Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: the Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton

I had known of Anthony Braxton for decades, but it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve really been able to connect to his music.  Partially, this is because I have a newfound living situation in which I can listen to what I want when I want to.  Bouncing around the internet, I read a post on the man’s work that made me realize that for most of us, digging Braxton or, really any of the avant-garde so-called, is a solitary pursuit, most often on headphones.

The single, blissfully single life affords this possibility.  That’s meant that I’ve gotten back to exploring the “free jazz“–we know the label isn’t ideal–movement of the 1960’s forward.  Lots of late Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Carter–a lot of John Carter–and Ornette of course, though especially Skies of America.  I’d heard much more of the New York school as opposed to Chicago, so opening up to Braxton was something of a revelation: there is a lot more to this music than just “energy.”  To be clear about what we’re dealing with, here you go.  Not exactly the same quartet, but the same year and 3/4 the same personnel:

Lock followed Braxton’s quartet on its 1985 tour of Britain.  The resulting book, Forces in Motion, takes the form of tour diary interspersed with interviews, primarily of Braxton but also of each of the group’s other members, followed by three postscripts on relevant topics.  Lock has other books, and one at the library here, that are more systematic overviews of the music, but this is what it is and the relatively unvarnished text preserves a spontaneity that among other things puts Braxton in a great light.  The man may have a reputation for forbidding music, but personally he’s very engaging with an enormously sweet quality to him.  He comes off as a very, very kind individual.

The takeaway from the book is very simply that it serves as what seems to me an ideal introduction to the deep significance of Braxton’s project.  It’s, for lack of a better word, a spiritual endeavor, among other things, and though he doesn’t put it in precisely these terms Braxton is trying, through sound, to turn back the world-nonsense of these last five hundred years.  As quick as he is to draw influence from white musicians–Braxton is generous even to those, like Phil Woods, who critique him viciously–Braxton demolishes the philosophical, musical, and spiritual underpinnings of white supremacy.

I took a class once in, more or less, critical theory, and the professor really wanted us to understand and engage the ideas at hand.  She assigned a fair amount of Foucault, but mostly from Power-Knowledge, a collection of, mainly, interviews.  She noted that when Foucault just talked, he said what he meant, and it made everything easier.  The same, I can glean from the excepts from Braxton’s Tri-axium Writings, would be true of Braxton.  If you want to really get everything, read the Tri-axium Writings, just like if you really want to understand Marx, you need to read Capital.  That said, Braxton can sum things up and give a person a lot to go forward with.  The book provides this.

Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization

Apologies in advance: I finished this book a couple weeks ago and have long since returned it to the library.  Hence, no quotes, which in this case I think will do the book a disservice.

Cheikh Anta Diop is most well-known in the United States as the man who demonstrated–his critics would say “argued”–that the ancient Egyptians were Black.  This is true, he did make that argument, and I gather that this book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, is the work in English that made his reputation.  What is more important, though, about Diop’s work, is that he doesn’t simply demonstrate that the Egyptians were Black, he posits them as the cultural source of African civilization generally, as well as the source for many if not most of what are considered, in a standard Western Civ. course, ancient Greek innovations.

Depending on what company you’re in, you can just say the word, “Afrocentrism,” and get all kinds of reactions from white people that expose their unexamined racism.  When in that situation, it’s good to have a book or two of Diop’s under your belt, because he provides the science behind the argument that the Egyptians were Black.  It’s critical to remember that people still make a distinction between “white Africa” and “Black Africa,” even if they do it in the disguised form of “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Note the Wikipedia links that show up for those terms, automatically suggested to me as I write this by a Firefox plugin I use.  Anyone who dismisses how colonialist mainstream notions of Africa continue to be is kidding themselves.

Diop posits Africa as a whole, Black entity, which is one of his important points.  Again, apologies for not having direct quotes in this piece, because it would be important here.  I was pleased, reading the book, to see Diop use precisely the same language that I had on numerous occasions in the past.  Many times, when discussing this stuff with people, I have been confronted with the argument that the Egyptians did not have the same notions of race as those in the modern United States, and so calling them “Black” is ahistorical and therefore misleading.  I had often said to people that, yes, the Egyptians did not call themselves Negroes, but if you put them down in New York City, they’d live in Harlem.  Dammit, but Diop uses the same argument, verbatim, in The African Origin of Civilization.  I certainly felt a sense of gratification.

