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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

Netflix got a documentary about Clarence Avant. Judging from The Black Godfather title, one might think my man was some kind of 20th century crime capo or father figure for a gaggle of now-famous personalities. Or something like that.

So, one would be both right and wrong to categorize Avant in the same breath as Clive Davis or Barry Gordy–oh, I know what you thinking: Kalamu, you can’t just say a sentence like that without breaking it down. But that is why I am urging you to check out the documentary. I don’t have to do it because Netflix does it far better than I, plus they got in person testimonials from a diverse collection of influential figures.

I first heard the Avant name-checked on a Bill Withers album, but I didn’t know who the head of Sussex Records was, nor did I know where the very name “Sussex” came front. Well the doc does an admirable job of breaking it all down.

Avant does not look like a mogul, a visionary, a Svengali of the music industry, but then reality always has a way of confounding our presumptions and assumptions. Mr. Avant resembles nothing so much as your Uncle Albert who is always sipping on a shot-glass taste of room-temperature, mellow scotch whilst pontificating about the relationship of monetary success and sexual success. You may not believe the entirety of half the stories he tells, but he is so convincing, ’til you got to raise your mug and say “I’ll drink to that”.

Like Ralph Ellison’s fable little man whom he envisioned in a train station, the company apparatchik who kept the depot doing all the necessary functions so that as the trains pulled in and out, everything ran smoothly, including shipping out what had to be sent around the world, and receiving passengers and parcels from whence so ever they were from. Avant was adept at hooking people up and making sure diverse people operated when and how they were supposed to. Consider him the workings of an expertly crafted watch, except he wasn’t some archetypical mad scientist, he was, if you just glanced at him, an unassuming, little negro man, but my, my, my, he sure did know how to work a show. 

Hail Clarence Avant, it would be a great blessing for any of us to have half his talents.

 

Toil and trouble everywhere. Trouble. Trouble. And no peace in sight. They say don’t worry, we gon’ be alright. But we live hand to mouth, no, we survive. Month to month. Day by day. And we pretend. We tell ourselves. God is on our side. He will protect us. If we worship him. If we believe in him. If. If. . .  A big fat if. If only. . .

Drugs are decimating a whole sector of our society. Opioids. Prince wrote us a song. Sung us a prophecy. Said this was all a sign of the times.

Here are four versions. Opening with Prince. He sounds, well, to my ears at least, his version is the least exciting.

Chaka Khan starts off mechanical, even a bit flat, but by the last couple of minutes she turns it on. Well, you know Chaka can shout. And, boy, does she ever. Her version includes a lot of trademark devices plus a bunch of voice overdubs. By turns, both ecstatic and extravagant. And also unalterably optimistic; “don’t you know we can change the world”!

But then we turn to Nina who starts off reciting the poetry of the song with a quite unnerving flatness to her enunciation. But somewhere towards the middle, Nina shifts into orchestral overdrive delivering both the emotion and the improvisation. And preaches a stirring anti-drug message. By the end its trance inducing. Damn near spiritual. After all, it’s Nina.

And we close with my favorite (Afro)German, Joy Denalane, working with a combo: two percussionists, guitar and bass. It’s jazzy. It’s funky. It’s an acoustic bomb, performed live before an audience. Makes you know Joy is simultaneously joyful and insightful.

There something to like in each version. But then, the variety. The diversity. That too, is a sign of the times.

 

 

 

 

 

Trump is what he is. Not what he says he is. Not what some think he is. Not even what his official position implies. He is purely. And simply. What he is.

To believe otherwise is unhealthy. Is ill-advised. Is.. well, is just plain stupid.

It is not a question of partisan politics. Not sour grapes. Not even reverse racism.

Any man who treats women the way Trump treats women may be a male but he’s certainly not really a man.

He is a monster.

 

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Struggle, in one form or another, is eternal. No surprise. At the forefront. As part of the rearguard. Where-so-ever we find ourselves.  Sooner or later. Whether obvious. Or whether we are oblivious.  We all, at one level or another, will have to literally battle to live our lives. Like Frederick Douglass famously said: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

We may not all see conditions in the same way, nevertheless there are moments when the fires are burning full up. When everyone has an opinion one way or another. When many of us decide to bust a move. When even the sleepiest among us is shocked awake.

