Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

ART BLAKEY AND THE AFRO-DRUM ENSEMBLE - THE AFRICAN BEAT

You all know about Art Blakey, right? The Jazz Messengers, Moanin', The Big Beat, Holiday for Skins, Orgy in Rhythm?
Blakey is the kind of drummer who makes you think he hates his drums. That's the only reason he could have for hitting them repeatedly and so hard. He must have been one hell of a drum-phobe. Have you seen the way he looks on the cover of Orgy in Rhythm?
Apart from his fierce attacking method, Blakey also knew a thing or two about musicians. Just look at the people who came through his Jazz Messangers!
By the late fifties and early sixties people in the US jazz world had become very interested in the music of Africa. Initially conflating African music with that of Latin American, in particular Cuba and Argentina, the jazz world began to incorporate increasing elements of 'exotic' musics.
It's no coincidence that this coincided with many jazz musicians finding Islam. Many black jazz musicians, as well as writers, poets, academics and others, began to turn their backs on Western modes of thinking and look to Africa for inspiration. As the civil rights movement in America became more prominent and, in some cases, more violent, many black Americans wondered what they owed to the modes of thinking and behaving that had come to them from white America. People wanted to shed their names, names given to them by slave owners. People wanted to shed their relgions, forced on their ancestors by slave owners, and return to religions that they might have had before slavery. People wanted to move even further away from Western approaches to music and adopt musical styles from Africa.
Blakey himself went to Nigeria as a merchant seaman in 1948 and is supposed to have converted to Islam and taken the name of Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. He later denied that he had gone to Nigeria to study drums and indeed said that jazz was emphatically American and owed nothing to Africa.
How then is one to take this record?
Blakey surrounded himself with some of the best musician's from Africa he could find in New York in 1962. Solomon Ilori and James Ola. Folami from Nigeria and Chief Bey from Senegal. From Jamaica came Montego Joe( read about his solo records here). From the US came Yusef Lateef (Read some Yusef Lateef stuff here) and Ahmed Abdul-Malik (Read about him here) both converts to Islam and both already investigating music from Africa,Garvin Maseaux who was studying the Yoruba in Nigeria and finally Robert Crowder and Curtis Fuller.
For me the stand-out track is Love, The Mystery of by Guy Warren (have I mentioned I'm kind of obsessed by him?). (You can read about Warren's original recording here) What a shame he doesn't play on the record itself. The track opens with a snaking sax line by Lateef that is followed by chanting. Underpinning the sax and the chanting are Blakey on the drums and others on various percussion. Lateef moves on to oboe and then Blakey is given the space he needs for a thundering drum attack. Abdul-Malik keeps the whole proceedings together with a rock steady bass-line and Blakey drops one drum bombshell after the other with Lateef adding scrapper in the background. Then Lateef comes back in on oboe with a long sustained note that rises above Blakey's furious drums until the entire track gains an unstainable intensity and the chanting begins again until it is faded out at the end. Altogether beautiful stuff.

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