Soul set free

In his seminal work on the history of Egypt, Stolen Legacy, George G.M. James discusses the impact of music on the Egyptian people. Referring to the earliest dynastic periods, James wrote about Kmt’s (pronounced "Kemet") use of harmony to influence life, learning and relationships:

Music (or Harmony) meant the living practice of philosophy, i.e. the adjustment of human life into harmony with God, until the personal soul became identified with God, when it would hear and participate in the music of the spheres. It was therapeutic, and was used by the Egyptian priests in the cure of diseases.

As long as people of African descent have walked this Earth, music has been one of our most common binding threads. It has educated and motivated countless generations. It has been used to detail our history and it has sung descriptions of the spirits of revolutionaries. Music, in defiance of the near-severance of our cultural umbilical cord during the transatlantic slave trade, has allowed black people the world over to build bridges between the cultures of our diaspora.

Therefore, it is no mystery that the reggae sound system came to America in the form of the hip-hop DJ. Black music makes the connection between Brazilian dance-martial art capoiera and breakdancing understandable. Gospel and blues. The banjo and the bass. Boot dances, tap dances and fraternity-sorority step shows.

The question has to be asked: When people of African descent have struggled to recapture so much of their heritage – especially in the Americas and South Africa – how has music remained such a powerful fixture in the black community? The answer lies in the character of a people who, for the first 200 years of their existence in America, had little more than spirit to sustain them. This is the message in The Black Chord, a book that examines the history of black music throughout the African diaspora.

Photographer David Corio and author Vivien Goldman were wise to use what Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers call the "spirit of music" as a foundation for their account. By breaking this spirit into five chapters covering four cultural areas – roots and culture, heart and soul, revolution, explorers – the authors use interviews, history and personalities as examples of how black music has influenced lives worldwide. In the process, they do a great service to those artists and musicians who have been pioneers, innovators and guardians of the Black Chord for generations.

"We should all take lessons and understand the whole odyssey of music coming from Africa to where it is today," writes soul legend Isaac Hayes in the foreword, "so that we can have a deeper appreciation of how music came to be where it is."

It might be suggested that The Black Chord could devote an entire chapter to spirituality in black music, but the first two chapters focus on many singers and musicians who got their start in the church or some spiritually sound environment. "If African music is the root of a tree," says Baaba Maal in the book, "gospel and blues are two of its strongest supporting branches.

Profound research for The Black Chord produced a collection of stories that range from representatives of Manding culture Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to the Wu-Tang Clan. In between, music lovers from all backgrounds are seasoned with little-known accounts of more well-known artists. For example, take this account:

"Inspired by the great blues and gospel singers, (Aretha) Franklin’s female circle continued the dynasty. Her beloved backup singer, gospel woman Cissy Houston – Dionne Warwick’s cousin and leader of the Sweet Inspirations quartet – often brought her daughter Whitney to work. Being mentored by these great mothers of music was effective."

The Black Chord is the soul of Al Green, the roots and culture of Bob Marley, the exploration of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the revolution of cultural agitators such as poet Michael Smith – whose politically motivated death in 1983 underscores the potential of music to stir the conscience of a society. This is a comprehensive perspective, and one of the most thoughtful books to touch the subject in a long time.

Khary Kimani Turner covers the hip-hop nation for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]. Kimani Turner has just published his book of poems, Outta you: Early selfloveactivism
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