And during pivotal moments our musical culture reflects, if not outright, leads mass awareness. Remember, James Brown, “Say It Loud. I’m Black And I’m Proud.” Or recall, Public Enemy, “Fight The Power.” And sometimes there are also images that exemplify the zeitgeist of a particular time period.

A contentious election is on the horizon. And many of us will cast a vote.  I don’t know what song will accompany us as we engage with the system. But during this 2020 election campaign there is a follow-up image from the Kamala Harris campaign that embodies a particular moment.

Even though many countries around the world have had, and continue to honor, women leaders. The United States has yet to elect a female as a national leader. Indeed, misogyny is a hallmark of American politics. Some of us even argue that Trump was elected due to white women who voted for him and rejected their own self-interest, refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton. Will the 2020 elections break that mold?

Politically, I’m leaning toward Elisabeth Warren and am impressed by Kamala Harris’ performance on the second night of the June 2019 Democratic debates. Regardless of who wins, what I really want to see is a definitive change in the direction of American politics. Maybe now will be a major moment in history. Even though I know, and as Obama’s presidency definitively demonstrates, one election by itself will not be a definitive change in American society, I still have a dream.

Change is possible. Ugly don’t last forever.

 

 

 

 

Germany’s Joy Denalane is one of the best soul singers on the planet. Period. Born 11 June 1973 in Berlin, her mother is German and her father South African. When she was sixteen she left home and started a life long career as a vocalist. 

Although German is her mother tongue, she occasionally records in English. Her debut studio album was Mamani in 1973 and featured a cameo appearance by Hugh Masekela on the title track. She had journeyed to South Africa to meet her paternal family.

After over 15 years, Joy continues to pursue a career as a singer. Here are tracks covering her career. They range broadly across her social and political concerns.

Joy is forthright in her emphasis on gender concerns. She sings of the struggles as well as the sweetness of personal intimacy.

What is distinctive about Joy’s music is how she is able to communicate across the language barrier. I remember when I got ahold of her first album and was so excited because of how strongly the music overcame my limited foreign language skills. She just sounded like a woman I knew. Someone familiar. A sister from around the corner even though, in truth, she was from the other side of the world.

As Joy Denalane so ably illustrates, Germany has got soul, y’all. And what a tremendous joy it is to behold.

–kalamu

 

 

Somewhere around 1997 I first heard Sara Tavares and was immediately smitten. Her sound. Her voice. The way she phrased her melodies. Early on in 1996 her second release was a heavily, gospel influenced album titled Sara Tavares & Shout!, which is another of the many indications of how influential USA Black music has been throughout the African diaspora. 

Sara was born February 1, 1978 in Lisbon of Cape Verdean parents but was raised in a Portuguese household. She has won beaucoup awards but it is her consciousness that attracts me, even (or, more precisely, especially) because most of the time she is singing words I don’t understand.

In an article in Rock, Paper, Scissors she says: “We speak Portuguese slang, Angolan slang, some words in Cape Verdean Crioulo, and of course some English. In Crioulo there are already English and French words. This is because slaves from all over the world had to communicate and didn’t speak the same languages. We are a metisse culture.”

Her aura is of gentle flowing water, but like any of the major rivers, she has a deep undercurrent of sound and sensibility, so soothing. But strong. Ever flowing on. Like a master martial artist, she does not resist life’s blows but rather uses the strength of opposition against itself. Make no mistake as gentle as she sounds, there is steel at her core.

She sings “Planeta Sukri” (Sugar Planet) on her popular 2006 album Balancé. “The poem of this song can be seen as a love poem. I am saying ‘Take me to a sugar planet, take me to place where there is no sadness, no cries. And this place is inside of you and me and everyone.’ I mean it more in a spiritual way than a romantic way. The ballads are very much like little prayers.”

The title song of Balancé has become an international hit. It’s meaning is all encompassing. “For me the song, ‘Balancé’ is also about balancing yourself between sadness and joy; day and night; salt and sugar. It’s about balancing emotions. You are always walking a thin line and you have to keep your balance. You have to dance with that line in order to keep standing. If you stay too rigid, you will fall.”

“The whole album is like little lullabies to myself. All the messages are about self-esteem, loving yourself. About liking what is different in you. About integrating all the parts of you.”

