Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Louis in Ghana

“If you could hang out for a night with any jazz musician, living or dead, who would it be? And what would you ask him or her?” So began a conversation with one of the Orff-Afrique students. Impossible question! But having spent so much time reading about his life and listening to his music, Louis Armstrong came to mind. And last night, it came true.

Well, in my dreams. We hung out a bit, then he came to my school to listen to the kids play St. Louis Blues. He had a trumpet in hand and I waited for him to join in, but he never did. Maybe Gabriel doesn’t actually have a band up in heaven and his chops were rusty having been gone from this earth some 45 years.  

As for the question I would ask, the first thing that came to mind was his trip to Ghana. He came here, courtesy of a State Department that used to send jazz musicians around the world as ambassadors of American Culture. I wonder whether they were given instructions to just play and not talk about how badly they were treated in the good old U.S. of A. But nevertheless, they sponsored Louis to go to Russia and Brazil and Ghana and beyond, sponsored Duke Ellington to play in Japan, India, the Middle East and more, later Dave Brubeck (whose visit to Turkey inspired Blue Rondo a la Turk).

Some of Louis’ time in Ghana is captured on film and available on Youtube. The two things that struck me are how rhythmically simple jazz appeared next to the welcoming Ghanaian drum ensemble with its complex polyrhythms. The next was the apparent confusion of the Ghanaians listening, clearly not easily understanding or reacting to this foreign music.

Let talk a moment about those polyrhythms. Last night, a semi-professional group performed and you would think that my inch-by-inch increased exposure to and understanding of what these ensembles are doing would damp down my amazement at the complexity of their rhythmic structures and thinking. You would be wrong. I am more impressed than ever by the technical demands of the music, the constantly shifting textures created by the master drummer, the sophisticated conversations with the dancers, the dancers themselves, the connections within the ensembles and the breakneck speed of their playing and ability to react instantly to aural signals. What this culture can do within a 12-beat rhythmic cycle is one of the pinnacles of human thought and imagination, how they play, one of the peaks of human kinesthetic accomplishment. Truly, it makes the Taj Mahal look like a children’s house made from Lincoln logs.

We humans are so impressed by things like the Taj Mahal and Pyramids, structures built by slaves to mostly serve the entitled rich and powerful. But if I were in charge of choosing a different set of The Seven Wonders of the World, I would certainly include what Ghanaian and other West African drum choirs can do with 12 beats, what Bach can do with 12 tempered notes, what the Balinese gamelans can do with a 4 or 5 note scale, what Indian tabla players can do with 8 tones on two drums. They—and a thousand other musical examples from hundreds of musical cultures—are sterling examples of what the mind can imagine and what disciplined hands and fingers can accomplish. And for a much more noble purpose than merely serving power or housing riches. Traditions passed down and assiduously maintained and practiced with impressive discipline to serve a different kind of power, the ability to express oneself and one’s cultural style at high levels of expression, to house the riches of the human spirit. Isn’t that worthy of mention in the tourist guidebooks? If we ever got our priorities straight beyond seeing fancy buildings and hanging out on beaches, Ghana should be a tourist’s Mecca of musical genius.

As for the Ghanaian reaction to jazz, I use this clip to show how much of jazz comes from the European side of the West Meets West marriage between West Africa and West Europe. From Africa comes the rhythm and phrasing and timbres and certain aesthetics, from Europe the longer-lined melodies and harmonies and structures and instruments. But the complex African polyrhythm forbidden in North American slavery when the drums were banned became somewhat simplified when they were forced into a square European 4/4 box and were not instantly recognizable. When Louis played for the people in Ghana, it was only when a chief of the village got up and began to dance that a few smiles broke out and the people stood up to dance and finally could feel some connection with the music of their long-lost brothers and sisters. Watch that clip and see for yourself.

So now came the moment in my dream where I got to ask my important question and I turned to Louis and said, “So tell me your most memorable impression of Ghana.” I was on the edge of my seat waiting for his profound reply and the discussion that might follow. He thought for a moment, looked at me and then said:

“It was hot.”

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