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Africa Speaks, America Answers

Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times

Robin D. G. Kelley

Harvard University Press £18.95

ISBN 978-0-674-04624-5

Africa Speaks, America Answers

The title of this collection of essays is taken from a jazz composition by Guy Warren, an African drummer 'committed to fusing jazz and African rhythms', according to Robin Kelley. Here, four artists are examined: Guy Warren, Randy Weston, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Sathima Bea Benjamin. Two are from Africa - vocalist Benjamin, and Ghanaian percussionist Guy Warren (later Kofi Ghanaba). The other two are Brooklyn-born friends and collaborators: pianist Randy Weston and Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a bassist and oud player. The four musicians were among hundreds who forged connections between jazz and Africa during the fifties and sixties.

The crucial point to note is that author Kelley is Gary B. Nash Chair of US History at the University of California, Los Angeles. That is, he is an historian. Kelley's research and teaching interests range widely, covering the history of labour and radical movements in the USA, the African Diaspora, and Africa, and its intellectual and cultural history. Though Kelley is a much praised academic, nowhere is he cited as an educated musician. For me, that is the weakness of this book: it appears not to be written by a musically literate person. No musical examples are included. Furthermore, elementary mistakes are committed, even down to the basic description of writing of 'building to a crescendo', the author seeming not to recognise that a crescendo is a process, not a state. One writes less convincing jazz history and musically-associated commentary without basic musical understanding.

In Kelley's concluding paragraph, gratitude is expressed to LisaGay Hamilton (the author's partner), who "improved the text immeasurably by asking one single question, over and over again: "So, what is this book about?"" Good for her; I wondered the same thing myself several times, as I ploughed through this text. One is pleased that someone cares about such matters of politics and sociology, but one would welcome better-educated musical commentary.

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, 2012. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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