What is clear reading Diop is that all of this discussion is much more important for African people today, and by extension for the Black diaspora today, than it is for the Ancient Egyptians, who of course are long dead as physical beings.  He has an endearing quality to his writing, insofar as I get the sense of him as an obviously exceptional, accomplished individual, cheering on other Africans and Black people of less obvious accomplishments, saying, “see those pyramids?  That’s what you can do.”  At some level, that’s his point.  It shouldn’t need to be said, but with all the talk of “post-racial America” clearly needs to be, that that kind of discussion is still very, very important.  The cultural assault (not to mention economic and legal) that Black people endure on a daily basis in this country is profound.  Diop offers a way out.

Addendum, 1/18/11: great interview w/Diop on Youtube.  Dig it:

Obi B. Egbuna, Emperor of the Sea

I’m housesitting for a friend who teaches African history, and he’s a bit older than me as well.  His bookshelves, as you can imagine, are a sight to see, and of particular interest have a ton of older books, like this one.  I had never heard of Obi B. Egbuna, and a quick look on the web indicates that most of his work, including Emperor of the Sea, is unfortunately out of print.

I grabbed the book partially because I have felt for some time a need to read beyond the big names in African literature, in which I still am poorly read (though to be fair, Africa as such, we know, encompasses a land mass equivalent to four continental United States).  That the book was small, too, was appealing.  I figured I could get a taste of a new author without too much time invested, which is a good motive.

I don’t approach, as I’ve said, these writings as reviews per se, but as the book is not well-known and is also out-of-print, I would describe it.  There are either three or five stories in it.  One, “A Tale of Three Souls,” comprises three tales about three different people.

All of the stories take storytelling as their form, to great effect.  Probably, a lot of critical response contextualized Egbuna’s work as an artifact of a “primitive” culture based on “oral tradition” making its first forays into printed literature and, thus, keeping much of the form of what people call “traditional storytelling” in, in this case, short story form.  Witness Walter Benjamin‘s “The Storyteller,” (in .pdf) for a better take on the transition, looking at Leskov.

There is a point to be made–and Benjamin makes it–regarding the relationship between oral storytelling and the printed word, and it is that the relationship between the two is not hierarchical.  To be certain, I share Benjamin’s, for lack of a better word, nostalgia for storytelling, even if I myself don’t participate in it.  I write songs that often take a narrative form of a sort, but and possibly this constitutes a participation in story.  That said, I would argue that story exists, as everything, as a social form, in the relationship between a person (or people) telling a story, and people listening to it.  A physical presence is necessary, I’d say, or rather, if there is not a physically shared space between storyteller and audience (and as well a reciprocal relationship between the two) then we’re talking about something else entirely.  There is a lot of talk about community on the internet, for example, and it’s very problematic.  People need to physically share space with each other for us to have community in a meaningful way.  Reading a blog on books is good, but it’s not the same as a reading group. People need to be sharing a space.  Consider how differently one feels having a chat with friends and sending emails or chatting online.  The latter clearly sucks in comparison.

I felt two things, not contradictory, as I was reading.  Most importantly, I loved reading it.  The stories were all, on their own merits, excellent, both for the simple pleasure of reading them and for the thinking about them that followed.  Egbuna among other things has all the right politics.  One of the “Tales of Three Souls” deals with the formation, at a neo-colonial Nigerian oil company, of a trade union, initated by an African-American engineer.  “Trade Unionism” can be a perjorative some Marxist circles in which I sometimes find myself, but that’s a jaded view from the United States.  We often forget in this country on the Left that trade unions aren’t the problem–the goal is to fix the unions (i.e., re-radicalize them) because labor organized is the only possible response to capital.  Also, African trade unionism was from the start the real deal, and the reader is reminded of this in the story.  Class is all over Egbuna’s work, written with real understanding.

I am aware that I have what some people might call a paranoid streak, but I’ve come by it honestly by being a Leftist in an age of unmitigated reaction.  One gets touchy after a while.  So, if I run things forward in my head, after reading Egbuna, it’s for a good reason and I’m probably right even if I have long stopped bothering to do research and check for confirmation of my suspicions.  I say this because I have a nasty feeling that Egbuna’s book is out-of-print because he’s seen–by white critical opinion–as a relic of a bygone era, that of the immediate post-colonial moment.  We are to think, some would have it, that Derrida and Foucault (the latter of more interest to me, to be sure) would do more for human freedom at this point than would Marx, or, better still, getting off one’s own ass and doing something oneself.  One can seem hip to the world by dismissing the possibility of freedom because it hasn’t happened yet, however one defines it.  What happens is that people who ought to be busting their butts to create a decent society imagine that they are somehow helping by taking an abstract, critical approach to intellectual questions.  Abstraction and critique are essential, but only if they are actually put into play.

