Archive for November, 2010

Jazz Meets Clave!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on November 29, 2010 by playthell

The Original CuBoppers

Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody And Cuban Congero Chano Pozo


The JALC Orchestra

Maestro Marsalis Strikes Up the Band!

The concert at Lincoln Center last Saturday night was aptly name Jazz Meets Clave; it was like a replay of that halcyon era in the 1940’s, when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza – Afro-American and Afro-Cuban master musicians – put their heads together and decided to experiment with a new sound that has become world famous as “Latin Jazz,” a distinct genre in the lexicon of Jazz music.  Since this music was a mixture of the musical traditions of the two cultures, the Son Montuno and Jazz, and was concocted by Afro-Americans and Afro-Latin’s in Manhattan when the Bebop style invented by Bird and Diz was au courant, this new synthesis became known as Cubop. The music played in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s beautiful Rose Hall by the great orchestra that resides there, on last Saturday night, can be considered an extension of that experiment.


Machito and his Afro-Cubans

The Cuban Side Of Bop

One of the highlights of the evening was a composition by Carlos Enriquez, the bassist in the Lincoln Center Orchestra, who is Puerto-Rican, or more accurately Nuyorican.  The piece was inspired by the Orchestra’s recent trip to Cuba. In his introduction of the composition Carlos explained how the trip to that culturally rich Caribbean isle was a musical and cultural revelation.  He was first of all surprised to discover the high level of musicianship displayed by the young musicians of Cuba, as well as the educational system that trains them.

Frankly I was astonished by his surprise, because all one need do is look at the musicians who have migrated from that Island to New York City, or simply come here to perform – like Chucho Valdez, whom I consider the greatest pianist in the world, to know that something rare and exciting is going on musically in Cuba.  Chucho is not alone at the top of his game; the same argument can be made for the contrabassist Carlos Del Pino, the multi-reed virtuoso Paquito de Rivera, or the trumpeter Autoro Sandoval – the only trumpeter in the world who can potentially rival Wynton Marsalis in his multi-lingual virtuosity. And there are so many great Cuban percussionists they defy tabulation.

In an eloquent and erudite monologue Carlos told us how the different movements of his composition were based on various rhythms and song forms that are integral to the Afro-Cuban style, and explained how they would alternate with the swing of Jazz.  Unlike some ill fated attempts to synthesize musical genres, this composition was a rousing success.  The result was a performance of great drama, as the musicians interpreted this inspired and original score constructed on complex poly-rhythms and poignant blues voicing’s of various shades. This composition also featured an extended solo on the timbales, and instrument that offers far less to work with than the drum set preferred by jazz drummers; yet it is critical to the Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Consisting of only two tom toms on a stand, with two cowbells mounted on it, plus a ride cymbal, the Timbales are a minimalist version of the Jazz drum kit.


David Hernandez Of Zon Del Barrio!

The Art of Timbales


The Jazz drum set is the most complex percussion instrument in the world, and by far the most difficult to play when performing in the modern jazz context.  While I am not prepared to say who played this instrument first, African American drummers in the United States created the great virtuoso tradition and are its greatest artists.

To understand the complexity of the jazz drummer’s art, let’s examine the art of precision rudimental trap drumming alone.  Here I am referring of the art of the snare, or trap drum.  This kind of drumming is common to military style marching bands, including high-school and especially the great college marching bands.  The rhythmic compositions to which the band marches called “cadences’ are constructed on twenty eight “rudiments.’  These rhythmic exercises, such as five stroke rolls, seven stroke rolls, flams, ratamacues, paradiddles, flam paradiddles, etc are very precise rhythmic statements, sort of like etudes for drums. A wonderful recreation of what it was like to try and make the great Florida A&M drum section can be seen it the movie Drumline.


A Grand Master of The Drum Set

Max Roach Playing Five Drums and Four Cymbals

Most jazz drummers had the benefit of this kind of rudimental training on the snare drum, having grown up playing in marching bands, but in the set the snare is only one of four or five drums, depending on the drummer’s taste.  It is however the lead drum from which all rhythmic configurations is initiated. The standard set is snare, small tom tom, and floor tom tom, plus the bass drum.  In terms of the human voice it would be like soprano, tenor, baritone and basso; if they were viols it would be violin, viola, cello and conta-bass.  When the jazz drummer tunes these drums – and some fine tune them to the pitch of the piano – a variety of percussive voices are possible.

That’s why the great Jazz drummers with musical imaginations – like Max Roach, Art Blakey or Jack De Johnette -sound as if they are playing melodically.  Aside from the drums however there are at least three cymbals.  Two are mounted on stands – some drummers prefer three – and the sock cymbal is played with the foot.  The essence of the art of playing the drum set is to be able to play a different rhythm with each hand and foot.  Hence the Jazz drummer creates a complex polyrhythmic statement by his lonesome.

The timbales are sparse in comparison, but unlike the jazz set the timbale player is not expected to carry the percussion rhythm alone; timbaleros are  accompanied by the conga and bongo drummers, guido or clave and the big cow bell.  When each instrument is in the groove they produce a poly-rhythmic sound that compels the listener to dance. Thus the timbalero usually has help from other percussionist while the Jazz drummer is expected to supply all the percussion functions in the band.  On this occasion the timbalero was a true master of his instrument and rendered an electrifying solo!   When I first saw Afro-Cuban musicians play at Florida A&M I wasn’t at all impressed with the timbales.  But that would change once I began to understand the nature of the instrument and the skill required to play them.  And when I started to study the congas I came to admire, respect, and even love them.  Part of the genius of the art of timbale playing is that they do so much with so little equipment.

