanding, and profound appreciation for the iconic figure of Douglass, Davis attempts to faithfully replicate the actual 19th century experience for the listener.
Addressing his speeches to segregated white, black, and women audiences, Douglass challenged his (white) listeners to acknowledge the plight of the slave and to question the veracity of freedom in a constitution upheld for some and withheld from others (“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” parts 1 & 2). In “If There is no Struggle, There is no Progress,” he confronted acquiescent African Americans to ponder the necessity of defying slavery and racism, regardless of the cost, and to consider the courage of those who assumed such a position. Douglass proclaimed freedom of speech as a vital necessity for all Americans in “A Plea for Freedom of Speech,” and expressed his forward-thinking support for the rights of women in “Why I Became a Women’s Rights Man.”
The CD is accompanied by a 31-page liner note insert that provides images and useful background information on both Douglass and Ossie Davis. The recordings were originally released on two LPs in 1975 and 1977, and the present production by Smithsonian Folkways aims to make Douglass’ legacy accessible to the public through current media. A Voice Ringing O’er the Gale! is a valuable tool, reminding us that democracy in American has never been a given, and that vibrant dialogue and public debate are as critical for its perpetuation in the present and the future as in the past.
Title: The Gospel at Colonus
Composer: Bob Telson
Director: Lee Breuer
Publisher: New Video
Format: DVD, NTSC (90 mins.)
Date: 2008, 1985
The 1985 Philadelphia performance of The Gospel at Colonus, which originally aired on the PBS series Great Performances, is now available for the first time on DVD and it is both entertaining and enlightening. The stage play is directed by Lee Breuer and based on an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus in the version by Robert Fitzgerald. It also incorporates passages from both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone in the versions by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, which are published as the Oedipus Cycle of Sophocles. Morgan Freeman, Clarence Fountain, Jevetta Steele and Isabell Monk are among the talented cast that frames the Oedipus saga within the African American religious and performance traditions.
A quote by a Village Voice reviewer on the DVD cover describes the performance as “…Europe meets Africa; Classic meets Contemporary; Pagan meets Christian.” The first two attributes are evident within the work’s title. The final characteristic, “pagan meets Christian,” is manifested in various ways. For instance, presenting the story of Oedipus by using a religious art form, gospel music, extrinsically merges the sacred and secular. However, Bob Telson, Colonus’ music composer and arranger, uses traditional and contemporary (as of 1985) gospel music styles, thus creating an internal profane and religious fluidity that mixes gospel, blues, R&B, and soul. This lack of demarcation has always characterized Black artistic expression. The call and response, demonstrative behavior, innuendos, vamps, switch leads, hand clapping, foot stomping, hollers and shouts of the soloists and choir are not only exemplary of elements within such expression, but they also reflect an aesthetic continuum between Africa and African American culture.
While the actors-Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly and Isabell Monk, among others- present a persuasive tragedy, the music of this performance is the real star. Clarence Fountain’s raspy voice takes the audience on a journey that explores a range of textures and moods. J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers create a logical contrast to the Five Blind Boys, as the former group expands the parameters of the quartet tradition by incorporating a wider range of vocal qualities and styles. In addition, the J.D. Steele Singers demonstrate a blended sound that is reminiscent of timeless R&B/soul ballads of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The choir, which represents the people of Colonus, is dressed in colorful and flashy attire while the quartet groups are clothed in matching suits denoting respective ensembles.
The DVD’s picture quality is very clear. In addition, the video frames create a broad and varied view of the stage, focusing on the soloists, individual groups, choir and the instrumentalists. Capturing the stage in this manner allows the audience (in this case the DVD viewer) to experience a sense of “being there” at the time and space of the performance. Such framing was obviously assisted by Breuer’s stage setting, which is an integrated structure that positions actors, instrumentalists and singers on the stage simultaneously. As a result, all involved become a vital part of the drama.
For those interested in the exploration of an alternative staging of a classical tragedy, or those who seek to experience an artistic manifestation of the core Black aesthetic in the arts-or if you simply like great stage plays, this performance is a must see. The Gospel At Colonus will make a significant contribution to your Christmas stocking!
