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Oakland’s Black Spirituals is a headliner at Matatu Festival of Stories

September 22, 2015

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

One of the most interesting musical formations of an African aesthetic that I have come across has to be the Black Spirituals. Influenced by Punk, Free Jazz, Reggae and other genres, this improvisation-based group is receiving top billin’ at the upcoming Matatu Festival of Stories this week, alongside musician-producer Shafiq Husayn, Richmond spoken word artist Donte Clark and the legendary wordsmith Saul Williams.

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, they’ll perform at the Starline Social Club in the historic spot at 645 Grand Ave., Oakland.

I wanted to interview these brothas so that they could talk about the histories, influences and theories behind their sound art, so that we could better understand their drive. Check out the Black Spirituals, Marshall and Zachary, in their own words.

M.O.I. JR: How long have you been a musician? Can you talk about the schools of music that you have studied – punk, rock, jazz?

Marshall of the Black Spirituals

Marshall of the Black Spirituals

Marshall: I started playing music around the age of 12. My old teacher and mentor, Lisle Ellis, states that in order to achieve a state of mastery one should dedicate four 15-year periods to their craft. In this sense, I am starting my third period.

As a youngster, during a reform period of the Catholic Church, I heard reggae music in church as well as everywhere else in my life. It holds a special place. It wasn’t until high school that I realized that it holds a deep Liberation Theology ethic that I believed was sorely misunderstood by many fans.

The expressive explosiveness of Public Enemy and political punk rock and hardcore was a big influence. I performed in a Ska band as well. I never found any inroads to performing Hip Hop and I knew I wanted to perform.

I was politically active in high school, so by the time I uncovered Free Jazz, I was convinced of the liberatory nature of the art form. The actuality of it has never quite measured up to existing beyond the bandstand. So, I started forging my own discourse and platforms for the eventuality of it.

Zachary: Since I was born. My parents say I would make beat boxing noises with my mouth at an early age. I was influenced by my parents’ vinyl collection: Jimi Hedrix, Hugh Masakela, Janis Joplin, Sun Ra, Coltrane (“A Love Supreme”), Linton Kesi Johnson.

I am 35, and the first tape I bought was MC Hammer. I later became interested in the Bad Brains and heavy forms of guitar music.

M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about some of the bands that you have been in, prior to the Spirituals? Where were you based, and what years were you in those bands?

Marshall: A band of note worth mentioning was Mutual Aid Project. This was a Free Jazz trio of men of color in Oakland who developed with me the first iteration of my Decolonizing the Imagination, where we analyzed the aspects of colonialism that brought our ancestor to the land known as the USA and how we came to gravitate towards Creative Music as our cultural and political weaponry.

The band started with a three hour convo about how jacked up the U.S. is. By the time we touched our instruments, we had already made music, dig? We already laid the groundwork for an emancipatory language.

I borrowed Chicana feminist Chela Sandoval’s research from her book, “Methodology of the Oppressed,” and translated her critical theory lingo into everyday speech. Mutual Aid Project performed at farmers’ markets for food, we played the Second Tribunal on Police Violence at the Humanist Hall and we played the book event for former BLA-BPP member Russell Shoats at the East Side.

This was a big accomplishment for us because our music is outside of jazz, and experimental and original. It was quite an honor. Shortly after we disbanded, I started playing with Zachary.

Zachary: I am a composer and the bulk of my work has involved composing chamber music. As an improviser, I enjoy playing with other individual improvisers.

M.O.I. JR: Why did the Spirituals take on that name? Where did you and your bandmate meet?

Marshall: Zachary discovered the name, but I took to it. In my experience, performing Diasporic folkloric music from West Africa, Haiti and Cuba, which predates the birth of North American Black Spirituals, the name, concept and trajectory made and make sense. The elements of the music known as Black Spirituals – or, more accurately, Negro Spirituals – are laden with the scabs of colonialism, no disrespect intended.

In my experience, performing Diasporic folkloric music from West Africa, Haiti and Cuba, which predates the birth of North American Black Spirituals, the name, concept and trajectory made and make sense.

Africans praising Jesus in a European context is just a reality. In my approach to my instrument, I have followed the philosophical approach of the ancient Kemites, as practiced by Sun Ra, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM-Chicago), Coltrane and many others. I stripped my instrument of preconceptions and went about a process of imbuing the instrument with a new, emergent identity.

Zachary: Sounds are sounds and I am also interested in the body and mind behind the sound. Black Spirituals helps me create discourse around these extra-musical opportunities for discovery, healing, growth.

Black Spirituals helps me create discourse around these extra-musical opportunities for discovery, healing, growth.

M.O.I. JR: What kind of music do y’all play?

Marshall: I label our music Creative Improvised Music because that name refers directly to the Afrological stream of expression coming from working-class Chicagoans in the 1960s, while African and Asian states battled for independence from imperialist powers. These formerly Southern Black folks boldly and intentionally created a sustainable apparatus and school of praxis of Black and international solidarity.