If you Google her, you will find her music, videos, and even entire performances. At the height of her international success, Sara was struck by a major health ailment and literally took years off to heal and, in the process, to meditate on her life, her music. In 2009 she had released Xinti and then she fell ill. It was not until 2017 that the next album came, her seventh recording, Fixadu. As jazz man Albert Ayler had prophesied: music is the healing force of the universe.

Below are informal recordings that illustrate her beauty, her sensitivity, her wondrous vocalizations.

Sara Tavares in session

Rita Maia had Cape Verdean, Portuguese singer and composer Sara Tavares in session.

Posted by Worldwide FM on Thursday, February 7, 2019

Sara Tavares ao vivo no auditório da M80

Posted by M80 Rádio – Portugal on Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sara Tavares recordings
  • 1994 Chamar a Música
  • 1996 Sara Tavares & Shout
  • 1999 Mi Ma Bô
  • 2006 Balancê
  • 2008 Alive! in Lisboa
  • 2009 Xinti
  • 2017 Fitxadu


 

 

I used to travel about quite a bit before I became an elder, before my wife’s stokes, before I became a caretaker 24/7/365. Understandably, for this New Orleanian, the nearby and culturally close Caribbean was my stomping grounds.

While I marveled at my Haitian experiences and will forever treasure my two trips to Cuba (during the second of which due to being in the right place at the right time, I bathed in the experience of conversating and briefly hanging out with Assata Shakur), and though the twin nation of Trinidad&Tobago was often a stopping point where Jimi Lee and I were thoroughly at home even though neither of us viewed there as where we would choose to be if we had a choice of islands—Port of Spain, Trinidad with its oil wealth and the upside down, mountain-side Hilton hotel offered a wide swath of experiences and, by contrast, the ambiance and slower pace of Tobago was much more to my liking, especially how people took the time to talk to you.

The differences between the sibling Caribbean isles was glaringly notable. However, the visual and cultural differences among the Antilles nations notwithstanding, Barbados was always my favorite, not for its beauty—certainly most of the other islands were much more physically alluring, particularly Jamaica with its mountains and beaches, or St. Lucia with its mix of English and French heritage as filtered through its predominate population of African-heritage peoples—nevertheless, there was something about small island (14 miles by 21 miles) Bajan ways that captivated my spirit.

Given how much I dug the Caribbean, my forays on the other side of the Atlantic into the island of England would catch me by surprise. Surprised by how good a fit it was for my spirit. After all it always rains in England and the sun is forever playing peek-a-boo, out one minute, hiding the next. This was a country dominated by English speaking ex-colonizers, or so I thought until I was given the chance to travel about and meet my brothers and sisters on that side of the pond.

Much to both my surprise and my delight, I discovered the Black folk there were a lot like we American Blacks. They were sojourners in a land dominated by the other man and, like us, they were a long way from home. And most of all, just like us, they bonded to build community in a psychically cold country that also had shiver inducing winters.

I don’t remember how I first met Kadija Sesay, but some kind of way we maintained contact with each other over the years. On one particular occasion I had an invite to be in London for a little over a week, she welcomed me into her flat even though she was about to disembark for Spain (if I remember correctly, I believe that was where she was headed). A couple of days after I arrived she took off and didn’t return until a couple of days before I left. I literally had her spot to myself for most of that particular journey.

We related to each other like brother and sister. Both of us were cultural activists, and were deeply into publishing. She and I were comfortable both talking and being silent in each other’s company. Although we had radically different life experiences we shared sensibilities and outlooks. Her patiently unfolding information concerning lifestyles I knew nothing about invariably struck an internal sympatico chord, just as my fumbling to identify concordancies and discordancies between our two cultures always made her chuckle.

Many years later, when I saw the BBC report on Kadija, I smiled to myself and vowed, I must write something, even if only a few sentences, to pay tribute to the sister I was not born with but whom I met and bonded with along my life path journeying through the African diaspora.

 

 

“We Must Get Closer To The Essence Of Life / But Be Aware, It’s Takes Courage And Strife.” From the early seventies up until hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was a DJ on radio station WWOZ. Over the years I hosted a number of programs, three of which were “Morning Meditations”, “The Kitchen Sink”, and “The Essence Of Life” that featured a cover-the-waterfront approach to the music.

Once we had a musician called “Sweet Mickey” in the studio. He and I hit it off bantering back and forth. He was from Haiti and I had been to Haiti (from standing atop the Citadel located in Cap Hatien up in the north of the country, to marveling at the beautiful black sand seaside of Jacmel in the south). A few years after laughing with the affable guest, Michel Martelly became the president of Haiti in 2011.