Conga, Timbales and Guido

The Heart of the Afro Cuban Rhythm Section


The Bongo Player

The bongolero also doubles on the big cow bell

The Cow Bell Anchors the Rhythm

Everybody Plays Off The Big Cow Bell


Every part of the timbales can be played.  Whereas jazz drummers play only on the skins of the drums – with the occasional rim shots – the timbalero plays all over the drums; the rims and the sides too.  The skins are used accent the rhythms that are steadily played on the sides or the cowbells, and for dynamic solos.  The Afro-Cuban rhythm section is so precisely worked out that every rhythm fits perfectly in its “pocket.” Which is another way of saying each man to his station in the rhythmic jig saw.

JALC Bassist Carlos Enrique


After a swinging interlude in which Ali – the trap drummer with the JALC – announced his presence like rolling thunder,  Marcus Printup gave a solo of great sensual beauty, playing with a wide vibrato; the influence of his Cuban sojourn could clearly be heard as he conjured up memories of the great Afro-Cuban trumpeter Chaputin. The composition, and the set, ended with an impressive solo from Carlos on the bass.




The second set began with the audience being shown how to clap the clave rhythm, and Ali soloed on the drum set as they clapped in time.  Then Carlos started walking the bass and Ali began swinging hard.  The music is a movement from Wynton’s Third American Symphony, and it is very modern.  Moving at the frantic pace of rush hour traffic on the West Side Highway, which is clearly visible from the piano where Wynton composed it, the influence of environment on the way musicians imagine music is very clear.  In any case it’s clear to me; I don’t know if Wynton thinks of it that way, which is to say that he is conscious of the influence…but it is there.

Ali Jackson

All around Musician and Virtuoso of the Drum Set


As in all of the performances the solo work was marvelous.  First there was a kind of rapid fire interplay between Wynton and the trombonist.  Wynton played magnificently, even though he had just been back in his dressing room suffering with aching eyes.  Walter Blanding Jr, my favorite tenor prayer of the younger generation, gave a spellbinding solo on the soprano sax.  Obviously by his choice of horns he is following in the footsteps of John the Prophet.

The next composition was also written by Carlos, who was obviously smitten with the great musical tradition of Afro-Cubans.  This composition is based on the Songo form created by the Cuban master musician Chungito. The tune utilized the 6/8 time signature which is the rhythm of the most sacred of Afro-Cuban religions societies like Santeria.  However being afro-Latin raised in New York he hears both traditions in a marvelous way. His orchestrations were fresh and highly inventive.


The Great Gerald Wilson Conducting His Music

The JALC Orchestra Saxophone Section

Carlos is extremely fortunate to be in a musical organization like JALC, because it allows him to fully exercise his musical imagination as a composer. Like the Ellington Orchestra, the gifted musicians around whom he is surrounded are capable of playing anything he can invent.  This gives all the members on the band an added incentive to write, thus contributing to the bands book of original compositions.  Again the solo work by the trombonist was breathtaking.  Surely when John Phillip Sousa chose trombonists for his band he never imagined anybody playing the instrument with such lyricism and imagination.

The next tune was a Cuban Standard – the Peanut Vender.  However Carlos explained the history of the tune then delighted the audience with the announcement that this particular arrangement was done by the great Duke Ellington. This further establishes the long standing  interest Afro-American musicians had in Cuban music.  To listen to the JALC perform this music with the standard Afro-Cuban Rhythm section was a wonder.  You could not tell they were not a Cuban orchestra.  Another trumpeter took an extended solo that captured the flavor of the tune. The Latin percussionists were right in the pocket all night. Dukes arrangement was intoxicating, with those unique Ellington voicing’s for the different sections.

The trombonist Vincent Gardner – a former member of the FAMU marching band – wrote the next composition titled “Afro and Cubans.”  A somewhat strange title, which made me wonder if it was a reference to the fact that race conscience black Cubans do not consider themselves “Hispanic,” which they see as the proper designation for those Cubans who descended from the Spaniards.  They are quite aware of the fact that they are neo-Africans of the west.  When I asked Vincent hom much is composition was influenced by the cultural redefinition that is occurring among black Cubans, which is rife among Cuban hip hop artists, he said it was this Afro-Cuban perspective that inspired the work.

The Conga drummer was featured in an extended solo on this tune. He was playing three congas, all tuned to different keys, and he sounded like he had six hands!!!  He was accompanied  only by other rhythm instruments. His solo was followed by an extended solo on the timbales.  It was an impressive demonstration of the art of Afro-Cuban percussion. I continue to be amazed by the level of virtuosity achieved by performers on these percussion instruments.

The final tune of this historic concert came from the song book of the late great Tito Rodriquez.  While its rhythms were typical Afro-Cuban and it was dance music, the horn arrangements display the advanced knowledge of blues harmonies and jazz ensemble arranging that is the hallmark of the New York Salsa sound in its big band Latin /Jazz expression begun by Machito and elaborated on by Nuyoricans.  Wynton soloed on this tune and he used a mute, which allowed him to scream, laugh and cry on his trumpet.  His sound was majestic!

The rhythm was an up-tempo Mambo of the sort made famous at places like the Palladium and all those fantastic nights at the Village Gate.  The bongo drummer got his moment on this tune and he thrilled the crowd with his virtuosity on those two little drums that look like toys.  I have watched bongo players for years – including the best ever, Mongo Santamaria – and it remains a mystery to me how they do what they do.  When the last note was sounded the audience rose to its feet in a prolonged and boisterous ovation!   Viva la musica!


Hangin With The Master Drummers!

Their Timbale and Conga Drumming Fired The Band




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 29, 2010

Double Click to cee the Jazz ay Lincoln Center in Cuba, featuring the Cuban flautist Michel Herrera soloing.  The artist of traditional Cuban percussion instrunebts are also native Cubans.


