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On John Coltrane's “Africa

April 23, 2007.


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com



Just the name conjures images: a romantic, ancestral motherland; a teeming jungle of hardship and bad government; a black, heart-shaped continent, the deepest of darknesses. Africa.

More African Americans go to
Europe than have returned to Africa. Except in our music. In our music, we journey there all the time. And guess what? That Africa we journey to, is also that Africa that is deep inside so many of us.


And, it is this Africa—not the land mass per se, but rather the Africa of our innards, the spirit sound of our heartbeats—that is the Africa, the singing Africa, the dancing Africa, that Africa is the Africa the music unleashes. The Africa we can never leave. The Africa that will never leave us. That DNA Africa is articulated by our music.

And guess what? It is not our writers, educators and intellectuals who keep
Africa alive in us. No. It is our music that feeds Africa and is fed by Africa. Our music. Our Africa
. And the jazz artists most of all, are the ones who consciously connected us to Africa even when most of us thought that a Tarzan yodel was the most familiar sound of Africa.

Which brings me, brings us, all of us, to John Coltrane’s great composition:
Africa.” I remember when it came out. Remember listening to it on the radio. Not a low-powered college station or an end-of-the-dial community station, but rather on the main popular station of the Sixties in New Orleans: WYLD. The show was “This Is Jazz,” every Saturday from 3pm to 7pm.


So important to me that I bought a little portable radio and used to carry it with me listening as I walked the picket lines during the Civil Rights movement. I can distinctly remember hearing Cecil Taylor while I walked up and down New Orleans' Basin Street outside the side entrance of Krauss department store.


What I am getting at is that back then we could hear the full spectrum of ourselves on the popular radio station of the day. Today if it ain’t sexy, it ain’t shit, and you ain’t going to hear nothing on the main station other than perfect bullshit.

is a raw sound. An urgent sound. It sounded huge, like elephants on the loose, when I first heard it back then, and it still sounds huge today.
The SF Jazz Collective version, featuring artistic director Joshua Redman on tenor and Eric Harland on drums, is wonderful as a recreation. I am especially enthralled by Bobby Hutcherson making merry on marimba. His infectious, witty accompaniment has all the sly humor of Brer Rabbit frolicking in a briar patch. Don’t get me wrong, Redman is blowing mightily on that tenor sax and Harland is beating up a storm, but still Hutcherson makes the composition something to listen to again and again.
From the Bay Area, we head southward to LaLa land, where vocalist Dwight Tribble holds court. We are in Angel-hood,
Leimert Park
, location of The World Stage, the performance center put together by deceased drummer Billy Higgins and poet maximus Kamau Daaood. Indeed, Tribble and Daaood are cut buddies, frequently, as on this cut, appearing together. Although this is from Tribble’s CD, Living Waters, for me Kamau’s cameo steals the show in how smooth he runs the voodoo down, how he casually tosses off astounding metaphors, like, “if the earth had breasts.”

What’s also interesting about this version is rather than lean on the melody, they spring loose the rhythm and use the harmonics as a bed over which they blow improvised lines. In fact, you have to listen closely to discern the shape of the song, but that’s good because this is not an attempt to re-create what Trane wrought, but rather a successful use of a classic song as a springboard for a very personal investigation and articulation of what


The personalities of the players become singularly important in this context, so much so, it does not even sound like a Trane song. In fact, it could be the Nigerian Olatunji song with new world lyrics - by which I mean that the African poly-rhythms and the story becomes the core of this version. Rather than a vehicle for horn and trap drummer, it’s now about percussion and griot, which, if you check it for what it is, you will peep that this is a very African orientation.  
Speaking of the lyrics, they are composed by vocalist Abbey Lincoln who does manage to sound like a horn, a horn that hollers with the intensity of a million Negroes demanding their freedom. She had that strength—the strength of field Negroes—all up in her throat. Ironically, she is working with members of Miles’ working band who were in
Japan on tour at the same time Lincoln was there in the summer of 1973.


Ironically, because the absence of Trane left a hole in Miles that all subsequent saxophonists only partially filled, Wayne Shorter undoubtedly more than most of the others combined, and even though Wayne offered up unparalleled composing skills, nevertheless, he was not Trane, his playing did not have that fierceness. So here’s Miles in Japan: he lends his band to Abbey Lincoln and Abbey chooses to record her version of Trane’s masterpiece.

That’s James Mtume on percussion (this is, of course, some years before Mtume became famous with “Juicy Fruit”). Dave Liebman bearing down on the horn, manages to come out of a Trane bag without sounding like a Trane clone, or Trane wanna-be. Here we can easily hear why Miles wanted him. Al Foster is on drums. I have always like the sensitivity of his swing, he plays like a tap dancer with a suave surge of rhythm that is never clumsy, always classy. The rhythm section is rounded out by Japanese pianist Hiromasa Suzuki and bassist Kunimitsu Inaba, two stalwarts of the Japanese jazz scene of that era.

When Abbey screams “all my life,” no doubt we are listening to a naked confession as powerful as Trane’s celebrated “cry,” i.e. Trane’s most personal and most instantly identifiable sound, the blue sound of saturated sadness flavoring every emotion, the sadness of a people in sorrow, a people suffering, but a people who choose to be happy and optimistic when all logic suggests we should be just the opposite.
From the opening whoop of the brass to those early moments when Trane unleashes a monumental gush of tenor saxophone, we are confronted with something so musically massive that even over 40 years later it still sounds like tomorrow, like something new barreling towards us rather than something old fading in the rearview of our lives.

Compared to the original, SF Jazz Collective sounds like a college band at best. This is alchemy. You can not duplicate this version of “Africa” because back then, they were playing more than just their own life experiences, they were reflecting a whole continent in motion, they were reflecting America on fire, the torch light in the eyes of Blacks who were refusing any longer to be Negroes.


So in their playing, you can hear echoes of King and Malcolm, of Birmingham and Watts; today, we have no such immediate events to stuff into the horns (or more likely the keyboards) of young musicians, thus the thickness of contemporary music sounds thin compared to what was happening then, not because the musicians are any less musicians but rather because the social experiences are not of the same depth, and as always the meaning and weight of the music comes from the world within which the music is made, the world that shapes the music and the way the music in turn helps us to shape the world.
Some of us actually went to
after hearing this.


Before I go too far off, let me call attention to the non-bombastic complexity of Elvin Jones earthquaking drum solo. Whereas Harland was pounding full out like a man possessed, Elvin Jones was like a god riding the drums, completely in control and offering up a clinic of polyrhythmic syncopation. Even if I had four hands, I (nor anyone else I’ve heard) could do half as much as Elvin does on this piece.


Stories about Jones are legendary, especially the witnessing of him literally nailing his drums down on the bandstand to keep them in place as a he applied his high-octane beating of the hides. He was known to be so loud that even when horn players put a microphone into the bells of their horns, Elvin would still drown them out, except, of course, for Trane who would stare Elvin down like an elephant trampling on the king of the jungle.

I know that many of our younger readers might not hear all of this in Trane’s version (or, for that matter, in any of the versions) of
Africa and I understand why. When I listen to Africa I don’t just hear a song, I hear a whole world that many of us struggled to give birth to, a world that gave us meaning, gave us great joy in embracing.


I hear liberation movements and cultural awakening but, alas, that was a different time, a time that even though now long gone, a time I nevertheless still hear pulsing inside me, a sound I am reminded of every time Trane wails or Abbey screams Africa.”


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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Africa on the African American's Mind

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