As a warrior artist I like to feature art by other warrior artist or pieces of art that inspire warrior artists, and these two tracks by South African horn player Hugh Masekela are just that. Born April 4, 1939 music found Masekela at a young age. He took up trumpet at 14, and after quickly mastering it went on to lead several jazz ensembles. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, his music has always been a reflection and form of protest against the system that enslaved his people. For those very same reasons he was also forced to leave the country for awhile, as state repression intensified with murder and laws banning gatherings of people. The below tracks are off of Masekela’s second 45 release in the US, ‘Mace and Grenades,’ which contains the equally incredible b-side ‘Riot’. Both tracks have their own distinct sound, but also contain a cross between soul, funk and jazz reminiscent of that year, 1969, where jazz was beginning to shift again into funky directions, which would explode throughout the 70s and 80s. It was loosened up by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane at the start of the 60’s, freeing jazz in new directions like the black power movements that would erupt simultaneously in riots across the world’s ghetto’s. Watts to South Africa.
The music on the first track ‘Mace and Grenades’ is beautifully intense; a kind of artful and controlled chaos. The drums and guitar set the rhythm of the track with the hi-hats crashing up against the powerful trumpet. Masekela’s horn-like vocals sear into the track 30 seconds later belting out ‘mace and grenades, machine guns, bazookas going off all around. I’m in jail out here’. The B-side ‘Riot’ has a similar controlled loose sound to the musical composition and the horn parts, but the vibe is more upbeat. The grooving guitar rhythm provides a nice backdrop for Masekela to play with the trumpet.
I appreciate that the title is riot, because riots are so often characterized in negative ways by the monopolizing bourgeois press to breed fear of the people among the people. A divisive strategy employed by a divisive system that gains everyday from our losses. Are we suppose to just take it numbly? My public education experience was not enough to inoculate me in bourgeois dreams of false consciousness when I saw my father escape responsibility through crack pipes fed to him from the same system that sought to suck every bit of energy my mother had in wage labor to make up for the absence. To me a riot is nothing but an expression of the people. A response in free form and that is good. It is good when the people are in movement together.and art, like a riot is movement and expression. Of course it is better when these movements sharpen into collective conscious actions employed with revolutionary means. This requires a shift in consciousness among the people. When the people begin to understand the truth behind their oppressive and exploitative conditions they might be inspired to do something about it. This shift in consciousness is nurtured most deeply through life experiences and direct participation in struggle. But it is also developed through reading and studying the world; history and culture. Art, like theory, is an expression of idea’s in different forms, and can inspire and inform people about the world. It also nurtures the spirit and helps keep it uplifted, which is necessary work if we are to sustain ourselves for the coming tides of struggles. These two Masekela jams, produced during a global wave of revolutionary movement in 1969, are still a beautiful source of inspiration over 40 years later. Because even though apartheid is ‘over’ the legacy of colonization continues to structure the country like it does everywhere else. And Africans, black African’s, continue to have the lowest paying and most dangerous jobs. The recent massacre of striking South African miners is an example of the level of oppression and exploitation that continues to exist within South Africa and through out the world, and Masakela’s music continues to be relevant to what is happening politically. When I listen to these tracks I am reminded of the ways art can stand the test of time in similar ways that writing and theory do. It is powerful, because it shapes people and people shape the world.
I like my jazz on overcast afternoons where I draw back the curtains on my big windows and let the gray fill up the room, feeling bluesy and romantic; or I like it late at night when candles are lit and my mind is fuzzy, but awake, nonetheless, in contemplation…but these jams are worthwhile any time of the day, regardless of weather forecast and mental state. Hope you enjoy!