Double Click to See The JALC Orchestra  at “Jazz Meets Clave” Concert


Double Click to hear Machito and his Afro-Cubans playing Cu-bop

Double Click for Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra play Cubop

This performance is at Lincoln Center in 1982,

Almost four decades  after he and Mario Bauza invented Cubop

Praise Songs For A Literary Lion!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Ishmael Reed with tags , , on November 22, 2010 by playthell

Master Of Ceremonies Rome Neal and Basir Mchawi

Homage To A Word Sorcerer

Although the tribute to novelist, poet, playwright, essayist and Librettist Ishmael Reed in the East Village Sunday Afternoon was ignored by the press here in the media capitol of the world, it was a notable event in the literary history of New York City.  Mr. Reed is one America’s most prolific, imaginative and erudite writers – arguably the most important of his generation – thus he well deserves any accolades bestowed upon him by his readers and critics as he recedes into the autumn of life and the twilight of a marvelous career. After an elaborate opening statement by the Master of ceremonies – in which he acquainted the audience with the work of Mr. Reed and reminded us of his long association with the playwright as the producer and director of his plays here at the Nuyorican Poets Café – Rome Neal introduced the first speaker, the gifted modern composer Carmen Moore.

The internationally renowned Afro-American composer provided us an interesting view of how Ishmael’s words have inspired him to create complex musical compositions. “Whenever Ishmael calls me and says he has an interesting poem I know he’s telling me to get to work,” says Mr. Moore, who had just returned from the G-20 economic summit in South Korea where he conducted an orchestra performing music he had been commissioned to write for the occasion.

It was instructive to me especially, because I have been writing lyrics to music for some time.  Here was a revealing look at the flip side of the coin.  I hear beautiful music and the notes turn into words if I concentrate on them; Mr. Moore explained how the process works in reverse – how a composer can look at words on a page and hear music.  Yet it remains an unfathomable gift to me, an inexplicable alchemy that in it’s higher expressions achieves a transcendent power to elevate the spirit that approaches the divine.

The composer was followed by Bashir Mchowi – a Professor of English, radio producer and longtime activist Afrocentric pedagogue. Professor Mchowi gave an expansive presentation that began with an impassioned polemic about the black identity of ancient Egyptian civilization and moved in sweeping fashion to discussions of Ishmael’s oeuvre as a novelist, poet, essayist and musician.  His interpretations of the esoteric allusions and complex symbols in Reed’s fictional masterworks such as “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down” and “Mumbo Jumbo” were both entertaining and enlightening. The Professor’s style was conversational rather than pedantic; which was pretty much as he had planned it, having announced that he was eschewing an academic approach to the subject at hand.

Steve Cannon, the poet, novelist, editor, literary promoter and cultural icon of the East village knows Ish best among the panelists because they are very good and old friends.  As might be expected his talk was informative…but it was also surprisingly entertaining. Mr. Cannon followed professor Mchowi’s example and adopted a conversational style; regaling the audience with amusing inside stuff as he told tales out of school.

We gained important insights into how Ish conceived his masterwork “Mumbo Jumbo,” and much about his method of working. “I consider Ishmael an investigative reporter first and a novelist second,” says Cannon.  “Whenever he takes a position on something, no matter how controversial, I know he knows what he is talking about and can back it up with the facts.  He is a very learned man.”  This explains the erudite and timely nature of Ishmael’s novels, and the revelations in his essays.  Steve’s expansive rap was a magical experience in which we were entertained and instructed simultaneously.

For my part, when I was given the floor I read some excerpts from a critical treatise I wrote on Ishmael that was published in the prestigious journal “The World And I.” Titled “The Gospel According To Ishmael” – the essay explores the esthetic philosophy and literary technique of Mr. Reed, and offers an assessment of the extent to which he has achieved his goals.  Since all the speakers before me were eloquent and expansive, I thought the better of reading a 4,000 word treatise and simply summarized my conclusions and invited people to read the text when I posted it on the Commentaries.

Vinie Borroughs

The final speaker on the panel was Vinie Burroughs, a brilliant actress and story teller, who called Ish “A magician with words.”  As an actress who is conversant with the classical literature of western theater and the modern theater of Africa and the Neo-African Diaspora of the Americas, as well as the folklore of Africa and Afro-Americans, she is well positioned to discuss the author’s importance as a playwright. “He breaks the rules to create another reality; which is possible because of his great knowledge of literature and history. You have to know the rules in order to break them!”   And she warned against writers trying to experiment with new theatrical forms without a solid knowledge of tradition. This is an important piece of advice which is just as valuable for musicians as it is for writers!

Then Ms. Burroughs read a monologue from “Flight to Canada, Ish’s brilliant absurdist novel of slavery.  Her performance was moving, as she made the voices come to life. She assumed the full dramatis personae of the character “Raven Quickskill,” the erudite slave with a grand sense of irony. For her reading of the other story Ms. Burroughs had to assume the character of England’s Queen Elizabeth.  Given the deeply satirical nature of the text – it is a passionate note from Queen Elizabeth to the Cockney houseboy who was discoverd in her chambers and was reported in the press as just having wanderd in her bedroom by accident –  she was required to create believable renditions of arrogance, hauteur, irony, fained innocence, and comedy.  All actresses in the audience left the Nuyorican Café with a far deeper understanding of their craft.  It was a bravura performance.


The Master Fabulist Chillin at the Nuyorican Cafe

The Man Of the hour

Through it all Ishmael sat in the back of the audience occasional guffawing at the comments about his work.  Finally he was called to the stage and the audience bade him speak!  A jovial fellow with an unassuming manner,  the unsuspecting observer would never guess that this genteel man of letters wields his pen like a deadly weapon that can induce death by a thousand barbs.

