Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ernest Dawkins's UnTill Emmett Till @ Velvet Lounge

Silence: not the best way to maintain a blog, but wordless, what can I do?

Nevertheless, here's a try. On Monday night I headed down to the Velvet Lounge to catch the world premiere of composer Ernest Dawkins's UnTill Emmett Till. I'm not sure how to describe it, except to say that Dawkins melded spoken word poetry (performed by Khari B) with a range of pieces falling within the larger rubric of jazz and blues, including swing, some New Orleans-style Dixieland (as filtered through Chicago), and even some holy-roller gospel. The highlights of the piece for me were Dee Alexander's vocals, which managed to transform everything she sang, or hummed, or vocalized, into poetry, and the various solos, especially by the saxophonists Greg Ward and Kevin Nabors. (The baritone saxiphonist Aaron Getsug's solo initially provoked laughter among the musicians, though it was unclear why.) I was less a fan of the spoken word portion, which Khari B performed with real gusto and soul. At times, however, it sounded like a little too much rehashed rhetoric from way back when. (When referencing Black history, for example, why not talk about the more direct links in the Diaspora, in addition to references to Egypt (I know, I know...I'm not hating on the Afrocentrists and Kemetists, don't get me wrong)? Like, say, oh, I don't know, the Congo-Angola region, where Emmett Till's ancestor's very well may have come from?)

Anyways, Dawkins's piece, which was a continuous collage, invoked Chicago's Black musical traditions as much as it did Till, or maybe it's better to say that Till's being a Chicagoan, his mythic and symbolic status to the narrative of Black Chicago life, and music and culture, came through in Dawkins's formidable and rich musical weave. I'd thought it might be more somber, but it was really shot through, even when acknowledging the singular and collective tragedies of our past, with joy and awe. Joy and awe at Mamie Till Mobley's courage and heroism, joy and awe at the possibility of memorializing Till and celebrating his brief life, joy and awe that we can still find joy and awe amidst the continuous maelstroms of Atlantic and American history. Chatted with poet Ed Roberson afterwards I told him that I felt energized and elated, though the word "enjoyed," perhaps in its original etymological sense, was and is as appropriate. Filled, lifted. And, as Dawkins's chanted, "We won't forget: Emmett Till."

Here are some YouTube clips (despite my attempts to reorient them in QuickTime, some of the videos still posted in their original orientation on YouTube--sorry!):

An excerpt from the piece

Kevin Nabors' solo

Khari B performing the text

1 comment:

  1. I am enamored of your opening line and might well borrow it as a placeholder for what will be, in the next 3 months, a much-neglected blog.

    And the opening accords well with your theme, the distinction between being "silent" and "wordless," or, rather, the contiguous place where vocalization sutures the two, especially via diasporic music.

    Till is such a metonymic figure for the diaspora, the evidence of his death evidence, in a diasporic context, of the many bodies lost and hidden in rivers and forests. The production sounds amazing.

    Back to my own diasporic musings.