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Robin D.G. Kelley: Africa Speaks, America Answers

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Africa Speaks, America Answers

Author: Robin D.G. Kelley
Publisher: Harvard

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In 1966, playing his first show in Dakar, Senegal, Duke Ellington told the audience, “After writing African music for 35 years, here I am at last in Africa!” That period’s sense of discovery—or maybe rediscovery—is what powers the lively new book by USC professor and Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley. Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz In Revolutionary Times nods explicitly to A.B. Spellman’s 1966 classic Four Lives In The Bebop Business as it examines the intersection of American-bred jazz and the traditional music of Africa. 

Kelley focuses on four players, two from Africa—South African vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin and Ghanaian percussionist Guy Warren (later Kofi Ghanaba)—and a pair of Brooklyn-born friends and collaborators, pianist Randy Weston and Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a bassist and oud player who worked heavily with Islamic music. 

The turbulence of Africa’s post-colonialist ’50s and ’60s provides the backdrop of many of these stories. Notably, Benjamin exiled herself to the U.S. after being held back by apartheid, and Weston and Abdul-Malik undertook a 1966 U.S. embassy-sponsored tour, during massive upheaval throughout the continent. As the book notes, “A century of colonialism, two decades of the Cold War, and a global economy that saddled Third World countries with mounting debt left the ‘new African nations’ in a constant state of instability.” 

Closer to work, these artists repeatedly chafed against simplified American ideas of “Africanness.” For Warren, a master percussionist whose adventurous work struggled to find an audience, this took the shape of audiences who expected Afro-Cuban rhythms rather than the ones he played. Meanwhile, Nigerian-born scholar-turned-percussionist Babatunde Olatunji sold five million copies of the 1959 album Drums Of Passion, in spite of his relatively unschooled version of traditional drum styles; Warren called Olatunji “a complete fraud.” Indeed, when Olatunji performed in Nigeria in November 1961, as part of a package sent over by the U.S. as a goodwill gesture, he was roundly panned by the local press: “It was a sad spectacle to see Olatunji trying to play the talking drums before a Nigerian audience.” 

That trip was an all-around disaster—headliner Lionel Hampton offended audiences with his mugging—but it was the first time pianist-composer Randy Weston visited the continent, and it had a profound effect on him; eventually, he lived in Morocco for five years. As music becomes ever more global, Kelley’s book is an eye-opening glimpse at a time when such fusions were far more fraught, in every sense.