Passing Strange became a Broadway sensation this spring, garnering a Tony nomination and Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Musical, and attracting among its diehard fans Spike Lee, who filmed the final performances in order to preserve the stage version of the show. The origins of Passing Strange go back further, however. Author and co-composer Stew (founder of the band The Negro Problem) began developing the show at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in 2004 and 2005, followed by a premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2006 and a short off-Broadway run at New York’s Public Theater in May 2007. Passing Strange is at once a Black rock musical, a picaresque coming-of-age story, and a semi-autobiographical one-man show with a cast of seven plus an onstage band.
The musical’s plot—told episodically rather than in linear narrative—follows the journey of a young Black musician, simply called Youth, as he leaves his middle class Baptist upbringing in 1970s Los Angeles and escapes to Europe in search of “the real.” In Amsterdam, he dives into the experience of readily available drugs and sex, embracing an unstructured bohemian lifestyle. Rather than bringing Youth closer to “the real,” however, the full-body sensuality of Amsterdam ultimately deadens his creative muse. He moves to Berlin, falling in with a group of intellectual, politically-driven performance artists, who believe him to be the classic gifted Black musician from an impoverished background. Youth struggles with his sense of ethics and identity as he seeks to resolve the acclaim he earns in the Berlin nightclubs with his deliberate self-misrepresentation. He ultimately returns home to the United States upon his mother’s death, shaped by experience and aware that “the only truth of youth is the grownup consequences… I need something more than real.”
Youth is the semi-fictionalized portrayal of Passing Strange’s creator Stew as a young man, and is represented simultaneously by Daniel Breaker and by Stew himself as the Narrator who draws the audience along the story, often regarding his younger self with fondness or frustration. Stew also serves as the leader of the onstage band, bridging the musicians and the cast. The rest of the casting is efficiently done, with most other members portraying multiple characters from the three main places in Youth’s life.
As much as Passing Strange is a tale of a musician’s journey to maturity, it is equally a tale of rock itself, incorporating many other genres crucial to the formation of modern rock, and highlighting the importance of Black music in rock. The opening number, “Prologue (We Might Play All Night)” sets up a bluesy rock jam that might easily be heard in a nightclub rather than a Broadway theater. “Church Blues Revelation” invokes both the gospel and blues traditions, which are quickly defied by the teenaged Youth’s punk anthem “Sole Brother.” Soul ballad styles weave their way throughout the musical, particularly in “Mom Song” and “Keys (Marianna).” “The Black One” evokes Weimar-era cabaret jazz, while “Identity” crafts a deliberately alienating combination of punk and performance art. While Youth discovers his love of music as a spiritual revelation in church early in the musical, these diverse musical styles all shape his identity and experiences across the length of his journey of self-discovery.
Since this is the cast soundtrack, much of the spoken narrative has been omitted, and the songs are presented as freestanding works. This can make it tricky to follow the plot from listening alone, but it highlights the pulse of the music and the sharp wit of the lyrics. The throbbing guitars and Stew’s gravelly baritone are at the heart of the rock vibe of Passing Strange, and they pull the listener on a compelling musical journey.
Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of the key players on Otis Taylor’s recently released CD Recapturing the Banjo (reviewed in the March issue), is also central to the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington film, The Great Debaters, which tells an untold story of Black Americans in the 1930s. The film centers around a Texas Negro College’s debating team, coached by charismatic poet and communist agitator Melvin Tolson, played by Washington, and their historic victory over Harvard University. Scott Barretta’s notes indicate that “Washington [who directed the film] was looking for authentic material – whether blues, jazz, gospel, or country – that best suited the film.”
Indeed the soundtrack does offer a variety of musical styles, leading off with the strong and stirring “My Soul Is A Witness,” a contemporary take on a “ring shout” rendered on acoustic guitar and djembe (West African drum) and cajon (Afro-Peruvian box drum). Built around the repetition of the title phrase, and given call and response antiphony by Hart and soul singer Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings fame), “My Soul Is A Witness,” comes as close as anything to recreating the musical frenzy of Austin Coleman’s original. This opening track demonstrates with passion that while the music may be informed by historic “authenticity,” it is anything but a dusty museum piece.