Zachary of the Black Spirituals

Zachary of the Black Spirituals

Zachary: Other labels are High Vibration Resonance, Heavy Mellow.

M.O.I. JR: What role does improvisation play in your music?

Marshall: I call my approach to the drum set the Multi-Aesthetic Theory of Improvisation. I call upon my training in linear drumming traditions to mix and remix techniques – or elements of mastery – while being informed by sounds that Zachary makes and the rooms we occupy.

Zachary: Critical. I am developing a modular approach to improvisation. I improvise themes both in the moment and in practice and archive them (memory). Performances become a hybrid on improv and archived thematic material.

M.O.I. JR: How would you describe your music together, and the 1+1=3 concept?

Marshall: Zachary and I are both soloists creating an emergent music that is only realized together. We are also independent individual artists. It remains to be seen how the band project will be enhanced by future possibilities that we develop in our individual work.

M.O.I. JR: Do you consider your music to be political?

Marshall: The Matatu festival has given us a performative and curatorial vehicle, literally, to contribute to the visibilization of Black and Brown creative musicians and improvisers. We are presenting collaborators Sharmi Basu and Amber McZeal with a MARA, people of color political group of musicians in an event entitled Other Kinds of Dreams.

The name is taken from Julia Oparah’s (née Sudbury) book documenting Black women’s political organizations in the U.K. in the 1990s. South Asian women joined the Black women’s movement due to their similar maltreatment. Ms. Oparah is the head of the Ethnic Studies Department at Mills College and is one of the founders of Critical Resistance, alongside Angela Davis.

The Matatu festival has given us a performative and curatorial vehicle, literally, to contribute to the visibilization of Black and Brown creative musicians and improvisers.

We are also presenting the iteration of my Music Research Strategies platform based on Decolonizing the Imagination: Democratics. Democratics is a quartet of creative traditional musicians – percussionists – demonstrating emancipatory language and egalitarian dynamics of space in one performance. It is an opportunity for me to work with my heroes.

We are able to engage the public in our discourse and practice on the role of the artist-as-producer given these times. Artists and cultural workers have to diversify their work and engage in political organizing and movement strategies.

Chela Sandolval’s Methodology of the Oppressed analyzes dominant ideologies and offers technologies of self-determination and liberation resulting in DEMOCRACTICS. I straight up borrowed that and turned into pseudo-social science. I mean, hell! I want to invigorate, agitate and engage.

Black Spirituals will be touring the East Coast briefly – Baltimore, D.C., Philly and NYC – and then we return to the O to hit with Saul and the Matatu crew.

Zachary: I write music in just intonation which employs the natural harmonic series. My intent is to create a high vibrational healing sound. This is my attempt to explore my concern that we do not listen anymore.

M.O.I. JR: Now that we are in the Black Lives Matter era after the Oscar Grant era, how have Black and Brown young people rising up to resist police terrorism affected your music?

Marshall: Black Spirituals is more than a band project. We have demonstrated an ability to re-insert signs and emancipatory tools into contemporary culture. On our first record, “Of Deconstruction,” is a product of import as a political education tool for us internally and externally.

The album art is imbued with signs of cultural solidarity with the slave abolitionist period in the form of the wagon wheel and North Star quilt code patterns. It is reported that secret codes were sewn into quilts by Blacks and whites to signal escaped slaves, as well as Northern soldiers.

The music carries this code as a site of emancipatory language and development for us. We have taken the project further when, during a residency at the Exploratorium in SF, we inserted the codes into their 100-speaker Meyer system array. The shapes and the context of the codes ping-ponged around the room as we performed. It is highly significant for us to reflect upon how we have been impacted by music and cultural forms and then to create environments and discourse opportunities for audiences and allies.

Black Spirituals is more than a band project. We have demonstrated an ability to re-insert signs and emancipatory tools into contemporary culture.

Through this re-insertion cultural work process we were invited to perform and initiated an interdisciplinary arts and social engagement project spearheaded by Native American arts collective Postcommodity from New Mexico. They brought us to the Guelph Black Heritage Society site of the Underground Railroad in Ontario, Canada, for the inauguration of their “People of Goodwill” project.

We performed as part of a music festival in Heritage Hall, then made presentations to the public. I presented on the significance of the visual culture of the Underground Railroad secret quilt codes in relationship to the Harm Free Zone framework of community accountability.

Zachary is tuning other Underground Railroad site, using a technique made famous by composer Alvin Lucier to find the resonant frequencies of the internal architecture. The building was built by fugitive slaves in 1850, and Zach’s process enabled the community to really listen to the sound of a room imbued with the fugitive spirit. Zachary had the great idea to ask people to bring instruments and we played that sound of this shared history together.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

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