Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
They Travel the Spaceways: Reflections on Afrofuturism, Music and Zen Buddhism
by Henry T. Blanke
Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future; Art Ensemble of Chicago
In the Harlem that according to Ralph Ellison is nowhere, one cat asks another how he is. The response is, “Oh man, I’m nowhere.” Black people, in refusing the oppressive categories imposed on them by a racist society, must constantly ask themselves who, what and where they are. Ripped from the very fabric of their existence into groaning agony and strangeness, a world where their humanity was doubted, African Americans entered into a black hole; a negative sunyata of contradiction, uncertainty and doubt. They responded with expressions so potent and beautiful that it not only sustained them, but became the music the whole world dances to.
Imagine the slave master sitting on the porch of his plantation sipping a mint julip. From way, way down in the slave quarters he hears a faint whisper of a song. His ears perk up but he shakes his head in doubt. After all, they are not even human beings down there. There came to be a dialectic between the holy music for Wednesday night and Sunday morning and the earthy funk of Saturday night blues. A common misconception is that the blues is a kind of woe is me music. Wrong. The blues is the antidote to inner turmoil and social suffering. It represents transcending oppression with elegance and deep style. Jazz is the ultimate aesthetic refinement of the blues impulse.
The mysteries of swing (the verb not the noun) are expressions of rhythm, with intermeshing micro-pulses way beyond syncopation and involving a dialectical interplay of tension and release. It calls down the ancestors and signals the future moment by moment and is ineffable. But when a jazz group enters that flow, everyone in the house with ears knows it, including the 13 year old Japanese kid I saw moving to the beat one night at the Village Vanguard. He was visibly so into it that the musicians smiled and swung harder. My response is similarly unschooled and inorganic but I got an inkling of swing many years ago by just tapping a pencil to the notes of a Louis Armstrong solo. You see, with great jazz players, the rhythms are embedded in the melodies and vice versa.
Sun Ra (nee Herman Blount) was born in Alabama and imbibed the heady sounds of Chicago jazz in the 1940s. And he had a vision, then a mythology. Soon his music encompassed the entire history of jazz but came to be called avant garde because he heard a blend of timbres and textures which was unique. His band became a coterie of talented players some of whom stayed with him for 30 years and more. And the Sun Ra collective shared his personal mythos involving being teleported to Saturn some time in the late 1930s or 40s. It appears that the experience allowed him to make sense of his past and was prophetic of his future. Eventually Ra’s Arkestra was composed of 6, 10, 20 players and performers invoking ancient Egypt, slavery, classic swing (verb and noun), bebop, electronica, Saturn and outer space time travel. Here we have the birth of the artistic movement which became known as Afrofuturism. But words are inadequate here so listen to The Heliocentric Worlds, Volumes 1 and 2 from 1965 or the mind expanding It’s After the End of the World, recorded live at the Donauschingen and Berlin festivals, in 1970 for a glimpse of solar deity (Nikko Bosatsu in Japan) Ra’s radiance.
Then dig Ornette Coleman, too gentle and shy for this world whose music was so far out cats walked off the bandstand until he, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and the white hillbilly Bach-grooving bassist Charlie Haden revolutionized jazz. Hear him, rooted in the stone blues of Fort Worth, Texas, discuss outer space and Buckminster Fuller on the documentary Ornette: Made in America. Now listen to Science Fiction (1972) and the roiling harmolodics of Dancing In Your Head (1976).
Further, though not recognized as such, I want to mention John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor as ancestors in the Afrofuturist pantheon. If you can deal with the intensity, try submitting to Trane’s Om (1965), a nearly 30 minute piece of free improvisation which includes Pharoah (the name bestowed by Ra) Sanders’s distinctive multi-phonic blowing outside the intended range of the saxophone. At the beginning of the piece and at the end, they all chant from the Bhagavad Gita. Or to the coruscating and cathartic Live in Seattle (1965) also with Pharoah. This is music which brings the listener beneath surface consciousness and reveals new interrelationships between pitch, timbre and rhythm.
And if ever a musician in the second half of the 20th century must be called a genius it is the utterly original Cecil Taylor. How does an artist stay faithful to such a singular vision when faced with decades of neglect? Eventually, Taylor’s music garnered the adulation worthy of it and, while he has a large body of work with various bands under his leadership, for the purest distillation of his art, investigate the solo recordings such as Silent Tongues from the 1974 Montreaux Jazz Festval. Taylor’s aesthetic might be called constructivist in its building of wave upon wave of thunderous tonal clusters and complex pianistic polyrhythm. Indeed, the sound he gets from the piano (that most European of instruments) has been likened to that of 88 tuned drums. Alas, Cecil died a few years ago, but seeing the organic African inspired ritualistic and theatrical impact of his music in performance in New York over the years had an mind expanding impact on me. All of this music, still now underappreciated, is more ancient than we can know and more modern that we can imagine.
After the all too brief black psychedelic explosion of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Land, the next development in Afrofuturist music came in the realm of funk with George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective. James Brown invented the genre and ran his funk band to be tight as a drum and meticulously choreographed, but when key players Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker migrated to Clinton’s outfit they seemed liberated by the freedom, elasticity and sheer exuberant weirdness of his musical conception. This was funk as cosmic worldview.
