An Interview with the French Newspaper, L’Echo

No Territory Band will make its premiere at Festival Kind of Belou in Treignac, France, on Sunday, August 5th. Isabelle Haderer of L’Echo asked Davu to give the people of Treignac and Corrèze a bit of his mind about matters Davu-related (English translation below the article)…

French article

Q: You are at the same time drummer, composer, author and teacher of African-American literature. What are the sources of those choices and the place of the percussion in it ?  

A: Wasn’t it a Frenchmen who said the law of genre is a law of impurity?! I remember being in Ghana and seeing a woman at a market stall selling live chickens, rebar, T-shirts, water and the local delicacy, Cape Coast kenkey. I like to imagine she might have known something about drums too, but who knows. After all, I did learn in Africa that not all Africans can dance…

What I am doing with life is developing resources, language, technologies, and methods for understanding how life is constricted under capital and for communicating with others about it. But I also have to speak what it is for me to feel black. And so, because there is danger in aiming directly at a moving target, I’ve diversified my portfolio such that I might get at or around it by other means. Drums just happen to be the instrument that was laying around the house. At one point I stopped playing because I thought I would be an expressionist painter. However, I had not lived long enough yet and did not have anything to say except “I am sad because it is sad.” I suppose I started drumming again once I had something more meaningful to say. Once I learned how to struggle well.

Q: Amongst the authors and musicians that you feel are essential to your construction and understanding of African American history, which ones do you particularly want to help people to discover and why?

A: How about the writer, musician, sociologist, teacher, philosopher and activist W.E.B. Du Bois? He was a progressive who hated imperialism and understood (and taught) that racism was a tool of capitalist domination. He also lived rigorously and faithfully in pursuit of beauty and self-mastery in a world that needed him to be. And, despite his snobbishness when it came to folk culture (for itself), he was a champion of Africa and black America’s contribution to global culture. In this way he’s made it possible for some of us to read Hegel and Marx! (He also looked good and carried a nickel-plated pistol to protect himself from racists, so…)

Q: What are the foundations and aspirations of No Territory Band and the work around wind instruments and percussions?

A: I started No Territory Band because I very much enjoy playing original compositions. My drumming has been so focused on developing a signature that I find myself not always supplying what other composers need from the role of the drummer. This is likely the residue of my lifelong struggle with “I am sad because it is sad.” Whatever the case, after feeling tired from gigging so much as a sideman–and after disappointing my friends by not staying “in the pocket”–I started writing my own music based on the things that interest me and which would create a new context for my drumming. The context is drawn from blues, West African drumming and composers like Ellington, Mingus, Morton Feldman, George Russell, Arvo Part and Cecil Taylor…but I want the musicians to take ownership over the music. To understand it as an index of what’s possible and then to do their part to affirm life by generating something new.

As for the instrumentation, I like to play without amplification. So, there is no bass in the band.

Q: The song “Dead King Mother” evokes a salient point in history and personal history: two fates – those of your uncle Clarence C. Underwood III and a white neighbor, John F. Murray, linked on April 4, 1968 by the assassination of Martin Luther King …

A: I like to do things that are meaningful, and I count connecting with people around historical events as such. But, authenticity is still important to me, so I have limited my forays into history to experiences where I can make a personal claim. As a sort of ritual invitation to intercourse, the music projects the personal onto the broadly impersonal such that it no longer belongs to the author but to the commons. After all, who but us is responsible for racism, violence and the well-being of communities?  

Q: You have already published a record in France with Catherine Delaunay and Guillaume Séguron and have come several times. What does this anchorage in France represent for you? How does it characterize? 


A: In 1804 Toussaint L’Ouverture beat the tar out of Bonaparte, causing him to sell the French territories in the U.S. to one of the county’s founders, President Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver. One of those territories is now called Minnesota and is where a portion of my black relatives settled after taking leave from the same county where Thomas Jefferson’s famed Monticello plantation resides.

I am not an immigrant from a former French colony or middle-eastern, Islamic country destroyed by the west. I don’t where a burka. I am not visibly a jew. Also, I have not yet met your police and, so, my experiences in France have been very good. We have jazz in common, but with a difference.  We (me and you, invisible committee) also seem to share the mind that work prevents as much as it provides and that death is not something to be sad or afraid about. Richard Wright knew this because he was a blues man who spent his last days at Moulin d’Ande taking selfies and writing haiku.

I started coming to France because of support that I received from the American Composers Forum and a French acquaintance whom I now count as a dear friend. He introduced me to Catherine and Guillaume whom I now count as my sister and brother. I love the language (though I speak it poorly) and the care that the culture takes to enjoy life. The Corrèze area is special to me because the historical and present resistance to oppression is very palpable and, for many, art is at the very center of it. I have promised my wife and son that we will someday temporarily live while I lecture and play in France. That would give me the opportunity to learn the language and spend more time playing with my French colleagues.

Q: August 5th will mark your third visit to Treignac where you would like to present No Territory Band as a European preview. You will also be at the Magasin Général de Tarnac with an impromptu trio. A land that you seem to cherish … Why did you particularly want to present No Territory Band there and worked hard to overcome the plane tickets problem ?

Debt, by Sean Smuda

A: No Territory Band is the first band that I have led as the principal composer. We just made our first record called There’s a Hole in the Wall in the Bucket. The title is taken from a profane black American folk tale that we would tell as kids. I am thrilled to share my new project and to spoil members of No Territory Band with an experience in Treignac!  We are a septet but our trombonist, JC Sanford, is unable to travel to the festival Kind of Belou. We have received no institutional support for the trip and, so, it has been difficult raising the money to bring the remaining 6 musicians over. Still, people have been very gracious, especially my wife! Soon, hopefully, we will be able to recover the full cost.


Thanks to Jean Rochard for translating the interview to French.

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