Egbuna deals with African people who do things for themselves, though to be sure at times they need to be prodded into action as in the story mentioned above.  There is nothing out of date about that, and I’d suggest that, having recently read that C.L.R. James book about Nkrumah, the Left, particularly, the white left, needs go back and study that whole generation of radicals.

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C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution

Get to a good library, get this book, and read it.

I was at a friend’s house and by my habit was looking at his bookshelf. I grabbed Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution as well as a copy of Nkrumah’s autobiography, and he told me to take them home, on the condition that I report back to him on the quality of the books: he had bought them but not yet read them, as many bookworms will do. C.L.R. James passes the test. The book is out of print, unfortumately, so get right and get a library card, which is my new modus vivendi as I’ve noted before.

Very briefly, the edition I read was originally published in 1977, the bulk of which was published as a fairly lengthy pamphlet in (according to the copyright) 1962, while Nkrumah was still in power, with additions from the period as he was, in James’ analysis, losing his footing. James’ dedication of the text, to Nkrumah, whom he called Francis, is quite beautiful:


in never-to-be forgotten memory. Like Cromwell and Lenin, he initiated the destruction of a régime in decay — a tremendous achievement; but like them, he failed to create the new society.

James is among other things one of a tiny few of true stylists of 20th century English prose. He is most famous for The Black Jacobins for perfectly good reasons–i.e., you won’t read a better book–but, truly, should be required reading for anyone trying to get their prose in shape, myself included. He’s also one of those examples of the colonially educated who mastered the language of the oppressor to a greater extent than any of the oppressors themselves. I can’t imagine too many writers today, again including myself, who would bother using the correctly-accented “régime” rather than the lazy man’s “regime,” much less know that there is actually a difference. James, of course knows that both history and language matter, and thus could not but acknowledge the history of the word as he wrote it.

James writes against an entire literature that posits decolonization as something that Europeans did. Put so, it’s, I hope, obvious how idiotic an idea that is. I’d note, however, that there is an analogous trend in US historiography that sees the end of slavery as the work of white people (witness California History Standard 10.3.4, which places the end of the slave trade in the unit on the industrial revolution) or the Civil Rights Act as Johnson’s achievment (witness Hillary Clinton’s campaign). James begins his text with a discussion of “the Myth,” capitalized. That is, the notion that there’s no way that Black people could actually make history for themselves. His book, in addition to an analysis of revolutionary process and a very convincing defense from a Marxist perspective of non-violence, is an illustration of the truth that Black people and indeed all people make their own history, even if as Marx famously noted in the Eighteenth Brumaire that

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

In any event, James amply demonstrates that is was the mass movement in Ghana that required the British to leave. Nkrumah’s role was to understand this and give it focus. James’ dedication above places Nkrumah on par with Cromwell (interesting choice, and certainly not one expected by this US-educated reader) and Lenin, and his book absolutely justifies that assessment. Truly, Ghana’s independence movement was in fact a revolution–not a term one finds in American textbooks in this context–and Nkrumah both a theoretician and practitioner of revolution on par with a Lenin.

I have to think that the broad denial of the term “revolution” to Ghana in our textbooks is part of a general tendency of the propertied classes to erase the idea of revolutionary change from the list of possible futures we face. The materials we as teachers get to work with, textbooks and such, subtly categorize “revolutions” into two categories: the good and the bad. The “good” ones are those of anglophonic whites: those of England such as it was and the United States. Reports of revolutionary violence are minimized in textbook treatments of these subjects or dismissed as aberrations. That both merely confirmed already-existing elites rather than replaced them exposes the agenda of the textbook writers: convince young people, the ones who might actually change things, that change is at minimum not desirable, more likely not actually possible. The “bad” revolutions are portrayed as inevitable descents into bloodbaths: we see the French and Russian examples at their worst. Students who because of their decent nature–that is to say, the very people who under capitalism are most likely to want to overthrow it–would gravitate toward thoroughgoing social revolutions are instead taught to revile the very notion of revolution, because they are taught to mistake revolutionary violence with revolution itself. Ghana’s counter-example gives lie to this.

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