First he talked about the art of music and his long collaboration with Carman Moore.  He told fascinating stories that revealed the source of his troubles with identity politicians of the left and right – especially white chauvinist.  A compelling and representative anecdote was a tale about having been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera Company to write the Libretto for an Opera with music by Carman Moore.

To anyone who is familiar with his work it seems quite adventurous to select Ishmael Reed as the author of a story about the crucifixion of Christ.  Predictably, the music was heavenly but the text was blasphemous…he made Judas Iscariot a hero!

Hence, it is easy to see that Mr. Reed has been denied the celebration his literary achievement merits by the American cultural establish because he constantly attacks the master narrative of American Civilization concocted by the official mythmakers, and the Eurocentric epistemology upon which it rest. As Ishmael talked about the trials and tribulations that will befall writers who dare to slaughter sacred cows – especially black writers slaughtering white cows – he took us on a fascinating Journey into highly esoteric spiritual philosophies.

Rome Neal and Andre The Poet

Return Of The Pork Pie Hats

However on this occasion Ish was in the mood to swing…do Bird and Dizzy’s thing.  And swing he did.  When Rome Neal requested a song, the great writer sat down at the acoustic piano and played a jazz standard. Swinging lightly and changing the groove at will, he laid down smooth chord progressions with his left hand while spinning off staccato lyrical lines with his right in the classic Bop style. I was surprised and impressed; playing solo piano while improvising on chord changes in bop time is no picayune trick.  It’s really something to talk about.  The whole gig was a blast!

Swinging the Blues

Grooving High


The Poet And his Admirers

It Was A Celebration!


***Ishmael is also one of our most insightful media critics.

His latest book is “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media.”

It is a must read and I am presenting a review which will be posted here.


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 22, 2010

*Photos of Ishmael at the piano

and the group portrait by: Jo Ann Cheatham

Other photos by: Playthell

The Photo of Ms. Burroughs is uncredited




** Below is the text of a critical essay I wrote on Ishmael published in the journal: “The world and I.”  It states my basic view of his literary oeuvre.

The Gospel According To Ishmael!


Droppin Science At The Nuyorican


When the group of international scholars and students from twenty nations who had gathered at the Sorbonne in February 1992 heard Ishmael Reed open his reading with lines from his new novel Japanese by Spring, which was then a work in progress, almost everybody cracked up with laughter. And as he continued to read from his manuscript–a hilarious tale about a Japanese takeover of Jack London College, a small, elite, private liberal arts college in Oakland, California–it became increasingly clear that we were witnessing the birth of yet another masterwork from the writer whom the Nation magazine has justly designated “the brightest contributor to American satire since Mark Twain.”

The finished product has justified our faith. For Japanese by Spring is a unique narrative that is at once a tour de force of literary innovation that violates nearly all the conventional wisdom about composing a novel, and an erudite fictive polemic satirizing both the intellectual pomposity and hypocrisy of the Eurocentric cultural elite, who have traditionally run our universities, and the vulgar opportunism and banality of radical feminists and Afrocentric ideologues.

Chastising the charlatans on all sides of a question while seeking to enlighten the untutored mob is characteristic of Reed’s literary oeuvre–a body of work that now includes nine novels, four volumes of poetry, two anthologies, three plays, two television productions, and three collections of essays, with another nearing publication. In his most recent essay collection–and most controversial–Writin’ Is Fightin’ Reed provides us an unabridged glimpse of his take on the writers craft:

“I don’t have a predictable, computerized approach to political and social issues in a society in which you’re either for it or agin it. Life is much more complex. And so for my early articles about black on black crime, I’ve been criticized by the left, and for my sympathy with some “left wing” causes I’ve been criticized by the right, though from time to time I’ve noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a dime’s worth of difference between the zealotry of the left and that of the right.”

Reed, who calls his career “Thirty-seven years of boxing on paper,” which is the subtitle of the book, believes that the writer must view all dogmas and orthodoxies with a jaundiced eye. “I think that a certain amount of philosophical skepticism is necessary,” he says. “I think it’s important to maintain a prolific writing jab, as long as my literary legs hold up, because even during these bland and yuppie times, there are issues worth fighting about.”


Multiple targets


In Japanese by Spring, we get the kind of diversity of perspective that allows Reed to critically examine all of the issues that are of enduring interest to him: white cultural chauvinism, white and black feminist collusion in defaming black men, the need for a multicultural perspective, the duplicity of white liberals, the opportunism and ideological bankruptcy of many black nationalists, the viciousness of academic competition, and the absurdity of intellectual fashion. Two of his pet peeves–the unwarranted genuflection before black women writers by the feminist literati and their fellow travelers, and the conflict between pampered academic critics and struggling creative writers–are given a full airing.

In the following passage the narrator paints a vivid picture of the conflict between the critics and writers when Benjamin Chappie Puttbutt, an English teacher at the college, arrives in Paris to deliver a lecture at a conference that includes a contingent of creative writers:

“He was to be the featured speaker at the Nathan Brown Centennial celebration; the writers had been brought along for entertainment. The chauffeur held the door open for him. He climbed in. He instructed the chauffeur to drive past the writers. They were shouting at him. They apparently wanted him to give them a lift. He asked the chauffeur to speed up. Some of the writers had recognized him, but he didn’t wave. He pretended to be absorbed in Le Figaro, which had his photo on the cover.”

Reed explores the question of the white feminists’ role in the defamation of black men by constructing a heated exchange between Chappie Puttbutt and Marsha Marx, chairwoman of the women’s studies department. Prior to the Japanese takeover of the college, Puttbutt was just an unimportant lecturer working on a semester by semester basis, hoping to acquire tenure but frustrated in this effort at every turn. However, when Dr. Yamato–with whom Puttbutt had been taking private lessons in Japanese–suddenly becomes president of the college, there is a radical change in Puttbutt’s fortunes as he is selected to become the top assistant to the new president. The roles quickly reverse, and his former tormentors now seek his favor as the new Japanese owners begin to reorganize and reduce staff. Arrogant Marx, who has always treated Puttbutt with disdain, is forced to plead for the survival of her department, which is scheduled to be combined with the Department of European Studies.