Throughout The Great Debaters Hart, leading on acoustic guitar and vocals, shares the spotlight with Jones as well as Memphis guitarist Teenie Hodges, The Angelic Voices of Faith gospel chorus, and North Carolina string-band revivalists The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Together they create a vibrate patchwork of music, both sacred and secular, somber and exuberant, that powers along like a freight train. “Step It Up and Go” sets the tone with a finger popping country-blues, and “It’s Tight Like That” showcases Jones’s smoky vocals on a soulful reinterpretation of a early “hokum” standard by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom (aka Thomas Dorsey). Another standout is “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You,” a song made popular in the 1930s as a guitar/fiddle duo by the Mississippi Sheiks (who had a bestseller with “Sittin’ On Top of the World”). Here it is given full string band treatment by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Hart, who capture the spirit of the music without loosing the historical value and without compromising the rather arcane lyrics.
While filled with images from the film, the liner notes take the reader step-by-step through the history of each song and the basis for its inclusion in an effort to flush out the soundscape of the period. It should also be mentioned that two historical recordings are included, Marion Anderson singing Handel’s “Begrussung,” and Art Tatum’s “The Shout.” While differing musically from most of the acoustic blues, country, and jazz tunes, they are no less a part of that diverse soundscape.
It’s a shame that The Great Debaters project came together as a soundtrack that will inevitably limit its shelf life once the public has forgotten the largely forgettable film. In a just world The Great Debaters soundtrack would be experiencing the same unprecedented success as the O Brother, Where Art Thou album/phenomenon. Yet at the same time it’s heartening to see such revivalism taking place, where tradition isn’t left behind, but also isn’t doggedly adhered to by limiting the abilities and tastes of creative artists, or by assumptions regarding the limited tastes of listeners.
Ice Cube is one of the most legendary figures in hip hop music and culture. With N.W.A., Cube laid the foundation for gangsta rap. As a solo artist, he took rap music to new heights with his booming voice and chilling social commentary. Another avenue in which Cube has made a significant impact is film-as an actor, screen writer, director, and musician. Over the last fifteen years, he has made many notable contributions to the soundtracks of his own films as well as others. Ice Cube: In the Movies is a Priority release that compiles Cube’s best soundtrack work into a single disc.
The CD opens with Ice Cube’s three most commercially successful soundtrack singles, “You Can Do It” from Next Friday (2000), “We Be Clubbin” from The Player’s Club (1998), and “Natural Born Killaz” with Dr. Dre from Murder Was the Case (1994). After the lackluster “Anybody Seen the Popo’s” from XXX State of The Union (2005), his gangsta rap classics “Friday” from Friday (1995) and “How to Survive in South Central” from Boyz N The Hood (1991) are included back to back. The well-written and grossly overlooked “Ghetto Vet,” from I Got the Hookup (1998), kicks off the second half of the album. “Higher” from Higher Learning (1995) and the classic “Trespass” with Ice-T from Trespass (1992) rounds out the disc.
Aside from minor sequencing issues, there is nothing wrong with this compilation. Priority Records did a solid job of amassing Ice Cube’s best soundtrack work. In a genre where artists typically give their most mediocre songs to soundtracks, Ice Cube’s material stands out. Over the last few years, rappers Eminem and Three Six Mafia have won Oscars for their contributions to film soundtracks.1Ice Cube: In the Movies proves that Ice Cube set the standard for hip hop soundtracks and deserves a lifetime achievement award if one is ever created for this category.
Afro Samurai is a violent Japanese anime series featuring the voice of actor Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role. Premiered on Spike TV in Jan. 2007 (and soon to be released on DVD), the musical score for the series was prepared by Wu-Tang Clan super producer/rapper/composer RZA and was recently released by Koch Records. Over the course of 25 tracks, Afro Samurai: The Sountrack provides a healthy mix of hip hop, funk, and soul and further adds to the RZA’s already rich legacy.
RZA is most well-known as the brains behind the legendary group Wu-Tang Clan. Since 1992, RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan have released numerous hip hop classics including their first two group albums—Enter the Wu-Tang: The 36 Chambers (1992) and Wu-Tang Forever (1997)—plus the solo albums GZA/Genius Liquid Swords (1995), Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995), Old Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Thirty Version, and Ghostface Killah’s Iron Man (1996); all produced by the RZA. Furthermore, RZA has produced well-received musical scores for a number of movies including Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, and Blade: Trinity.
