Robin D. G. Kelly is the Gary B. Nash of American History at UCLA.
At a time when the music of South African jazz great Hugh Masekela is more likely to be heard in an elevator than a bootleg recording, it’s hard to imagine an era when combining jazz and African music would have been considered revolutionary.
But a new book by a prominent UCLA historian revisits the period in the late 1950s and early 1960s when African musicians began to swing and American jazz artists turned to Africa in an attempt to nudge the art form beyond bebop.
In "Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times" (Harvard University Press), Robin D. G. Kelley documents the struggles faced by four little known trailblazers who dared to mix African influences and jazz: the late Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren; the American pianist Randy Weston, who is now 85; the late American bassist and oud player Ahmed Abdul-Malik; and South African vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, now 75.
"These were artists who were ahead of their time," Kelley said. "In the 1950s and 1960s, there were critics who said, ‘You cannot mix apples and oranges, it dilutes the purity of African music or the purity of jazz.’"
The holder of the Gary B. Nash Professorship in American History at UCLA, Kelley is a prominent historian of African-American culture and jazz in particular. He is the author of seven books, including the critically acclaimed 2009 biography "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original" (The Free Press).
The performers featured in "Africa Speaks" in one way or other crossed Monk’s path and ended up influencing a long string of jazz greats, including Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Herbie Mann. They also shared a pattern of volleying between the United States and Africa at a time when more than 20 newly independent nations brimmed with possibility.
"Just as the British Invasion of the early 1960s profoundly shaped American music and style, the ‘African invasion’ fueled a desire among Americans for the primitive, the unspoiled, even the sexually charged," Kelley writes. But the newfound enthusiasm for all things African proved a double-edged sword for the era’s performers.
Take Warren. After moving to the United States in 1955, he deliberately set out to introduce West African drumming traditions to American jazz, Kelley writes. By the time of his arrival at age 31, the Ghanaian was an accomplished drummer, having helped found The Tempos, considered one of the best bands in West Africa. In addition to being steeped in West African drum traditions, he had soaked up Cuban-style drumming traditions.
He succeeded in recording what Kelley argues is the first LP in history to fuse jazz and African music with "Africa Speaks, America Answers." Recorded in 1956 in Chicago, the album drew on specific sacred rituals from West and Central Africa as well as highlife, a fast-paced musical genre that swept through urban African in the first half of the 20th century.
Although Warren went on to record three more albums in the U.S., his career effectively was eclipsed by a Nigerian native Michael Babatunde Olatunji, who picked up drums as an American college student. Embraced by Radio City Music Hall and American television, Olatunji played more directly than Warren into American stereotypes of African music with such pieces as "African Drum Fantasy."
"None of (Warren’s) songs fit easily into the then dominant stereotype of exotic, ecstatic, highly sexualized African rhythms and dance," Kelley writes. "They do not evoke the jungle or savagery."
A dejected Warren returned in 1960 to Ghana, moving back and forth between Accra and London. In 1974, he changed his name to Kofi Ghanaba and recorded several albums outside the U.S. before his 2008 death.
An American taste for popularized versions of ethnic music also haunted the career of native New Yorker Abdul-Malik , who embraced Islam and Arab culture as a high school student in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then the home to the one of the country’s largest population of African immigrants. While establishing himself as a sideman to a range of noted musicians, including Monk, the bassist mastered the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument used in North Africa, and launched a career as a solo artist dedicated to fusing jazz and the music of Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Muslim world.
On both the bass and oud, Abdul-Malik experimented with the music’s complex time signatures and modes that extend beyond Western diatonic or chromatic scales. But like Warren, he was upstaged by a musician whose less challenging music played more directly into stereotypical images. Lebanese movie star, singer and oudist Mohammed El-Bakkar produced six albums in fast succession beginning in 1957 with such names as "The Magic Carpet" and "Exotic Music of Belly Dancing" and featuring images of scantily clad or semi-nude women as cover art.
Even against such competition, Abdul-Malik nonetheless managed to cut the first Arab-jazz fusion recording called "Jazz Sahara," which was issued in 1958. He ended up serving as the leader on six albums through 1964 before devoting himself primarily to teaching until his 1993 death.
Benjamin’s music also did not strike recording executives as "African enough"– even though she was born in Johannesburg and raised in Cape Town. A straight forward interpreter of jazz standards and American and British ballads, Benjamin has been compared to Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday for her poignant, uncluttered phrasing.
Kelley portrays the singer-composer as part of a vibrant apartheid-era community of musicians devoted to modern jazz, which she saw as "the most liberating music on the planet." But the choice cost Benjamin the success enjoyed by such South African contemporaries as Miriam Makeba who embraced township music.
"As a female balladeer in an era when South Africa’s modernists sought ways to express the cry of freedom and the cadences of mass resistance, Benjamin’s sensitive love songs were often drowned out," Kelley writes. Nor did she enjoy the same success as male South African jazz musicians like Masekela or Benjamin’s pianist husband Abdullah Ibrahim (also known as Dollar Brand).
In 1959 Benjamin recorded what would have been the first South African jazz album, but it was never released. A recording session arranged four years later by Duke Ellington, who championed her career, met the same fate. However, a tape of the session was rediscovered in 1994 and released to critical success as "A Morning in Paris." A strong supporter of the African National Congress, she fled South Africa during the Soweto uprisings and enjoyed the most success while living in New York, releasing eight discs between 1979 and 2006. Benjamin recently returned to live in South Africa.
Of the four featured artists, Weston , who has recorded more than 40 albums and still performs to this day, entertained the most modest ambitions but experienced the greatest success.
"He had no grand ambitions to bring jazz to the continent or to launch a musical revolution," Kelley said. "He simply wanted to connect with his ancestor’s people, learn from the master musicians, and draw on the rhythms and sounds of Africa to enrich his own music."
The son of a Jamaican father loyal to the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Weston saw African music as a manifestation of Garvey’s pan-African philosophy and leapt at every chance to study it. A New York native, he grew up with Abdul-Malik and was influenced by his interest in North African music.
The pianist really hit his stride, though, while working in the 1950s at a summer music institute in the Berkshires that traced jazz’s heritage back to slaves from West Africa. Weston went on to immerse himself in popular and folk music from a range of African countries through association with musicians who had emigrated from Africa, recordings of African music and a jazz group at the United Nations.
At the height of Africa’s liberation movement, Weston poured these influences into the four-part suite " Uhuru Afrika ," which is Swahili for "Freedom Africa," with lyrics by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Recorded in 1960 with an all-star band, including guitarist Kenny Burrell, now a UCLA professor of ethnomusicology, the piece became the period’s "manifesto, a declaration of independence for Africa and mutual interdependence between the continent and its descendants," Kelley writes.
In 1961, Weston traveled for the first time to Africa as part of a U.S. cultural delegation to Lagos, Nigeria. Kelley said that as soon as he set foot there, Weston realized that he had not only reconnected with his ancestral past but opened a door to a modern, dynamic, uncharted future.
The experience inspired the 1963 recording "Music from the New African Nations including the Highlife," which Kelley argues is a masterpiece on par with "Uhuru," and the 1964 recording of "African Cookbook," one of Weston’s most requested pieces. After a longer African tour in 1967, Weston moved for five years to Morocco, where he ended up studying with the Gnawa, a group of mystics known for the healing power of their music. The experience culminated in a string of jazz standards and a style that "makes one want to dance and pray all at the same time," Kelley said.
"Weston’s lifelong engagement with African cultures set him on a path from which he has never strayed," Kelley writes. "He hit the musical and cultural mother load."