“You’re moving us over there with those patriarchal pigs?”

“I’ll be frank about it, Marsha . . . . The Women’s Studies department is merely a front for European studies. You said so yourself.” Puttbutt picked up a sheet of paper that was lying on his desk. “Europe is the source of our law, our values, and our culture, yet little had been done to recognize the role of women, in the establishment of this great civilization.” He quoted from the MLA Speech she’d made. “The way I see it, there is no significant difference between your aims and those of your patriarchal allies. You just wanted in. What we’ve decided is to hire fifty percent men and fifty percent women.”

However, Ms. Marx would not hear of any such arrangement and protested,

“The members of my department insist upon working in a male-free department.” To which Puttbutt replied, “If you feel that way why don’t you move your people to Mills?. . . We will not tolerate any separation between the sexes.” Finally Marx begins to plead and tries to win Puttbutt to her position. “Look Chap-pie . . . We should be on the same side. United in our fight against white male patriarchy and its control of modes of production. Both sexism and racism are equal contradictions.”

But Chappie’s not buying it.

“Oh yeah, then explain to me why black and brown women are worse off than white women. Why there are few women of color in the main feminist organizations and why the black and brown women are always accusing you of racism . . . . You’re looking out for yourself. I’m going to look out for me . . . . You don’t jump on men of your background as much as you do the fellahs. You lynched Clarence Thomas . . . . You white gender-first feminists in the media and on the campuses have gone Clarence Thomas crazy . . . . The only difference between you and the women in the Klan is that the women in the Klan dress better.”

Here Reed has his finger on the pulse of the Afro-American community. All one need do to verify this is to view the Frontline documentary on the Thomas-Hill minstrel show produced by Ofra Bikel for PBS. Reed also uses the Japanese takeover to chastise opponents of a multicultural pedagogy by having Dr. Yamato assault the traditional Eurocentric canon:

“We’re going to close down the Department of Humanity and move it into ethnic studies. You have African studies, Native American studies, Chicano studies, Asian-American studies, and African-American studies. We will have a new department, European studies, with the same size and budget as the rest. My backers would like to eliminate all of these courses which allow for so much foolishness . . . . All they accomplish for these people is to promote such dubious claims that Europe is the birthplace of science, religion, technology and philosophy. I’ve been reading this so-called philosopher, Plato. All about such foolishness as to whether the soul has immortality. What nonsense. Hegel and the rest are full of such nonsense also. This ignorant man maintained that the Chinese had no philosophy. What rubbish. No wonder the Americans can’t make a decent automobile . . . . If one were to apply the empirical razor to all of these so-called theories, the entire history of Western philosophy could be covered in one week.”

Most of the arguments presently raging in America’s universities are scrutinized in this novel. And the ideologues on all sides are lampooned, or harpooned, by Reed’s irreverent, satirical wit. There are so many learned and insightful observations littering this text–including weighty lessons in comparative language and religion–that the thoughtful reader must leave it with the changed perspective of those who have heard the voice of a prophet.

It is a testament to his understanding of the ambiguity of truth, and the tendency to commit folly that appears to be an indelible part of human nature, that Dr. Yamato comes to Jack London College to correct the wicked ways of ethnocentric whites but ends up becoming a power-crazed Japanese chauvinist who renames the school and its major buildings after Japanese war criminals, demands that faculty and students take IQ tests, and commands all professors to learn Japanese by spring. In the end, Professor Puttbutt, who had at first welcomed the Japanese conquest, rejoins his colleagues and plots Dr. Yamato’s demise–evidently preferring the knaves he knew to the scoundrels he didn’t.

Cosmopolitan Afrocentrism


While Reed’s worldview can be considered Afrocentric–in the sense that he proceeds from the perspective of one who is conscious of what it means to be an African-derived person in the modern world–his Afrocentrism is cosmopolitan rather than provincial. Indeed, Leslie Fiedler’s description of Reed as a “highbrow ironist” and a “professional dissenter and baiter of the smug, black or white” is right on the money. Witness these observations of the narrator in Japanese by Spring:

“The English department and the African-American department were similar. They had the habit of weeding out dissidents. You just weren’t rehired. They were both paralyzed by theory, too. A famous black feminist reflected the thinking in her remark that she was more interested in representations than reality. (While thousands of black families were living out in the streets, the black intelligentsia at the New York Exegesis were obsessed with the questions of identity.) But nobody complained about these attitudes for fear of playing into the hands of the enemy (white people)”.

Reed’s cosmopolitanism is best evidenced in the extraordinary range of his reading and the skillful manner in which he weaves universal themes into his narratives about Afro-American life. With a highly eclectic interest in world history; art, music, languages, literature, politics, mysticism, and religious mythology, he employs a hyperactive imagination to produce some of the most erudite and inventive narratives presently being composed in the English language. This passage from his neoslave narrative Flight to Canada is a case in point. Here the protagonist and narrator, Raven Quickskill, a runaway slave and writer, chastises Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for stealing her plot from the story of ex-slave Josiah Henson.

“When Lord Byron came out of the grave to get her, the cartoon showed Harriet leaving her dirty stains all over Byron’s immaculate white statue. Did Josiah Henson do this? The man so identified with Uncle Tom that his home in Dresden, Canada is called Uncle Tom’s museum? Did Tom have the power the Brazilians say he has? Does he know “roots”? Umbanda pretos velhos, pai Thomas, pai Thomas. The curer. Did Tom make Byron’s ghost rise out of his undead burial place of romance and strangle Harriet’s reputation? . . . Do the old African and Indian gods walk the land as the old one said they would, too proud to reveal themselves to the mean spirited?”

