Bantu Roadmaps… The Motown Connection

“You went to school to learn, girl
Things you never, never knew before
Li-i-ike “I-before-E-except-after-C”
And why “2-plus-2-makes-4”
Na… na… Now…
I’m gonna teach you,
All about love…” (J-5)

ABC by the Jackson-5 is a great example of a play song. Traditionally, play songs are as integral to the African child’s daily life as other music that will accompany them from cradle (flesh) to cradle (earth) and beyond. As such, these play-songs are coded to meet a child’s educational and developmental needs at their particular place in this journey of life. Along with other Motown hits that belatedly made their way to Kenya’s airwaves, ABC connected with me during my high-school years. It was literally a burst of fresh air… and much more!

Kenya High School – formerly The European Girls’ High School – was to be my intellectual home for six years. At the freshly-turned age of 12, I was older than Kenya’s Independence from Britain which had come in 1963. The micro-managed incremental process of Independence hadn’t yet impacted the educational curriculum by the early 70s. My required English texts were written by European men like Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, and Graham Greene. My Music Theory and “Pianoforte” acumen was adjudicated annually by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music whose President was none other than Britain’s Queen Mother (Elizabeth). My History… ‘nuff said.

For those of us locked away in this boarding school environment for nine months out of every year, the nickname “Boma” (Swahili for livestock enclosure) seemed appropriate. All the girls wore ties as part of their uniform and had to adhere to a grooming-code that didn’t allow more than two full braids separated by a part down the middle. (Sistas know what’s up with that!) The formal weekday curriculum was reinforced by compulsory chapel service every Sunday morning. From the prefects’ daily inspection of the shine on our uniform shoes to the student line-marches across Boma’s immaculate and beautiful campus grounds between dorms, dining/assembly hall, chapel (etc.), order was efficiently dispensed out of a military playbook.

But for a few precious hours on Saturday evenings before curfew forced us to report back to our House dormitories (Hamilton; Curie; Baden-Powell; Huxley; Bronte; Mortimer; etc. – ten in all) we got to define the state of play… renewing our sense of cultural agency and community in the common rooms wherever the invitation called:

“Sit down, girl…
I think I luv ya!
No, git up girl…
Show me what you can do!
Shake it, shake it baby
C’mon now…
Shake it, shake it baby
Ooh oo-ooh…
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon… Lemmee show you what it’s all about… ” (ABC J-5)

We responded… religiously. We even had a specially choreographed ABC dance that – like our play with the funky chicken, the bump, the popcorn, and the hustle – everyone had to learn to do to acceptable degrees of proficiency as part of their extracurricular rites-of-passage. Things all began to come into a different and refreshing perspective during our Saturday evening rituals.

Pop artists that had dominated our post-Independence airwaves faded into the background as if they’d merely been place-holders for the real thing. The cultural loop was closed for me once Motown drove its nommo into our town, going to work in fresh African earth. Motown scored a major diplomatic victory by offering the gatekeepers with their “British Invasion” playlists a reassuring blend of Black pop music. It liberated the airwaves, whetting our appetites for more from deeper within the African-American experience, especially since our education wasn’t providing us the slightest inkling of what that experience was. (Given the historic significance of the transitional era we were in – African Independence in our southern hemisphere, and Civil Rights in the northern hemisphere – this was a particularly egregious academic oversight.)

So as the needles of our gramophone players navigated the black vinyl grooves at 45 or 33 revolutions-per-minute (rpm) during our Saturday evening playtime, history and geography were both circumvented through familiar-sounding rhythms of oral performance and play. Ebonic nommo sowed dreams and landscaped our horizons in some unexpected ways. From the mysterious inner workings of some unknown adolescent girls’ minds, Clarence Carter’s songs Changes, and Patches on the 45 rpm flipside, became nicknames for the two hottest boys’ high schools in Kenya. So Lenana School (formerly Duke of York School) – where my big brother attended – became Changes, and Nairobi School (formerly Prince of Whales School) was nicknamed Patches. And like “Boma,” those pop-music-inspired nicknames stuck for as long as I can remember.

There are so many anecdotes about the world of dreams that Motown helped open up inside of us from some mysteriously intertwined cultural mojo (kimoyo). Dubbed The Sound of Young America in 1960, Berry Gordy‘s assemblyline project to break down racial barriers in pop music connected with me at a much deeper level than its deliberately sweetened and highly groomed formal presence. For me this was the masquerade that worked to appease the powers-that-be on their level, ultimately in order to facilitate critical communication on the communal track with non-Motown artists also.

Gordy’s success had major, largely-positive internal cultural consequences during a time when Bantu needed to be on the same page as Nina Simone when she sang, “To be young, gifted, and black is where it’s at…” [click link for video by African artists]. And when other Civil Rights vehicles like James Carr’s Freedom Train [click for video] stopped by, we did indeed become part of a very different conversation in our informal Saturday night rituals.

Mother Africa

We were young girls emerging into matriarchal ways of knowing, whether we were conscious of it or not, and this important developmental milestone was celebrated and accompanied by a culturally-congruent soundtrack at a time when our formal educational curriculum was woefully lacking. The last time we talked by phone, Susan – one of my Boma schoolmates – let me know that after years of saving up her money she’d finally managed to make her dream journey to Dawson, Georgia to pay her respects to the late Otis Redding at his birthplace, and then in Macon where he grew up. The cultural connections that were nurtured during our informal Saturday evening rituals were not superficial in their nature.

In retrospect I’ve come to realize that the 60’s/70’s period of cultural renewal and omnipresence throughout the pan-African world was as much about gaining Independence from a disenfranchizing European hegemony as it was about recognizing and owning our shared cultural brand in ubuntu which continually reaffirms: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” (John S. Mbiti)

"...Without the roots of love everyday girl
Your education ain’t complete
T- T- T- Teacher’s gonna show you
How to get an A: Spell me and you, add the two" 
(ABC J-5)

While Motown was helping to liberate our colonized airwaves and drawing us into the larger cultural conversation, the American academy was itself adjusting to include Black Studies programs as a concession to the Civil Rights struggles of that era. By the time I came to America to study music, the academic conversation had advanced enough to allow me a course correction from Europatriarchal to the Bantu-matriarchal – Africa-centered – grounding of my current oral-aesthetic perspective, which now helps me to make sense of my particular cultural experiences and to respond appropriately to the call that had come through for me from back in the day… Peace & Blessings, M

Absalom Aggrey Mombo Mutere AKA "Bimbo" (1955 - 2010)

DEDICATION: This post is dedicated to the pioneer Captain of Mwamba (Swahili for “rock”) – Kenya’s first African RFC – whose 1978 response to a colonial status-quo was, “It is meaningless to talk about the development of Kenyan rugby without using Kenyans as a reference point!” Thanks for holding it down on the frontlines, but mostly just for being my big Bro… Love on your birthday & forever, Sis.

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