Mother Africa

“The black continent possesses the greatest creative power of any in the world. Whatever has its origins in Africa remains African forever in mind and in spirit.” (Hermann Keyserling, 1923)

In New York: The Secret African City, Robert Farris Thompson speaks of the Bantu presence as one of the greatest African civilizing forces in America. The impact on the global village of this presence from America’s media capital – New York – cannot be overestimated from an oral-aesthetic perspective. Within the last century, the 1970s youth culture of hip-hop exploded onto the global scene after it was born and developed in the socio-economically disadvantaged inner city of the Bronx (NY). And of course Harlem (NY) was the center of an earlier cultural rebirth whose oral-aesthetic signature is often referred to as the Jazz Age.

Considered by many to be America’s greatest art form, jazz came of age during the Harlem Renaissance – a period of a self-conscious outpouring of African-American creativity which conversely signaled the loss of popularity of minstrelsy. As discussed under the masquerade motif, the great American music industry began in the 1830s theater of white actors painted in blackface lampooning African-American culture, with song and dance forming the heart of these culturally-denigrating minstrel shows. The Jazz Age heralded both a rebirth and a reassertion of the custodianship of African culture… a culture in exile that was bringing a new civility to American discourse.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Words from the Mother of Exiles via Emma Lazarus, 1883 in her sonnet “The New Colossus.” In 1903, this sonnet was engraved and mounted on a bronze plaque at the Statue of Liberty in New York.)

Congo Square in New Orleans, an important space for African oral-aesthetic expression and production, played a significant role during the formative years of jazz. Vaudeville acts featuring Jelly Roll Morton and others introduced the New Orleans style to Chicago and New York in the early 1900s as the Great Migration from the south was underway, bringing hundreds of thousands of African Americans and regional musical forces to industrialized north and midwest cities. Influenced by Eubie Blake’s rag style for instance, James P. Johnson developed the Harlem stride piano style out of which the Charleston with its definitive “roaring 20s” sound and dance emerged. The convergence of African-Americans in New York City and the coming of age of jazz gave rise to a new mass culture.

Some notable musicians of this period include Fats Waller; Duke Ellington; Willie “The Lion” Smith; Count Basie; and Louis Armstrong among others. Ladies of jazz included such greats as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn. Their careers were launched at the Apollo Theater which – along with the Savoy Ballroom where the Lindy Hop (a Charleston-influenced swing-jazz-dance style) became famous – is a renowned performance venue of the Harlem Renaissance that began to fall into decline with the advent of television.

Although the Harlem Renaissance was characterized by an overt racial pride that challenged the pervading racism through literature, art, music, and the progressive intellectualism of the New Negro, it depended to a certain extent on white interest, patronage and publication for its success. (Wanting to reinforce their often racist stereotypes of African-American culture, a number of these whites would only support works that depicted “primitivism.”)  The illicit speakeasies that arose in response to the Prohibition (1920-33) became lively venues for the development of Jazz Age cultural expression, tainting this pop music and dance as “immoral” in many minds, including some in the conservative black intelligentsia of the time. So African-American artistic expression once again became caught in the dualistic tensions of “low-” vs. “high-culture” which were entrenched in an institutionalized mindset, but nevertheless fought for its recognition and respect…

“It’s all music.” – Duke Ellington on jazz.

“…it is not music at all. It’s merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion.” – Prof. Henry Van Dyke (Princeton University English Literature professor, 1899-1923) on jazz.

When the original colloquial usage of the African-American term jazz is combined with its significance in the realm of music, one is struck by the persistence of Africa-centered conceptual awareness in the oral-aesthetic mythoform. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang links the etymology of the word jazz with the mid-1800s slang term jasm – a variant of jism, gism, or jizz – meaning “spirit, energy, vigor, spunk” or “semen/sperm.” In either sense of the meaning, jazz remains consistent with the oral-tradition concept of nommo/seed as the seminal masculine principle in its life-generating flow, broadcasting itself into the transformative matriarchal and social environment. Interestingly, before it was used in relation to media, the term “broadcast” originally meant the literal sowing of seeds by scattering them widely over the matriarchal environments of farms or fields. African oral-aesthetic expressions have ritualized these organic processes of conception and creation, and understood them in Ebonic terms such as jazz.

From a western perspective one would regard jazz as a performer’s art rather than a composer’s art because its predominant driving force is the art of improvisation. And in this sense it becomes a very present-oriented form of expression which is not bound to a prescribed – i.e. composed – text, and is subject to the forces at play in the moment. Temporal homeostasis has always been a practical element of oral culture which, while serving to maintain a vital kinetic context also lends itself to the exercise of the call-response motif and to more “newsy” formats. Chuck-D of Public Enemy famously referred to rap music as “Black America’s CNN,” as if to underscore its rise in the Bronx borough of New York’s media industrial-complex.

If improvisation is the art of mediating the present, it nevertheless is informed by the past, the familiar, or that which carries the ancestral memory. And in such a sense the call-response motif provides a mechanism that allows for this procession of life to move forward in the manipulations of time, text, and pitch by a soloist or leader who is dependent upon the stability and support of a rhythmically-modulated, responsorial chorus.

One represents youth and the present while the rhythmic structure and chorus provide the context of tradition as an interactive parental-ancestral-traditional presence. This is a pattern that can be heard in urban popular music playing off rural musical traditions on the continent, and in the African-American led development of new popular music genres in the west which have greatly impacted musical discourse in the global village. It is evident in the collaboration between Herbie Hancock (jazz) and DJ Grandmixer DXT (hip-hop) on Rockit which, after their 1983 Grammy performance, brought scratching into the popular music mainstream. In its existential sense this is jazz fulfilling its Africa-centered creative mission as it negotiates time and space and expands its conversational impact and social reach within the particular parameters of its musical format.

The jazz paradigm generates a unique working model of democracy, demonstrating its remarkable capacity to be inclusionary and interactive while simultaneously respecting and reflecting difference and aesthetic sensibilities. The entire spectrum of musical expression available to humankind is able to be incorporated into this Africa-centered family dialogue according to the creative discretion of the performers involved, and in this sense jazz is a music of, for, and by the people.

And it is in the latter sense that it is especially African, whether in its call-response motifs where often each performer shifts between the leader and chorus roles, or in the array of instruments and predominance of intricate rhythms that continue to weave a social fabric of individual complexity. Jazz is not a mere abstract aesthetic arrangement of sound, but is rather a critical Africa-centered process of communication as it creates and reflects the community, in a way that might be contrasted with the information-oriented genre of rap as another Africa-centered mode of discourse.

In its reflection of and comfort with a multi-cultural community, jazz also becomes a measure of the fully-evolved seed/nommo: of the success of its broadcast and mission… human experience being the final empirical authority. The inherent expectation of Africa’s oral-aesthetic tradition is that recipients of sound will simultaneously interact with it – mind, body, and spirit – in conscious and holistic transformations of time and space… vested human-beings participating in this communal paradigm and humanizing odyssey of life.

I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am ~ UBUNTU

(Posted on Mother’s Day – May 13th, 2012 – the 16th anniversary of the Mother of Humanity statue, pictured right, suggesting “Africa” in her outline and shape. Nijel BPG, created the Mother of Humanity(TM) monument following the April 29, 1992 Los Angeles Rebellions. As one of the world’s largest bronze sculptures to illustrate the African origins of man the sculpture portrays spiritual symbols and features of various ethnic groups to exemplify the cultural diversity of the world’s new universal mother. The Mother of Humanity(TM) was unveiled on Mother’s Day – May 11, 1996 at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee in Los Angeles.)                                                                                                                             

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