The highly allusive, esoteric language gleaned from fragments of the lives of historical personalities and exotic cultures illustrated by the passage above is a pervasive feature of Reed’s novelistic technique. Hence, it is quite literally true that you will get from his books what you bring to them. His tendency to rely on obscure religious systems like the orisha voodoo of the Yoruba, or the Egyptian and Greek “mysteries”–often rendered utilizing all the devices available to the able poet (puns, allegory, and extended metaphors)–makes his symbol imagery incomprehensible to some wanna-be critics.

Reading him I sometimes get the feeling that he, like Harold Cruse and C.L.R. James, has read damn near everything of importance. One highly regarded professional critic of “black women’s literature”–a genre I am not sure actually exists–frankly admitted to me in Paris that “I just don’t understand him.” However, her comment does call to mind one clearly observable difference in the writing of black men and women: Black women generally write about interpersonal relationships centered around the Afro-American family and community, while black men seek to change the world by seizing cultural leadership and subverting the psychologically coercive icons that control the spiritual impulses of American civilization.

One critic who does understand the fiction of Ishmael Reed and has written intelligently on the subject is Bernard Bell, professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University and author of the seminal text The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. According to Bell,

“Ishmael Reed is not only one of the nation’s most gifted and controversial innovative artists but also the leading promoter of black post-modernist writing . . . . uppity, pretentious, pompous, sexist, and sophomoric are the most frequent if not the kindest names hurled by unsympathetic critics at Reed for the neo-hoodoo aesthetic he develops between 1967 and 1983 . . . . At the heart of Reed’s neo-hoodoo aesthetic, which is largely constructed from residual elements of syncretistic African religions (vodum, pocomania, candomble, Macumba, and hoodoo) in the Caribbean and the Americas, especially Haiti, Brazil, and the United States, is a belief in the power of the unknown, particularly as expressed in artistic freedom and originality.”

In a recent conversation with this writer, Reed explained the evolution of his novelistic style thusly: “When you encounter writers like James Joyce, Nathanael West, and Chester Himes, and you find out that there are various ways of writing, you become interested in new possibilities. I began with models like that–fabulist and prose writers, visionaries, cultural nationalists, and poets. Even then, in the 1950s we were searching for some kind of identity that was different from the one that was based on the standard school curriculum. So even then there were hints of going in another direction. Although because of our enforced ignorance of Afro-American history and literature we didn’t know that a lot of this had already been done.”

“Under those circumstances a generation starts out as if they are the only one to encounter the problems that they face. Then they find out that there’s a path, a tradition. We were told that there was not a tradition. I think a lot of African-American students today don’t realize how it was in the 1950s when there was no black studies. In those days if you wanted to learn about our history and traditions you had to do it on your own. When I was a kid I was deeply influenced by a pamphlet I picked up by Joel A. Rodgers: “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof.”‘

Reed’s last comment about the role of Rodgers’ work in raising his consciousness about the possibility of a hidden black tradition is revealing. Rodgers dealt with several black traditions, including Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America, and the Caribbean. His books was the path to racial enlightenment traversed by many of the black intellectuals and artists who were the avant-garde of the black power movement–on the cultural and political fronts–this writer included. Furthermore, Rodgers–like Benjamin Banneker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, Malcolm X, Harold Curse, Benjamin Franklin, and Ishmael Reed himself–belongs to the list of great American autodidacts who invented themselves.

They were men who followed their own star and blazed paths into unknown territory, whether in the arts or sciences. And the more I think about the gross liberties Reed has taken with the language, imagery, poetics, and narrative forms of English literature, the more I am persuaded that he is engaging in the same sort of artistic subversion and sabotage the careful reader will recognize in the fictions of James Joyce and the poetry of the negritude poets like Amié Cesaire, Leon Damas and, of course, Leopold Sedar Senghor. Just as the Irishman Joyce, and the Francophone West Indian and African poets, sought to subvert the language and literature of their imperial tutors, so has Reed reshaped the inherited language and literature of the Anglo-Saxon oppressor in America. And he has done a splendid job of it.

The subversive character of Afro-American art has been evident since antebellum days, when African Americans created a spiritual world of their own through their songs, tales, and folk religion–a religion that reshaped the great stories of the Old Testament into an instrument of liberation. This legacy of creative subversion was carried over into the post emancipation period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Fisk Jubilee Singers mesmerized European and American audiences with the first concert music developed from folk songs born on American soil; Bert Williams and George Walker conquered Broadway with the cakewalk; and Paul Laurence Dunbar produced his “Lyrics of Lowly Life.”

But Ishmael Reed, the quintessential modernist, has produced a body of work whose subversions of conventional wisdom is closer to the musical heresies of Theolonius Monk, Charles “Yardbird” Parker, and John Coltrane. However, both in terms of idiomatic rapport and the sweeping innovations he has introduced to the Afro-American novel, Reed’s subversion of Euro-American literary conventions is nearest to that of Coltrane’s in music. And like Coltrane, he has also redefined and extended traditional Afro-American forms.

Reed’s subversion of traditional novelistic forms–which is to say, his innovations–can be clearly seen in the way he has handled such well-established American genres as the western and the detective story. He has also taken considerable liberties with the slave narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down is Reed’s take on the western novel, and Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red are his significations on the detective story.

But Reed’s cowboy, the Loop Garoo Kid, and Papa La Bas, the detective who unravels mysteries of cosmic proportions, have something in common that is conspicuously absent from other American novels of this genre: They utilize the magical powers of hoodoo–African black magic, the authentic remnants of Afro-American spiritual heritage. As Reed imagines him, the Kid is part figure from the Afro-American tall tale like High John the Conquoroo, and part Elegba, the trickster voodoo God of the Yoruba who guards the crossroads of life. Witness this description: “A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bull-whacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women.”