It is the winter of 1976 and, at the urging of a particularly hip friend, I am sitting in a packed Madison Square Garden waiting for P-Funk (a band I had only passing familiarity with) to take the stage. To say the air is redolent of marijuana would be an understatement and a girl in dreads sitting next to me smiles and hands me a joint. I am utterly unprepared for what happens next. The lights come up showing a guy wearing a kind of diaper center stage playing Hendrix inspired guitar over a booming deep funk groove. He is surrounded by about 20 other cats and chicks in outlandish costume all singing, playing and dancing freely as some sort of spaceship descends. Out of the Mothership appears George Clinton in white with an outrageous, plumed pimp’s hat and big dark glasses. He makes his way down the stairs to the stage waving a long walking stick as the groove intensifies and he grabs the mic. Now the show (or whatever it was) begins. It goes on like this with costume and character changes, elaborate horn riffs, acid guitar and continually evolving, layered variations of the downbeat non-stop for three hours. The only thing even vaguely similar to this I had ever heard or seen in my life (before or in the 40 years since) was, yes, Sun Ra’s Arkestra.
P-Funk’s music represents a kind of Afrofuturist inclusivism using not only the entire history of Black popular music but heavy psychedelic rock and there were indeed white boys on the stage. “Get up for the down stroke, everybody get down” is Clinton’s philosophy. A lover moves his hips up then comes down hard while fucking his woman. You anticipate (get up for) the downstroke on the first beat of every bar. And the funk is there for everybody of all colors to get down dig. The source of this cosmic groove is the holy Mothership representing a future inter-planetary utopia. I don’t think my mouth closed for the entire concert. And my mind is still wide open and blown.
The Earth Tour of over 40 years ago was the pinnacle of George Clinton’s vision but in the time since Afrofuturism has developed into an aesthetic encompassing the arts, especially science fiction literature (eg. Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler), performance art and film (but do not get me started on the reactionary neo-liberalism of the celebrated Black Panther movie). Its themes include technoculture, feminism, alienation, identity and possible futures of the African diaspora. And extending P-Funk’s embrace of Afrofuturist populism came Afrika Bambaattaa’s electro hip-hop album Planet Rock in 1986 and the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy from 1990.
After a period of apparent eclipse, Afrofuturism has had an efflorescence of late beginning when Janelle Monae introduced their messianic cyborg alter-ego Cindi Mayweather. They appear on the cover of Archandroid (2011) wearing a headdress that evokes Sun Ra and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Encoded to reveal a non-binary tecno-future of liberation, this visionary record nonetheless sounds light on the funk to these ears. Then three years later I saw their video Q.U.E.E.N. with Erikya Badu, a fellow traveler along similar lines of flight, and saw that these shape-shifting sisters seriously bring the rhythm. Maybe they can rescue the galaxy from the oppressive structures of M.E.N.
Jazz is dead, but now comes its reincarnation as Stephen Ellison’s You’re Dead! (2014). Also known as Flying Lotus, Ellison is the grand nephew of Alice Coltrane and this record is a furiously inventive and intense reimagining of free jazz. You’re Dead! lives on the intermediary planes of spiritual death and rebirth for a people dead to their history and struggling to live in a glorious Black efflorescence. But this trip, following the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is challenged by ferocious demons and hungry ghosts who frighten the listener into remaining on the samsaric wheel of the ego. Ellison says that this music is a “metaphor for Flying Lotus abandoning his ego and entering this new dimension of musicality.” Perhaps, but doubts and fears pull him back to a painful world and he calls for bezo relief. However, in the finale, there is a collective chat of “we will live on, forever and ever.” But actually, this is the traditional Asian karmic nightmare scenario of endless rebirth on the wheel of gnawing dissatisfaction and existential agony. Though for Black people facing violence and death at every moment, probably not.
“He [Ellison] reminds me so much of when Bootsy first came around; [FL bassist] Thundercat, Steve and the whole crew. Kendrick Lamar. It feels so much like 1975 when Bootsy first came around and started mixing James Brown with P-Funk,” says mentor George Clinton. “The same thing is happening with Flying Lotus, and it’s putting me in touch with so many new musicians. They are the new generation of funk musicians. So, its educational working with him. It’s a whole new version of ourselves.”
In thinking about the way this present movement recapitulates its African American past and envisions its future, my mind goes to Zen Buddhism. I think the deep affinities are clear in Zen’s crucial focus on a de-essentializing meditative practice and especially Master Dogen’s insight into the momentariness of all existence and view that being is time and time being. Just as Afrofuturism recapitulates the history of the African diaspora and envisions a liberatory post- racial techno-future in the present so zazen reveals all of time past and future in the present moment. And the way that Zen dissolves ontological boundaries of either/or into both/and non-duality jibes well with the Afrofuturist impulse.
Last night I had a dream. The year is 2720. Bodhisattvas Eihei Dogen and Ikkyu (along with his band of shakuhachi mystics) have been shifting shapes and traversing space for 13 centuries or no time and have alighted on an apocalyptic post-human earth to save all “sentient” beings. What do they see? Are they guided by Mahasattva dolphins? Do they embody mushroom rhizomes? Sit with cyborg roshis? Maybe Dogen and Ikkyu will capture a vibranium time capsule from the 21st century containing cultural artifacts including some that portend the future. And they, we and all the universe will swing freely to the eternal cosmic Funk.