By MURPHY BROWNE
I had looked forward to the weekend of June 4 and 5 being a wonderful and enlightening weekend. It was the first weekend of Black Music Month 2011. Preparing to write this article I attended several music related events on the weekend beginning with the 12th Muhtadi International Drumming Festival on June 4. I got there too early and not much was happening so I went to a bookstore on Eglinton Avenue West where there was an all day celebration of Afro-Peruvian culture. My main reason for doing so was to learn more about the Afro-Peruvian singer, Susana Baca.
I first read about Baca in 2002 when she won the Latin Grammy Award (from the Latin Recording Academy) for Best Folk Album for her Lamento Negro CD. There was much more to learn about Afro-Peruvian culture and the contribution of the Afro-Peruvian community to the culture of Peru. Much of the dance moves, music and some musical instruments of Peru have obvious but mostly unrecognized African roots. The history of Africans in the Americas is mostly ignored and so are the contributions except in sports, dance and music.
The celebration of June as Black Music Month began in June 1979 when then President Jimmy Carter signed the first proclamation. He did so at the urging of Kenny Gamble (of the famous songwriting team, Gamble & Huff) and Ed Wright, founders of the Black Music Association.
In 2000, the United States government officially recognized Black Music Month after radio personality Dyana Williams and Congressman Chaka Fattah tirelessly worked to get the African American Music Bill (House Resolution 509) passed through legislation.
On June 2, 2009 President Barack Obama declared June African-American Music Appreciation Month. Part of the proclamation reads: The African-American music tradition also reflects creativity and individualism. Blues, jazz, soul, and rock and roll synthesize various musical traditions to create altogether new sounds. Their novel chord progressions, improvisation, and mood showcase individual musicians while also creating a cohesive musical unit. During African-American Music Appreciation Month, we recall the known and unknown musicians who helped create this musical history.
I thought about President Obama’s words as I sat in a room at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) last Sunday. I had read that there would be a discussion about jazz by a man who teaches jazz history at a Canadian university and since I intended to write about “Black Music” which includes jazz I left Queens Park to the sounds of amazing drumming and walked over to OISE. The topic of discussion was advertised as Jazz and the Popular Front: The Making of ‘America’s Classical Music’ where this jazz “expert” (since he is teaching the subject he must have some expertise) would discuss “how the re-articulation of jazz as a respected form of American “Classical Music” was only made possible by, and mediated through, the growing working class movement of the depression era.”
The discussion was also to educate us about the fact that although today jazz is considered a classical American Music genre “jazz did not always command this kind of lofty cultural status. On the contrary, in the early decades of the twentieth century the music that came to be called “jazz” was widely disparaged as a “lowbrow” form of entertainment, frequently associated with moral depravity, and openly feared as an expression of ‘the Negro influence’ in American culture.”
Even after reading all of that I was not prepared for what I encountered (after all the presenter was an educator at one of Canada’s institutions of higher learning). The good “professor” spoke about the role of communism and European labour activists in lifting jazz to where it is today as an American classical art form. He spoke about the dreadful images of minstrelsy when White people dressed in blackface and denigrated the culture of African Americans (he did not mention that all the while they were stealing the art form). I was a bit alarmed when he showed some of those disturbing images. What finally caused me to leave the room in disgust and despair was, after mentioning a few times that he intended to show a video where Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was dressed as a “jungle savage”, the good “professor” proceeded to show the video. He explained that at the time the recording was done (1932) many African American performers played the stereotypical roles portrayed in the video including lazy, shiftless men complete with bulging eyes, making inarticulate sounds.
After observing two White men in the room giggling at the images on the screen the good “professor” pointed out that even though the images might be funny the video showcased Armstrong’s talent as a musician. I commented that the images were not funny and that, instead, I found them disgusting. I was surprised that no one else in the room (mainly White progressives, left leaning, even some socialists) objected to the images. However those images were enough for me. I could not subject myself to more abuse and spirit injury. Instead, I quietly left the room, desperately clinging to my temper; I was not going to lose it because I knew that just 10 minutes away the Muhtadi drumming festival was in full swing. That is where I returned to forget the nastiness and spirit injury I had experienced in that room at OISE.
The energetic, talented members of the Ngoma Dance and Drum Ensemble were performing when I returned to Queens Park. What an amazingly talented group of young people! The healing process for me had begun and continued as I allowed the spirit of the drum to move me. By the time the Muhtadi World Drummers finished performing Arima Tonight, Sangre Grande Tomorrow Night (a calypso first sung by Wilmoth Houdini in 1931) I was ready to relegate the dreadful spirit injuring experience to the back of my mind. I was too busy dancing to the healing power of the drumbeat to let anyone steal my joy of being alive and capable of moving to the beat of the drum. The upbeat mood and skilled performances by the Tivoli Drummers visiting from Grenada and the Baro Dununba drummers was icing on the cake (we were also celebrating Muhtadi’s birthday but somebody forgot the cake).
The annual drumming festival turned out to be more than a healing place for me; it was also a family get-together with some of my sistren including Amma Ofori, Nzingha Saul and Sistah Afiya. We almost “mash up the place” but it was for a good cause.