When one thinks of raw funk and jazz rhythms the vibraphone isn’t the first element that usually comes to mind. Not for me at least. No shade against the instrument. The vibraphone is an important part of jazz and a standard component of any percussion section. It’s just not a central instrument in most funk situations. However, Roy Ayers mixing of jazz styles with funk and r&b created tracks that would put the above statements to shame. He is a legend. Not necessarily a consistent legend. The wealth of his work reflects more quantity than quality at times. But the stuff that is good is real good, and important. His jams spawned other memorable jams, and helped lay the foundation for hip hop. Recently I discovered the unreleased track ‘Liquid love’, while exploring the 2005 released Virgin Ubiquity II: Unreleased Recordings 1976-81. I am always interested in checking out an artists unreleased work, because there are gems to be found in material that fails to meet the low standards of bourgeois popular culture. ‘Liquid love’, featured below, proves to be just that.
The track opens with a rolling bass line that greets the crisp hi-hat and snare beat setting a soulful and funky vibe. Ayers takes his time entering the track, coming in around 30 seconds, adding that signature vibrating wind effect that makes you feel magical and romantic. As the vibraphone’s tempo begins to accelerate the rhythm shifts, and crashes up against joyful vocal harmonies belting ‘liquid love’. I couldn’t help but dance with myself through the spotlights of Oakland sunshine filtering in through my curtains. I felt so damn good; good in the body and in spirit. Perfect track for these days of warmth and sunshine making you want to make love to yourself or your lover or both. Enjoy!
Art is a weapon and must be used as the tool for the people against their oppressors. That said, I see the healthy individualistic aspects of it. I love making art, and see the merits in it being an activity for internal growth and development. I have always made time to produce art, and creatively express myself, and that in and of itself is almost a form of resistance when capitalism tries to steal away all my time and energy through wage labor. Sure, some people make a living off of their art, but that is rare nowadays. You really have to struggle to make time between work and surviving to intellectually and socially satisfy yourself. I also see art as a form of survival. I grew up in a violent and unstable home, and making art was an outlet for me to express the complicated emotions and trauma I was going through as well as a mechanism to stay grounded and sane. Some people do drugs; I made art. However, as I grew and became more political so did my art. I wanted other people to see the healing aspects of art that helped me survive in this very difficult world, but I also wanted it to express ideas that were bigger than just individual survival. That is when I begin to see art as a weapon, and a necessary aspect of revolutionary struggles.
I began to get interested in other artists, who used their art in similar ways. Nigerian saxaphonist and keyboardist Fela Kuti represents such an artist. He came from a political home with a mother, who was active in anti-colonial struggles in Africa and was also a feminist. Although that didn’t seem to influence Fela’s gender politics, because homeboy had several wives. The man also had style; check that yellow jumpsuit with the beautiful pattern he is rocking above; very fresh. However, the music is still incredible. He popularized the afrobeat sound, which consisted of a fusion of jazz, funk and African music that can put you in a trance…in a good way. Black power struggles in the US and anti-colonial struggles in Africa influenced Fela’s music, which reflected radical politics of socialism and anti-imperialism. The song that I am featuring below is one of my favorites, and is off of his classic album Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. I love the opening monologue of the track where he is commentating on imperialism, referring to an ‘alien system’ in our midst. He is also addressing artists and the need for them to produce art that is socially relevant. He states, “as an artist politically, artistically, the whole idea about your environment must be represented in the music and the arts.” I also love the last few lines of the monolgue: “i think as far as africa is concerned music cannot be for enjoyment, it must be for revolution…if you feel bad about it then do something about it.” Very dope. Besides my obvious love of the radical art politics, the music itself is delicious. It moves you. The horns are incredible; so clean. The hypnotic rhythm makes you want to dance and get lost to the beat. The music also moves you with the ideas that it conveys about the world, and hopefully, as fela says, it causes you to do something about it. Enjoy!