In spite of the grand imaginative adventures of Yellow Back Radio–in which Reed obliterates time and nullifies the restrictions imposed by history and assaults our sense of reality with Indian chiefs who ride around in flying saucers and ranching barons who spy on their cowboys through closed-circuit television cameras–or a slave who escapes from his master on a 747 jumbo jet in Flight to Canada, or the epic clash of African and European cosmologies in Mumbo Jumbo, Reed claims that in Japanese by Spring he is finally writing the kind of novel he really wants to write, because all of the major themes that recur in his novels are present here, and some, perhaps, reach their apotheosis.

For instance, although Yoruba cosmology has long informed Reed’s neo-hoodoo aesthetic, in the present novel he raises the discussion of this religion to new levels of didacticism. In a series of remarkable passages in the final chapter of the book, Reed not only provides us with his vision of the ultimate multicultural society; but also instructs us in the Yoruba language and celebrates both the lack of pretension in orisha voodoo–by holding an important religious service in a shopping mall–as well as its openness to all comers, regardless of race. He even appears in the narrative as himself in order to demonstrate the difficulty experienced by modern intellectuals in accepting the truths embodied in religious myths; people whose cynicism regarding irrational spiritual phenomena has been nurtured by prolonged exposure to the scientific method.

He tells us: “After the song to Olódümarè, Sányá explains that Yoruba people were worshipping Olódümarè thousands of years before Muhammad and Christ. (Being a democrat and a populist, the worship part worried homefolks Ishmael Reed. Sányá wanted Reed to participate in the meeting in a more active way, but Reed begged off, saying that he was not a religious person and just wanted to observe.)”

This passage suggests that Reed’s relationship to orisha voodoo resembles that of many of the Iranian intellectuals who helped bring the Ayatollah Khomeini to power and then fell from favor. They embraced Islam because it supplied a counterpoint to the cosmology of their Western Christian oppressors, symbolized by America. But in the end they could no more submit to the religious dogma of the mullahs than Reed is prepared to prostrate himself before the orishas of his West African ancestors upon the instruction of Sányá, the voodoo priest.

Indeed, Reed has been criticized by true believers for half stepping. But these acolytes have misunderstood his purpose. Reed is primarily interested in voodoo as an indigenous African mythological system with which he informs his art, not as a path to personal salvation. And he is also deeply impressed with its philosophical approach to the relationship between man, God, and the things of this world; a relationship that is so plastic it allows the religion to continuously accommodate new ideas and anoint new Gods. This principle informs all of Reed’s novels but is exalted in Japanese by Spring to a sublime virtue.


Simply The Best!

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , , on November 17, 2010 by playthell

 MR. Magic Putting On His Show



Phoenix Like, Michael Vick Rises from the Ashes

After witnessing Michael Vick’s spectacular performance against the Washington Redskins many fans and commentators appear to be caught off guard, stunned really.   But I was not surprised by Vick’s supernatural feats because I have been listening to my son sing his praises ever since they were both college students in Virginia.  Although they were at different schools Samori saw all of Mike’s games.  From the very first he said that Michael Vick was going to expand the limits of what people have heretofore seen in quarterback play.  Although I thought his assessment extravagant, and perhaps a bit inflated, Samori was a serious student of the game and had been writing about it since he was nine, when he began doing radio commentaries about sports on WBAI FM, in New York;  so I knew he knew what he was talking about.

I decided to check Vick out when he was still at Virginia Tech, and right away I could see that he was special.  He lit up the college ranks – in fact he would later say “college football was easy” – and the way he played I have no doubt that major college football was a breeze for an athlete with his prodigious talents.  He was not as much of a shock to me as it was to many others, because when I was growing up in Florida where football was a civic religion, all the schools were segregated so naturally blacks played quarterback on all the high school and college teams in schools that catered to black schools.  And they were all great athletes;  it was not unusual for quarterbacks to be the best athletes on the team …just like Vick.  But the question everybody was asking when he was raising hell at Virginia Tech was whether he could transfer his game to the pros?  That remained to be seen.  I wondered if he would even be given a fair chance to earn a spot on an NFL roster, because pro-football was notorious for taking black quarterbacks with their athletic gifts and assigning them to different positions.

At around six feet one and two hundred pounds, with 4.2 speed in the forty yard dash Michael Vick was a perfect prospect for defensive back, running back, or wide receiver.  And had he come along twenty years earlier that’s where he would have played, because the prevailing mythology about playing quarterback was that black athletes didn’t have the intellect to master the complex playbooks in the NFL, or to read the complicated defenses and make the quick decisions a quarterback must make to win in the league.  In this, as in myriad other ways that I have written about elsewhere on this blog, football is a reflection of the national character; and nowhere is some of the worst aspects of that character revealed than on the gridiron.

In the master narrative of American civilization white men were born to command and conquer because they were the superior male. Former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkington was once quoted as saying “blonde blue eyed guys make the best quarterbacks.”  Unlike Adolph Hitler – who also thought blond blue eyed guys were superior – Fran is a blondie with ice blue eyes.  By that standard of conventional wisdom Mike doesn’t have a chance….oh well.  Young black people and females of all colors should heed the lesson this teaches.  The white male pretension to natural superior over other homo Sapiens is just that: a pretense!

When the first football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers at the turn of the twentieth century it was considered a elite sport for gentleman.  In fact, for many years to follow the game was confined to the Ivy League.  It was a game the ideal game for the conquering Anglo-Saxon, a race that ruled most of the world and by virtue of this fact had established it’s superiority at the art of war, master of science and technology, and innovators in the industrial arts.  Football was a demonstration of those values expressed as sport – which unlike war and business was a game where one could lose with grace so long as one competed to the best of one’s ability.

