Date: November 13, 2010
Venue: Tribeca Performing Arts Center
Text by Augusta Palmer
Photos by Lawrence C. Shelley
When the album Uhuru Africa was recorded in 1960, I imagine there were many who felt it was ahead of its time. But, if the packed audience at the Tribeca PACC for a concert to celebrate the work’s 50th anniversary is any indication, audiences have finally caught up to this groundbreaking work. In fact, this 2010 audience gave a standing ovation to Uhuru Africa’s composer, Randy Weston, before a single note had been played.
Weston, ably assisted by emcee Willard Jenkins, started the evening with a performance of “African Sunrise” performed by a quintet, and followed by a beautiful balafon performance by Ghana’s Kwaku Obeng. But it was Uhuru Africa, Weston’s jazz symphony, that we’d all been waiting for. After a prelude played by Salieu Suso of Senegambia on the kora, Langston Hughes’ poetic invocation, “Freedom! Uhuru, Uhuru Kwanzaa. Freedom, freedom first!” was given resonant voice in English and Kiswahili by Ayodele Ankhtawi Maakheru, who also played a beautiful banjo solo later in the evening. Conductor Paul West presided ably over the ensemble of 26 musicians at the November 13 performance.
The original 1960 recording of Uhuru Africa includes breathtaking performances by Weston, Clark Terry, Cecil Payne, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, Babatunde Olatunji, and Max Roach. In addition to Weston, two more veterans of that session kept things swinging at the performance last Saturday: percussion legend Candido Camero and drummer Charlie Persip. I’m a fan of anyone who, like Candido, wears a matching leopard print jacket and hat, especially if they are over 90. Candido walked on stage with the help of a cane, but decades fell away as soon as his hands hit the congas. It was his beat that anchored the entire performance, which featured Weston’s piano, 6 percussionists, 5 saxophonists, 3 trombonists, a French horn, 2 vocalists, a narrator/ banjo player, 4 trumpeters, 2 bassists, and an electric guitarist.
The first 3 movements of the piece, “Uhuru Kwanza”, “African Lady”, and “Bantu”, built to a blissful moment of call and response in the final piece, “Kucheza Blues”, which featured solos by each performer and an amazing procession – the biggest, most joyful second line you can imagine outside New Orleans. As the stage was bathed successively in blue, yellow, and red light, Candido’s shirt turned from chocolate brown to ultraviolet, and he soon had the audience on their feet. Weston and his stalwarts, the phenomenal bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke, kept the audience moving and even had a female concertgoer begging Blake to play louder; not a request you hear very often in formal concert halls. Every performer had his or her own moments to shine, and at the end of the night, my hands were sore from all that clapping.
The most amazing thing about this music, however, is its simultaneous ability to evoke the electricity of 1960 – a year that ushered in self -governance for over 17 African nations – and the urgency of connecting to Africa in the NOW. The layers of the work give the listener time and space to think about Uhuru Africa’s history and its continuing relevance for listeners in the 21st Century, in a country where the son of an African is president. The 1960 recording was part of a larger historical moment, when Dizzy Gillespie was proud to call himself an honorary Nigerian and to create “Africana,” when John Coltrane recorded Africa/Brass, and Sonny Rollins performed his Freedom Suite.
In Uhuru Africa, Langston Hughes’ lyrics, Randy Weston’s compositions, and Melba Liston’s arrangements not only tap in to the optimism of that moment, but also form a new history, a history that is FELT rather than simply recounted. A history of African civilization expressed in a complex wedding of European instrumentation and African rhythms. In these compositions, you can hear the way in which ALL of the music of the African diaspora has deep African roots, whether it’s from Cuba or Chicago. You can feel the deep historical and cultural connections between African music and African American music that slavery and Jim Crow worked so hard to erase. You can hear that this music is somewhere at the core of all of us. Uhuru Africa reminds us that the first music was African music; the first culture was African culture.
Randy Weston has always insisted that he is, in the words of his father, “an African born in America,” but Weston is also a griot, a griot born in Brooklyn. I heard that griot’s history on November 13th in the kora, in the balafon, in Candido’s congas, in T. K. Blue’s saxophone, in Jann Parker and Gregory Porter’s singing, and in Weston’s piano.
I heard it in every note of Uhuru Africa on November 13, and I’m hearing it still, as my 2 year-old son and five year-old daughter dance with joy to the sounds of Weston’s 1960 recording.