I spent many a morning as a record spun, and in the later years of my tenure, standing behind the console as a CD rotated, looking out the big window that stretched the width of the second floor studio of the Kitchen building in Armstrong Park. I would silently  watch the sun come up as I pulled the early shift beginning at six in the morning. I always ended with Labi Siffre’s wonderful song, “(Something Inside) So Strong” — which became my anthem. But then I also spent years pulling the night shift doing the Kitchen Sink, a program whose name accurately described the musical content.

Gary Bartz was a favorite whom I had met a couple of times when he was on tour and came through New Orleans. I was especially enamored of Bartz’s NTU Troop albums and a song called Celestial Blues, which was composed by Bartz’s pianist and vocalist of that period, Andy Bey (who was also a favorite).

Recently I read a fascinating Jazz Times article that featured Bartz musing about and documenting selections from his recording career. Although I’m a Coltrane freak and heavily lean into tenor saxophonists, I nevertheless give big ups to Gary Bartz. 

In the Jazz Times article, Bartz claims he’s not much of a vocalist, but any quick listen to his alto saxophone stylings makes clear he sings through his horn. Indeed, the vocalizations, especially his searching and soaring aural articulations are the deeply felt sound of a truly great saxophone-vocalist to whom we should all get closer. 

(Music links are at the bottom of this essay.)

When William Rouselle and I entered the room, the mayor stopped speaking and would not continue until we left.

Mr. Bill (as he is affectionately known) and I, were an unlikely duo, born less than a year apart in 1946 and 1947 respectively. He was from uptown, I from downtown (way downtown, the lower ninth ward, CTC–cross the canal). Although we both graduated from a catholic high school, he was from Xavier Prep class of 1963 (they had a predominately girl’s population) and my parents sent my resentful ass to St. Augustine (an all boy’s, mostly creole seventh-ward aggregation whose relatively small, dark-skinned population consisted of athletes and musicians plus a handful of so-called super-smart negroes) the class of 1964, which I fell into.

Bill graduated from Xavier University, I briefly attended SUNO (Southern University in New Orleans) after a three year stint in the army, which is partly how we met. In 1968 Bill was a newly employed television reporter and I was one of the leaders of student demonstrations. Shortly thereafter we met in person.

Ours is almost a fairy tale story. Highlights included community organizing together, such as opposing George Wein at Jazzfest (the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) and, later on, both of us working with Wein as board members and staff at Jazzfest. We both were stalwarts of the Free Southern Theatre. And we once gave a joint press conference during a tumultuous period of anti-klan militancy; the small coffee table was set with rifles on them; I had a 30-caliber carbine, and, if I remember correctly, Bill had a hunting rifle.

Plus, there was a whole lot more. During the seventies and eighties we were so close that when we attended raucous meetings one of us would start talking and the other would finish. Literally. And, man, we were some card-playing fools, the bid whist champions of our circle (I favored straight, no, low, i.e no trumps, low card winners, expose the kitty). And, oh yes, we both worked for years at the Black Collegian magazine where Butch and I were wounded in a shooting accident. I took a thirty-eight slug through my left knee. The bullet had hit Butch first, then through a desk, and onwards through my leg, and finally into the wall. Bill had the task of reporting the shooting accident, attending to getting us to the hospital, and patiently explaining to the incredulous doctors how two grown-ass negroes were shot while supposedly playing chess and both were wounded by the same bullet from a derringer that could snuggly and inconspicuously fit in a grown man’s hand.

In the particular case I started writing about above, the year was 1970-something and the city’s first Black mayor was Ernest Morial. Bill and I were co-conspirators in the take over of city hall, I with a handful of comrades sitting-in inside and Bill leading demonstrations outside in front of city hall.

Yes, we go way back. I keep promising to get with Bill and write up our story but meanwhile I’m sending out this brief missive as partial fulfillment of that ongoing wish.

So this post is about two things: my friendship with Bill and reparations. “When will we be paid for the work we did?” Here are three selections: one each from Prince, the Staple Singers, and Terry Callier.  There’s a whole lot more I could say, but I’ll just let this swift salvo stand until I get myself together and wage the full out campaign to tell the story of how Mr. Bill and I became the partners we were and the friends we will always be.