Afro Samurai: The Soundtrack is a very experimental album that contains a number of soul and funk pieces; two genres that RZA has not previously mastered. The overt hip hop pieces on the album are, unsurprisingly, very strong. “Certified Samurai” is a banger that features Talib Kweli and Free Murda dropping hot verses over an old school drum pattern and a vocal sample provided by Suga Bang. On “Jus a Lil Dude” A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip sounds rejuvenated over RZA’s triumphant horn part. On “Cameo Afro,” Big Daddy Kane and GZA prove that 40 is the new 20 as the two old school Brooklyn MCs trade verses over RZA’s brilliant beat.
Aside from the hip hop pieces, the two best songs on the album are the back to back Stone Mecca/RZA soul collaborations “Oh” and “The Walk.” Although the ordering of these songs somewhat corrupts the albums nearly flawless sequence, the outstanding quality of the tracks are unquestionable. Stone Mecca’s strong and unique voice meshes well with RZA’s neo-soul meets boom-bap sound. Also, the brief funk/soul instrumentals are adequate segues between the full-length tracks.
Afro Samurai: The Soundtrack is definitely one of RZA’s finest releases. Although he is very much a hip hop veteran, the successful experimentation on this album proves that he is ever-growing as an artist. If the forthcoming Wu-Tang releases are nearly as good as this, then the group will once again reign over the hip hop nation.
The Bay area’s spoken word artist Richard “Paradise” Moore collaborated with musician Bill Jackson to create JazzFunkHipHopoetry (pronounced Jazz-Funk-Hip Hop-a tree), a fusion of music and spoken word. This short, seven track sampling of Moore’s poetry never quite manages to realize the potential suggested by the album’s title, and ends abruptly before being able to redeem itself.
JazzFunkHipHopoetry gives “remix” a brand new definition. The album parallels an amateur open mic night, rehashing the same instrumental accompaniment throughout the majority of the album. There is little jazz, a bass line reminiscent of funk, and hip hop is missing altogether. “How to be a Black Man in America” and “Keepers of the Flame” sound undeniably similar, the slight difference being the key change in the instrumentals. Moore’s delivery in “It’s OK to Be a Black Girl” and “Ain’t Yo Mama Black” seems somewhat forced and, in certain instances, rambling, which takes away from the message in his words. Yet Moore’s positive and socially conscious message is what ultimately keeps the album afloat since such messages and reflections, especially about African Americans, are a rarity in contemporary music.
JazzFunkHipHopoetry should have spent a little more time in the studio for development. Its intention is in the right place, but it falls short on delivery.
The Watts Prophets (Anthony “Amde” Hamilton, Otis O’Solomon, and Richard Dedeaux) rose to prominence fresh off the heels of the Watts race riots of 1965. The Watts Prophets took “rap,” or “street poetry” as it was called back in the ‘60s, to the stage. Things Gonna Get Greater is material taken from two previous albums that were almost out of print and very hard to find–Rappin’ Black in a White World(1971), and The Black Voices on the Streets of Watts(1969). These two albums frightened a lot of people when they were originally released and as a consequence the Watts Prophets were labeled as black militants. With titles like “There’s a difference between a Black man and a Nigger,” the Watts Prophets tried to put the civil rights struggle in perspective with “rap” or street poetry using minimal musical accompaniment, while expressing the anger and frustration of the black experience of living in a white America.
Following the example of their Harlem contemporaries, The Last Poets, who in fact were the first commercially successful recorded avant-guard poets, the Watts Prophets decided to record their work in the great oral tradition of black culture and thus planted the roots of West Coast rap music. If anyone wants to trace the origins West Coast rap or, if you are just interested in the roots of hip-hop and rap music, then you must start the digging here. The influence of the Watts Prophets can be seen in the songs of top rappers like Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, DJ Shadow, Too Short and the Digable Planets, all of whom have sampled from their work.
Even by today’s standards of rap music this work is hard to take since it challenges the African American community and indeed all of humanity to look at the way human beings treat one another and how we treat ourselves. This is not a CD for the faint of heart.
