#MutualNight: Lomax, Smith, and Black History Month

(Quick reminder: if you’re curious why I’m writing about music on a Mormon blog, this post will summarize what #MutualNight posts are.)

Confession: I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time now. But as Black History Month ends tomorrow, I’m at kind of a deadline. Because there are two recent music releases that are ambitious, virtuosic, and critically important, while, at the same time, they’re intensely listenable. And I want to do them justice, but I just can’t. Still, I’m going to try.

400: An Afrikan Epic

In early January, my family and I spent a few days in New Orleans. As we were headed home, we stopped by the Whitney Plantation. Touring the Whitney Plantation is an incredible experience, because it’s focused almost exclusively on the experiences of the enslaved persons who lived and worked there. It has several monuments, monuments listing the names and origins of the enslaved persons, monuments to the enslaved children on the plantation, sculptures and statues memorializing those who were enslaved. In fact, unlike any other plantation tour I’ve been on, the big house was an afterthought—we went in it for literally the last three or four minutes of an hour-and-a-half tour.

The tour guide talked about these individuals. He described their various roles. Certain African groups had skills that were not only prized, but were necessary, for the development of Louisiana plantations. He spoke about the individuals, their hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations. The tour brought home that enslaved people were people first, people abused and exploited and raped, but people with an inner life not unlike ours.

And this is where Dr. Lomax’s ambitious release comes in. “400: An Afrikan Epic” tells the story of the African and African American experience over a 12-album cycle.

The twelve albums are divided essentially into three parts. The first four albums represent pre-colonial Africa. The next four represent the 400 years between 1619 (commonly, though not uncontroversially, regarded as the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade) and 2019, and the last four albums represent an optimistic Afrofuturism, one of healing, health, and unity.

And in many ways, Dr. Lomax does musically what the Whitney Plantation does explicitly: he humanizes the experience of Africans and African Americans. I said the album cycle is ambitious. And it’s not just ambitious because of the secular scope, or the fact that it is 12 albums. It’s musically ambitious. Dr. Lomax is both a drummer and a composer, and neither limits him. The early albums feature African drumming. Dr. Lomax plays with his quartet (drums, saxophone, piano, bass). He plays duets and trios with parts of the quartet. Some of the music is straight-ahead jazz. Some is more experimental.

And he writes for a string quartet. There is some lovely contemporary classical string quartet playing toward the middle of the albums, without drums, saxophone, piano, or (jazz) bass. Sometimes they play with his other instruments.

I’ve only listened to the full cycle once (seriously, 12 albums is a lot of music to absorb), though I’ve listened to a lot of it additional times. And in those listens, the album does two main things (besides providing amazing music): it underscores a full emotional and intellectual life of the African American experience. Enslaved persons weren’t just unfeeling automatons. They had a history and a future. And the music displays a full range of emotions, from joy to fear to pain to resistance.

And Africa wasn’t just a Dark Continent, filled with unsophisticated people. Black Panther fictionally illustrates the sophistication of Africa. And the album backs that up: the musical styles aren’t simplistic. They’re complex, from the rhythms of African drums to the very modern string quartets to the harmonic and improvisational sophistication of a working jazz quartet. In all, “400: An Afrikan Epic” highlights the humanity and the sophistication of the African American people.

The album is available here; you can also stream a couple songs from it to get an initial taste: “Passing Jupiter” and “Ankh.”

Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs

Wadada Leo Smith is an American treasure, and is one of my very favorite trumpeters and composers. An early member of Chicago’s AACM, he’s firmly in the world of the avant-garde.

His album “Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs” is the latest in a string of ambitious (there’s that word again) concept albums. Here, he works with three singers, a string quartet, trumpet players, electronics, and others to celebrate the courage, wisdom, and actions of Rosa Parks.

The album has very little that makes you think “jazz.” It’s operatic libretto, with the occasional punctuation of a trumpet or electronics. It is musically complicated and interesting, again eschewing ease and simplicity for a depth that underscores the power of what Parks did.

We generally know one moment in Parks’s life, when she refused to stand on a bus. Smith’s oratorio is a fitting celebration of a lifetime of activism, one which pushed American society further in the direction of justice.

The album is available here, and you can stream tracks from it here and here.

And Mormons

In my experience, we’re tremendously proud of Joseph Smith’s quasi-abolitionist feelings. And we often think of slavery as something that was just in the South, but had nothing to do with the Mormon people. That elides Mormon complicity in slavery, though: while Orson Pratt staunchly opposed it, Brigham Young supported legalized slavery in the Utah territory. In fact, enslaved persons in Utah gained their freedom, not as a result of prophetic dictum, but because Congress ended slavery in U.S. territories in 1862. We’re making moves in the direction of dealing with our history—the Gospel Topics essay acknowledges our history on both the right and wrong sides of the topic, and the Century of Black Mormons project strikes me as a critical move.

And I don’t want to pretend that listening to two (or, rather, 13) albums will take us to a place of racial understanding. But these albums are an amazing snapshot of African American history, culture, and experience, and certainly belong in all of our ears.

Comments

  1. I heard that as a child (that Africa was a dark continent with no form of civilization) and it didn’t ring true even then. I mean, honestly; even if you leave out all the rich cultures across the continent, Egypt is part of Africa. Pyramids, people?? (And, yes, there were black pharaohs.)

    Thank you for the Lomax recommendation. Another project to commemorate this 400th anniversary is under the auspices of Sons & Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passage, an organization with solid ties to the Church. If anyone quilts, they are collecting 400 squares (due by April 8) to make a quilt that will then go to a museum, and they’d love participation by individuals or quilting guilds. https://sdusmp.org/New2/quilt/

  2. Bro. Jones says:

    Thanks for this post. Will check out 400.

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