JOHN COLTRANE / “Kulu Se Mama”
I had just joined the army when this came out. A little over three years later, up in the Girt Town neighborhood of New Orleans I was introduced to Juno Lewis (born Julian Bertrand Lewis, 1932 in New Orleans) and we hung out. I copped one of his drum inventions: the daka-debello (sp?), patterned after a log drum but was like half a hollowed out cylinder and instead of a solid flat side, the top face had slits of different lengths cut into it. When the slits were struck with a small mallet with a rubber ball (sort of like the ones used to play jacks) attached to the end of the sticks, the drum would sound mellow notes. We did poetry with music in the Free Southern Theatre and Juno’s drum was one of our main instruments. It was hip because it was so melodic and yet so percussive. Playing rhythmic patterns on it was an entrancing experience. Of course Juno talked about the session with Trane. The title track took up the entire side one of the LP and the composition was credited to Lewis. Juno said he had the full idea and kind of sung out the parts for the band members, who then in turn took it out. I know Juno didn’t hum Pharoah’s part with that buzz saw sound on tenor. But clearly the patois Juno sang, that language, whatever it was, was all Juno (where-so-ever he got it from). Juno took chanting to another level with "Kulu Se Mama" and Trane was sufficiently impressed that he made the song a feature recording. Trane introduced us all to so much. So much music and so much more than music. Trane was not the first to fuse Africa all up in his music—for me that distinction goes to Art Blakey, especially the album with Ghana’s Guy Warren, whom I also would meet many years later, introduced by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima. But in the mid sixties, it would be almost a decade before I would make it physically to the continent. Thanks to Trane I had already been there, done that and was looking forward to doing it again and again. There are so many pieces of Trane that folk took and ran with in diverse directions. Pharoah especially grabbed the horn of Africa and cut some albums that were literal soundtracks for pyschic telekinesis. We’d lay on the floor, turn out the lights, and Africa-zoom into the way-out-a-sphere of our black imaginations. Invariably we would be smiling when we got back. Well, Trane was my first conductor. I mean you got Elvin Jones, hipper and hotter than a Cape Canaveral rocket booster. Plus another drummer, Frank Butler. And percussionist Juno Lewis. Check how the conga intensifies the music at key moments. I was used to hearing African drumming and latin jazz, but "Kulu Se Mama" raised the ante on all of that. The music was free, the rhythms floated, moved with the music instead of anchoring the music in one time signature. I thought this was some of the hippest stuff I ever heard. I wished Trane had cut at least two or three other albums like this. Trane was a comet; once gone, he wasn’t coming back. You had to catch Trane when you saw him, when you heard him. Whatever Trane was playing, Trane was always playing forward, never going back to re-cover previous ground. No re-runs in this music. Well, not by Trane, but Pharoah hit the rewind button, figured out how Trane had done that do, and Pharoah snatched a step ladder and a tramboline and a pole vault and just took this stuff to a whole other level. After Pharoah a slew of jazz musicans started using batteries of percussion with hard horns and wicked bass lines. By hard horns I mean metal-melting fierceness: fire and blood blown through the metal’s caverns. Dragons and hurricane force. Notes that could not be notated except to reference formerly beat-down Negroes now uprising in the dead of night screaming war chants and laughing at the joy of rebellion and chortling in love with each other. Oh, how we loved ourselves during those moments. Listen to the dynamics of Juno’s composition. Starting at whisper level. Ending there also. And in between going everywhere there was to go, everywhere one’s imagination could steer you. Kulu Se Mama, to this day remains high on my list of must listens. Pharoah’s album Deaf, Dumb, Blind is not too far behind. One side a dance, the other a prayer. Here is the dance side, “Summun, Bukmun, Umyun.” Two pieces of Africa straight from the imaginations of long gone sons now spirit returned. —Kalamu ya Salaam And not be moved I like "Kulu Se Mama." I'm especially digging that middle period (almost eight minutes in) where one of the percussionists starts hitting these fast, repeating licks on the conga. It's almost not even musical - it sounds like joy and happiness and spirit coming straight from the guts to the ears. Nothing between to mitigate or soften or interpret the feeling. It's some wild sounds in a wild musical piece. But! But! But I have to say Pharoah Sanders' "Summun, Bukmun, Umyun" takes the prize. First off, as a natural-born hip-hop fan, they gave me something to hold on to right from the beginning. That bassline is sick! Then the percussion comes in on top of the bass and you've already got a helluva good groove going right there. Then comes the piano man comping the time. And then all the horns join in and it just keeps going, keeps building. I think another reason I'm digging this one so much is this is the kind of funky noise I grew up on. I was a little kid of ten or eleven just minding my business while stuff like this came pumping out of the speakers at something close to full blast. No wonder I'm so messed up today! ;-) But seriously, this Pharoah Sanders piece is some of my favorite kind of jazz. Paradoxically, over in the contemporary section, I posted the Tomasz Stanko playing something that almost sounds like chamber music. I love that too. Back in the seventies though, these cats were on some whole other shit. You got multiple percussionists and multiple horn players (and sometimes horn players doubling up on percussion) and a bass and piano and everything else, and they're all making it up as they go along. It's noise, but it's beautiful noise. For me, it's hard to hear it and not be moved. Notice how at around five minutes they break into the chorus of horns all playing more or less the same thing but at different times. It almost sounds like some New Orleans street shit! Just the horns, I mean. (New Orleans Second Line's don't mess around with piano or bass - you got to keep moving.) Through this entire piece, the two constants are the funky, African-influenced percussion and Pharoah's screaming tenor. The rest of it never stops changing. Dig it, dig it, dig it. :-) —Mtume ya Salaam Ah, that's a soprano Hence the accompanying photo. And you ought to (re)hear the other side, a gospel (spiritual) number. I like how you described the music. As baddd as that is on record, you shoulda oughta heard it live! Talk about a trip, a natural high, a... The baddd, baddd bass player is Cecil McBee. The rest of the line up is Lonnie Liston Smith on piano, Gary Bartz on alto, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Clifford Jarvis on drums, Anthony Wiles and Nathaniel Bettis on percussion, and Pharoah on soprano all the way. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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