Letta Mbulu (pronounced “let-ah” “em-boo-loo”) is a South African jazz and soul singer, who was born and raised in Soweto, but left for the United States in 1965, because of apartheid. You can find an excellent little biography of her here: http://www.dougpayne.com/lmbio.htm
She is an incredible artist with a voice that embodies the fire and spirit of women for me. The picture above represents such confidence and power. The photo is also the cover of her 2nd album Free Soul. I love that she chose to use a younger photo of herself in African clothing, despite the issues she was having getting radio play and record sales in the US. I was reading the blog I linked above, and it said that radio stations refused to play music from her first album because they were afraid “that no one would understand the words (the Bossa Nova and the British were as multi-cultural as American radio was willing to get back then). As a result, hardly anyone ever heard the record and, worse, sales were slight.” I imagined that it was incredibly difficult in the 1960′s as an African Woman artist in the US to make a living off of your art. That is why I love that her response was not too to adapt to US culture, and change herself and her art, but to produce another album of African music that also represented her as a beautiful African woman. The title of the album, Free Soul, also reflects that spirit of the fiery independence and creativity of women. Letta never got the mainstream success or recognition that she deserved, but that is often the case in this country when you stay true to your art and message.
Letta Mbulu is also important to me because my friend, sister, and comrade in struggle, Ms. Julia Wallace, introduced her to me. She played me Letta’s song “What’s Wrong With Groovin”, and I instantly fell in love with Letta’s voice, and the chills it sent down my spine. When Julia played it for me she said the song represented the soundtrack of her life, and that made me think deeply about the song, because I think Julia’s life reflects the strength, determination, creativity, passion, and love of a revolutionary woman. She has dealt with serious challenges in her life, yet has this beautiful spirit about her, and dedication to the people and struggle that inspires me everyday. The song is amazing and represents this beautiful force that I think embodies my comrade sister so I am internally thankful for her sharing it with me.
When I listen to ‘What’s Wrong With Groovin’ I feel this power radiating from Letta’s voice and the content of her lyrics that represents a woman trying to get free despite the restraints placed on us in this world. Her voice is so raw as she belts out the lyrics in such a fierce and wild way, yet she is in control. It is so unique and beautiful, but also a force.
I relate to it a lot as a woman, who, let’s just say, has been labelled aggressive or intimidating at times. I definitely have those traits, and a large part of it is due to the conditions I was raised in. I was forced to grow up early in order to survive, and in many ways that hardened me. I had to toughen up to protect myself from conditions within my home, as well as the objective conditions in the world I lived in, which isn’t kind to poor women of color like myself. I have always felt like there was this force within me that could be used positively and creatively, but I haven’t always known how to do that effectively. Often I would unleash this force in wild ways that had bull in a china shop effects with my interpersonal relationships. That said, I have been reflecting a lot over that the last year and trying to learn and grow as a woman and love this force within me, and also know how to use it for growth, inspiration and liberation. Letta’s music, and this song in particular, represents this journey and growth within myself; a journey that I share with the countless fiery women in this world who dare to survive and struggle, and produce amazing art that sustains us all.
I love digging online and looking up the obscure samples of the dj’s that inspire me. Especially my main man Dilla. He is incredible at sampling the most obscure music, and using it in such creative ways to create new songs. He really represents the essence of hip hop to me. I want to get in the habit of posting every week a new hip hop song with a banging beat and post the original song the beat is sampled from. Who better to kick it off with then J Dilla himself. This track, Milkmoney, is off the 2009 album Jay Stay Paid, which was released after he passed away in 2006. It’s a compilation of all the beats and tracks he was working on while he was hospitalized. This song is amazing, and the Kenny Loggins sample is incredible. I am not a fan of Kenny Loggins, but the original song, Make the Move is pretty worthwhile to listen to by itself…at least the first minute to hear the weird vocal effects on his voice. It is also noteworthy that the Loggins song is off the soundtrack of the classic movie, The caddyshack (<3 Bill Murray still). J is able to skillfully use the vocal sample to create a dope beat that I haven't been able to get out of my ears for days. I would suggest listening to Dilla first, then the Loggins, then the Dilla again. But that's just me yall can do your own thang. Enjoy!