As artists, and with each humiliation to our fragile egos, we are reminded of the professional class of musicians’ choice to prostrate themselves before an economy that persists by a logic that has little to do with the art of the muses.
Still, what is an unfamiliar muse to many of us has also become a part of us. Part of our struggle.
Nearly 15 years ago, on Franklin and Nicollet Avenues at Acadia Cafe in Minneapolis, vocalist-musician-improviser Mankwe Ndosi brought awkwardness to a room reserved for the comforting illusions of art. Its nurturing exclusions. Its men. The black woman brought her own unself, the eternal remnant. What’s eternal: the obvious awkwardness of African elephants to ivory poachers. The unpracticed entertainer, unable to entertain under the hostility of the Afirkaner’s gaze. And, so, a fourth wall broken across the bow of a ghost ship always headed home with a fire under its ass.
The same goes for her August 29th solo performance at Khyber Pass Cafe in Saint Paul, MN.
With Awkward Heat/Resistance, Mankwe marked temporary boundaries around a wilderness which included poetry, music, movement and drama, and out of which her forebears Ntozake Shange and Laurie Carlos might have made a “special aesthetic”: “those parts of reality that are ours, those things about our bodies, the cycles of our lives that have been ignored for centuries” (qtd in Blackwell, Henry. “An Interview with Ntozake Shange”. Black American Literature Forum . 13.4. pgs. 134–138.)
This was the score, the invitation that we received prior to the occasion:
Watch the stirring waves/ awkward silence/ heat and awkward resistance / how do we prepare for change… how do we soften …. no preservation… recognition and shedding / spaces and flurries ….practice toward transformation… track and catch our courage in its hand …. solo sound improvisation by Mankwe Ndosi.
Our parts? We the Ujamaa were equipped with a “Break the silence” and “Awkward silence.” Slips of paper and director’s notes constituting our point-of-view; telling us to go into the awkwardness and fetch the musician and an amen for the teacherly resentments toward capital indulgence that seeks-but-shall-not-find a suitable end to consumption and the inevitable need to cast off.
Ahem, said a black woman: the tradition reminds us to remember. Praxis taken up by the officiant as preparation, a functional improvisation. Value is not to be found in the use alone, though; as not every preparation was put in service. Everything present was a surplus–suggesting, perhaps, that there is enough of everything to go around such that we need not always go around…
Having went around…preparing to go around. And around.
The whole thing issues from the interrogatives the memory makes a way for. Memory is, after and before all, a representation of past time that might make the present worthy of a future. So we were allowed to remember with the water as ritual.
In a performance that stretched the time of narrative as it interrogated. Life-conscious associations that pause at compulsive generation. Like Ndosi’s immersed subject: a life made too tight by commodified be-getting. Self-unconsciousness, or a general lack of quality.
What does it really mean to carry a tune? Not to be rode by it? To carry that faceless clock down a mountain to a thirsty people, not as a marker of man’s image, but of a people’s habit of being with a world, naturally.
For our part–and because we are stuck in man’s image–we play: from the audience that we try to remember to forget, Queen Drea Reynolds keeps the time at 6 minutes, marking the thresholds to our table as an occasional response enlisted from Ndosi’s call.
One threshold of a tune to carry: a 6/8 “loosen-up” (after long-held, glissful tones and tensionful textures) that conjured an awakening of body. Everyday Pentecost. Sanctified mundane. Ecstatic alternative to the burnt offering. In its place: the watery memory of regroup. The play of associations that briefly intones Great Black Music and magician Lady Day (that grain of the voice thing that continues to mystify). And (see moments 8:01-9:49) there was a harmonic modulation/transitional dip in the tune toward bell and teeth sucking and hum. From alveolar ridge to the multiphonics at the back of the voiced throat to a broken chord in the alto’s falsetto range. Nasal mms–nns that open to ohh. As the heat increases to more teeth sucking.
Anthony Braxton might call/have called some of the most tuneful parts scalular and/or intervallic. The teeth: extended functions in the shape of a gateway, an arch that retracts to condensed arpeggiated forms. Hexagrams, koans seeking their own undoing. The blue spirit of Saint Louis–her mother’s land–as the transition to…
Another: And, of course, dense black virtuosity. And a popular-industrial new wave reference that Mankwe dramatized with two mics, one handheld when not on the floor, one retro-dynamic vocal held up on a stand. Which is to say there is a machine in it, wielded here and now, though, at the expense of commoditized genres, types. Preparations. The downy filler of the bag spills to the floor. Divined into deep listening to the hot music of the amp. An anxious amplifier whose feedback Mankwe guided artfully along her text. Are those your words?, I ask after the gig. All mine. Old technology like talking to the water. Her’s. Our’s. It’s all around us–but we’re unsatisfied.
And yet another: But not (so far) put into the service of a jeremiad, nor an image of an eschatology. Except to say don’t be scared. Now that so far is gone: climate, social media, and our general “fuckery” are named. Maybe we can shut it down and walk to Washington, Ndosi poses. Maybe. When the fuckery gets bad enough. Maybe.
Do we have the power to stop? Power to practice love. The sense to fashion cable and cord out of our natural language? Have we game?
The sound of Ndosi’s heat antagonizes: this lie that most of us accept as a life must have seams. Cracks. Borders. Edges to be pulled back for a peek. Notes between the notes. My eyes were closed as I got a gander at the sound. Translate that feeling into a sound, I hear her say. I may or may not use it.
This may be extra, surplus, but did you know that her mother is from black Saint Louis and her father from the Wameru of Tanzania? That: Each Meru clan is thought to be descended from a common ancestor often an earlier settler on the slopes of Mount Meru.
These are, in part, the conditions that “like a rock cast in the sea” become song. And, throughout, Ndosi’s textual play gave names to conditions that become recitatif for us. As water comes down the mountain like an education in self-reliance for a manifold self.