Book Review: Africa Speaks, America Answers

Review by Jo Manby, adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times by Robin D. G. Kelly (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. and London, England 2012)

This four-part volume, hailed as a ‘collective biography’ and written by the author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, vividly evokes the network of calls and responses across continents that linked modern jazz and Africa at a time of burgeoning revolutionary freedom – the 1950s and 60s.

Photo of book cover on shelfRobin Kelly began the book when he was asked to deliver the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures, sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, in the spring of 2003. In these lectures, he explored the contributions of four artists: pianist Randy Weston, drummer Guy Warren (Kofi Ghanaba), bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. Each of these men shared connections with Thelonious Monk. During the research period for this book Kelly also decided to include South African composer and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin.

The book takes its title from one of Guy Warren’s jazz compositions, Africa Speaks, America Answers. Warren claimed that he introduced West African music to the United States; however it is indisputable that it arrived in North America with enslaved Africans. When he left Ghana, his birthplace, and arrived in Chicago in 1954, he was ‘ready to make his mark on the jazz world’ (p.17).

He had played in highlife bands, won a scholarship to the Gold Coast’s prestigious Achimota College and worked as a jazz disc jockey. He had been assistant director and DJ for Liberia’s Eternal Love Broadcasting Corporation. Warren recorded Africa Speaks, America Answers at Universal Studios in Chicago, 1956, ‘arguably the first LP in history that fused jazz and African music’ (p.23).

Central to the chapter on Warren is the dispute over the authenticity of African drumming – who could and who could not play ‘African’ drums. Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Columbia Records release of 1959/60, Drums of Passion, essentially ‘overshadowed Warren’s entire output’ (p.32). Warren was in the end not ‘African enough to be marketable’ (p.38).

While Warren ‘dreamed of coming to America and infusing jazz with his unique African rhythms, Randy Weston dreamed of coming ‘home’ to Africa’ (p.41). Weston was descended from Jamaican Maroons and although his parents separated, he divided his time between the two Brooklyn households and enjoyed the ‘rollicking, soulful music of the black church’ (p.43) with his mother and the British and Spanish Caribbean background of his father. Weston became a ‘serious student of folk music and traditional African music’ (p.52); moved by the political upheavals of decolonising Africa of the 1950s he wrote the famous suite Uhuru Afrika (Freedom Africa) in 1959, a record that ‘celebrates the bonds between Africans and the African diaspora – past, present, and future’ (p.61).

Months later he visited Africa, a trip to Nigeria that would change his life. Kelly makes the case for Music from the New African Nations being as significant as Uhuru Afrika, in that it ‘grew directly out of Weston’s visit to Africa’ (p.78). Eventually he took two of his children to live in Morocco for five years. He opened the African Rhythms Cultural Centre in Tangier, and was deeply influenced by the Gnawa, musicians and descendants of slaves taken from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Randy Weston had a childhood friend, the bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, whose aim was to ‘revitalize jazz by composing pieces based on ‘Eastern’ modes or scales that extend beyond the Western diatonic and chromatic scales’ (p.91). He converted to Islam, being born Jonathan Tim Jr., and became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (not the Egyptian group of the same name). Kelly narrates the story of how Abdul-Malik negotiated representations of the ‘Arab’ in American culture; how he formed his first Arab-jazz fusion group in 1957; and made the first Arab-jazz fusion LP, Jazz Sahara, notably using ancient ways to make very contemporary music.

The final chapter of Kelly’s study tells of the ‘Making of Sathima Bea Benjamin’. Like Guy Warren, he suggests, she ‘was not ‘African’ enough to be marketable, and too ‘African’ or exotic to be taken seriously as a great jazz vocalist’ (p.122). However, despite turns of bad luck, Benjamin was an eternal optimist who managed to express joy even in oppressive times, being one of the generation who lived through the worst of the apartheid system, and created what Kelly refers to as some of the most ‘beautiful and joyous music on the planet’ (p.159). Modern Africa certainly helped mould the jazz of the 1950s and 60s, jazz which ‘speaks and will continue to speak, from every continent, every city, every culture around the globe’ (p.169).

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One thought on “Book Review: Africa Speaks, America Answers

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Africa Speaks, America Answers | JAZZ IZZIN

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