Corey Mwamba


Belonging (part II)

Another morning, another interesting conversation. After posting my previous post, it was picked up by Paul Jones. Paul and I had had a chat and a pint before my gig with Dave about, well, generally the similar theme: and Paul got me curious with this:

What you said the other night caused me to reflect deeply on my frustrations with 'old' black music and modern black musicians.

I asked what those reflections were.

[they are] Centred around my perception of soul/funk/RnB/jazz being abandoned in favour of far less satisfying hip hop/rap/pop. I'm wondering whether I harboured ideas that there's a lineage that's being turned down. I do still have expectations that Japanese folk are the primary maintainers of Gagaku for example, so {they are} still lineage ideas. But the context for black musicians is different now (than say 50 yrs ago). They can (and should) do anything.

By "do anything", I think Paul is talking about permission and acceptance of black musicians doing any form of music. He concluded:

So thoughts of lineage abandonment are more than tempered by an appreciation of greater openness and expressionistic freedom.

I picked up on the point about Gagaku: that music is tightly bound to a country's historic and cultural norms; and its spread is not [as] global as that of jazz. I'm beginning to see jazz as a "diasporic" music; although its roots were in one place, its spread and proliferation to other areas of the globe mean that it cannot hold that original identity; it's assimilated into the surrounding culture. This linked in with something the bassist Karl Rasheed–Abel had said a few days before:

Is that I'm not American and am I actually just trying to mimic a by gone culture which I can't really relate to in the slightest bit? I love the music and the philosophy that comes with it but am I just paying my respects to it or even disrespecting it by not allowing my own cultural influence from coming out and being expressed?

I also fully agree with Paul's conclusion: I think it would be very difficult to reject that freedom in Western-based diaspora [e.g. Black Americans, Black British, et al.]: and yet that's exactly what I think occurs—and has been one of the main thrusts of some of the things I have written.

Then Han-earl Park stepped in with a really interesting question:

I wonder if tradition/idiom/practice is something that is "maintained".

For me, I found that fascinating: if jazz is a diaspora, then what are the common traits between each one and the supposed "root"? Why are they maintained? What is held in esteem, and what is discarded? I saw this as being multi-layered, and gave an example which I'll use here: soprano saxophone tone.

Listen to Johnny Hodges lead this beauty:

And check Sidney Bechet here:

What we're listening for here is the tone of the instrument and how related to other instruments in the same family it is. My argument is that Hodges' and Bechet's tone relate closer to the lower-sounding members of the saxophone family.

I'm going to throw in a oddity: one of the few saxophonists of the bop era to pick the soprano saxophone, Lucky Thompson [and a personal note—the album Tea Time is beautiful]:


Coltrane's tone [to my ears] is moving closer to an oboe—and it is this tone that has become a manner in which several soprano saxophonists play—an instrumental mode, so to speak. And it's now the sound that's aimed for on the instrument—Coltrane is a maintained tradition, even though Thompson, Hodges and Bechet were all playing soprano before Coltrane.

Han-earl then asked

Is "maintenance" of tradition akin to repetition in identity (e.g. gender) performance? {Thus} I may become Korean through the repetition (and reproduction) of certain cultural acts {...} or at least become intelligible/recognizable as Korean.

Han-earl's point was that by using certain traditional methods we connect ourselves with that culture and can be seen as being part of that culture. Not using those methods can create a confusion or contradiction—Paul laid out an example of white shakuhachi players not sitting in seiza. But, as Karl's earlier question alludes to, I don't think you would find many shakuhachi players who would not adopt seiza—in the same way that some jazz musicians don't do gigs unless they look like someone from the 1940s. Is this mimicking, respecting, or a requirement? And where is the identity of the musician within this—is that important?

I happen to think that some of this comes from the listener. There are certain things I don't think about or put in when I'm playing—for example, I don't consciously project the fact that I'm a man when I play; but a listener might think a solo is talking about the male experience. But in some areas, those choices are set for you before you've done anything. Han-earl again:

{on the other hand} the pressure to be intelligible meant that e.g. people of colour were excluded from the conservatories... you still hear how Asian classical performers are "cold" and, though they play well, they play "mechanically"... how black composers are written about by as not belonging in the concert hall—of being "out of their depth"... but once those Asians go all oriental, or black musicians start doing "jazz"... we know where we stand.

From personal experience I can say that's entirely true. In this, intelligibility is a persona—mask for an actor applied by a director. And, in some circumstances, there are particular masks that I am not expected to wear. We can kick against these things; be "noisy, difficult, complex and contradictory" as Han-earl put it—and I like those—but I'm more up for being honest. I enjoy things that are natural in their complexity/contradiction; some things are essentially simple or quiet. Taking time to locate oneself in a huge maelstrom of influences and stimuli, and getting to the nub of what forms and drives you. Music is an expression of what is [and what is not] through sound and silence—we are all in there somewhere ready to be heard.

comments (3)

Corey Mwamba

6th Oct 2012 | 6:37am

All this happened yesterday, by the way. But it took me a long time to write it, hence posting it this morning.

Han-earl Park

6th Oct 2012 | 8:56pm

Excellent article, Corey.

re: “noisy, difficult, complex and contradictory,” a little clarification: I don’t mean this in terms of the ‘sound itself,’ but in terms of its social effect, its relationship (or not) to the cultural ecosystem, and how it decodes, if at all. I mean ‘noise,’ for example, in the sense used by Jacques Attali or George E. Lewis; as something that resists easy decoding (i.e. escapes simple intelligibility)—that doesn’t scan. Lewis links this concept to post-slavery aesthetics of multi-dominance (a desire/need to create signals that would appear as noise to the dominant culture), Attali links it to signs of coming social change, or the forces that are bringing it about. Thus things that sound “simple or quiet,” can still be noisy, or difficult, or complex, in this sense.

I’m posing these as, in a sense, opposite to the desire to hear coherence, unity, order—totalitarian ideals—that are often expressed by reviewers. So…

Let’s all be noisy, difficult, unruly, complex and contradictory!

Corey Mwamba

6th Oct 2012 | 9:49pm | replying to Han-earl Park

OH. I'm really glad you explained that, because I'd honestly have never got there on my own. Why can't words just mean what they mean? ;)

Seriously, thanks for clarifying you meaning. It really deepens the discussion—hoping others chip in too!

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