Carl Hancock Rux, who in 1994 was named by the New York Times as “One of 30 artists under the age of 30 most likely to influence culture over the next 30 years,” is well on his way to fulfilling this prediction. The recipient of a score of art and literary prizes and commissions, this author, poet, playwright, and performance artist shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Rux has dabbled in a wide range of projects, including collaborations with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co., and Urban Bush Women, and he recently performed in the title role of the Robert Wilson/Bernice Johnson Reagon opera The Temptation of St. Anthony. On the horizon are two operas (he’s writing the librettos) including The Blackamoor Angel, based on the life of an ex-slave and companion to Mozart, and Makandal, about the Haitian slave uprising with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain.
Good Bread Alley is the third CD in the Rux oeuvre and is more musical than his previous efforts. Often compared to Gil Scott-Heron, Rux’s verse is also full of political and social commentary, but on this album he sings his own lyrics more frequently than he raps, and the musical accompaniment samples just about every genre. From the opening title song set over a bluesy background, the tracks run the gamut from hip hop to jazz to R&B and everywhere in between, finally settling on a gospel-tinged cover of Bill Wither’s anti-war song, “I can’t write left-handed” (the only song not written by Rux). Notable tracks include “Lies,” co-authored by Vernon Reid (founder of the Black Rock Coalition); “Black of My Shadow,” which weaves together fragments of spirituals and Billie Holiday’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in and through Rux’s haunting lyrics; “Living Room,” a commentary on domestic violence; and perhaps thrown in just for fun, “All the Rock Stars (for Kurt Cobain).” Impossible to classify, this CD is both thought-provoking and mezmerizing, definately worth repeated listenings and comtemplation.
Oh, and did I mention that Rux is also a novelist? His most recent book, Asphalt, was described by the LA Times as “a hallucinatory journey of a displaced DJ, set in a sooty, just-a-day-after-tomorrow future.” Wait, there’s more. Rux’s oratoria, Mycenae, loosely based on Asphalt and his epic poem Mycenae, will be premiered this October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As described in the press release, the oratorio “draws its dramatic frame from Jean Racine’s retelling of the myth of Hippolytus on the road of Mycenae, as well as from 20th-century dream theory [and features] ritualized choreography and dynamic streams of images set to Rux’s hypnotic rhythms (Jaco van Schalkwyk, who was responsible for the samples on Good Bread Alley, is listed as the video designer). Carl Hancock Rux is definitely an artist to watch.
we’ll retire ourselves to the belly of the beast
and lease our flesh and bones for naught
ought we divorce ourselves
from the governments who
sent their-sent us
our own demise?
Watch them as they feed and swell
Quell their hunger as warmongers
They’ll feed on flesh and bones there-
We divorce ourselves from spirit and flesh
Did we not see it comin’?
(from Good Bread Alley)
Eddie Murphy recorded this CD in 1983 at the tender age of 22, and it’s an early demonstration of his true comic genius. This youthful Eddie Murphy is raw, raunchy and extremely sexually explicit, but he is also extremely funny. If you like to laugh so hard that it makes your liver quiver then you will love Eddie Murphy: Comedian. Richard Pryor once wrote that he thought Eddie Murphy’s comedy was too mean and on this CD Murphy is just as crude and rude as he wants to be and nothing is sacred.
Murphy is not afraid to tackle any subject or anyone. All is fair game for his razor sharp wit, from bashing gays, to jokes about modern women and even jokes about Stevie Wonder. His comedy is characterized by frequent cursing and adult subject matter hence the advisory on the label for explicit material. This CD is not for the faint of heart or those easily offended. This is the hungry Eddie Murphy, fresh from his SNL success and movie debut in 48 Hrs. but before his rise to mega star status that came the following year with Beverly Hills Cop.
Eddie Murphy: Comedian was followed by Delirious (1983 video) and Eddie Murphy Raw (1987 film), which firmly established Murphy as the prince of comedy and heir apparent to Richard Pryor, the reigning king. Eddie Murphy: Comedian is a must for comedy lovers in general and for Eddie Murphy fans in particular. I am a fan of the man.