That all changed years later, after football had become a mass spectator sport and a big business; market imperatives led to a perversion of its original ideals. The game finally became a burlesque on the classical ideal of sport itself, and the devil in that detail was Vince Lombardi!  A man whose exploits is now being celebrated in a play running on Broadway.  From what I can tell from the buzz surrounding the play it appeals to some of the deeply held American values embodied in the movie “Patton.”  Both  are portraits of iron willed men who were dedicated to winning at any cost. The difference is that one was a Army General and the other a football coach.  Hence while Lombardi’s axiom “winning is the only thing” is appropriate for war…it neutralizes sport as a builder of character by applying the rules of war.

As a result of this development the ultimate objective of playing football in the socialization of young men has become to condition their hearts and minds to be tough and competitive, preparing them for the battles to come in real life – often on battlefields  around the world…mostly the Third World. As the symbolic “Field General” the quarterback commands great respect in the society beyond the football stadium, especially if the team is successful.  It was an image that an openly racist caste society could not allow a male from the “untouchable” caste to posses.  This explains, I believe, the ongoing hostility toward Michael Vick over the dog fighting incident.  In my view, the punishment was far too severe.

At most he should have gotten a fine of about 20 grand, and a year of community service lecturing against dog fighting.  That’s far more than the Georgia Governor received, and there is testimony abroad that he too once engaged in dog fighting!  I have nothing but contempt for all the self-righteous suburban dog lovers who are so bent out of shape about the death of mutts that they turn out to picket Vick, or attack him in cyberspace, but they don’t have shit to say when a bonafide war criminal like Dirty Dick Cheney shows up in their neighborhood, and their silence is deafening when racist white cops gun down innocent unarmed black or Hispanic men.  I regard such people as frauds…racist hypocrites who whine about “inhumane” treatment of dogs while condoning inhuman treatment of humans…because they are of a different color or culture!  In any case, they can like it or lump it, but Magnificent Mike is here to stay.


The NFL’s Highest Rated Passer Scrambling

The most dangerous threat in football

As of this writing Michael Vick is the consensus choice as the best quarterback in the NFL, and a leading candidate for MVP of the league.  When the Eagles traded their future Hall Of Fame quarterback, Donovan McNabb, Vick fans rejoiced because we thought he was going to get another chance to quarterback an NFL team.  But no dice…the Eagles named Kevin Kolb, who is a good quarterback in the conventional sense of a drop back pocket passer, but he is a stiff when compared to Vick.  Last year Vick was third on the depth chart; this year he started out as the backup to Kolb, but I never doubted that he would be the starter before the year was out if Kolb didn’t win consistently.  And Philly’s offensive line didn’t appear to be good enough pass blockers to really keep a slow footed quarterback like Kolb out of harm’s way!  And so it has come to pass.  Kolb got hurt, Vick got the nod and history is in the making every time Vick touches the ball.  Only Tom Brady has moved up the ladder from third place in more dramatic fashion – winning multiple Super Bowls.

Yet, from the look of things as I write Vick may begin his Super Bowl legacy this season.  Every week he seems to get better.  His performance on Monday Night Football, which is broadcast everywhere and millions watched, was the greatest single game performance by an NFL quarterback ever!  He ripped the Washington Redskins defense to shreds and struck fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators around the league who are tasked with devising a strategy that can stop this versatile threat.  the problem they face is that Vick’s superb  speed and rifle arm poses what is proving to be insurmountable obstacles.

For instance, when he jumps out of the pocket and begins to scramble about he can extend the play beyond the ability of defensive backs to cover his fleet footed receivers.  I see no hope of success against him unless Vick gets hurt and knocked out of the game, and I believe that will be the objective of many defensive players to do just that!   The alternative is that they will have to face him the entire game and that’s a horrendous prospect.  He has yet to lose a game in which he has played the entire time.

Consider what happened to the Red Skins last Monday night.  On the first play from scrimmage Michael Vick threw an 88 yard touchdown; the ball traveled 65 yards in the air and hit the receiver dead on the numbers.  The pass was so accurate that the receiver was able to run backward into the end zone while laughing at his badly humiliated defender laying on the ground.  As it turned that play was a preview of coming attractions.  By game’s end he had thrown for four touchdowns and ran for two.  The Eagles trounced the Redskins 59 to 21, and had they really tried they would have scored over 60 points; which I was hoping they would do!  I don’t believe in showing mercy in professional football.

On top of this and other stellar performances, there is the fact that Vick has yet to turn the ball over through interceptions or fumbles!!  He is second only to former Philly quarterback Randall Cunningham in the number of games without an interception in NFL history.  Right now Michael Vick looks a lot more like a chocolate Super Man than your average  NFL quarterback.  And before the season is over I expect him to be the highest paid QB in the league.   Which is par for the course because Vick is playing on a level above everybody else.

My son Samori – who has become one of the best sports reporters in New York since his college days in Virginia, and walks around with a “I told you so” smirk on his face  – says “competing against Vick quickly becomes a game of pick your poison: either way you die.”   When it comes to quarterbacks: Michael Vick is simply the best!



The Naked Truth!!


Check him out!




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 17, 2010

* Samori Benjamin can be heard on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City, Monday through Thursday on Wake-up call.

His reports are then archived for ninety days.

His writings and extended interviews with athletes and managers can be accessed

On Barack’s Asian Odyssey

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics on November 15, 2010 by playthell

At The Feet of The Great Budda

President Obama’s Asian sojourn was a mixed bag in terms of achieving his objectives. Yet his shout out to Asia is further evidence that he clearly understands the shape of the future.  Which is a welcome relief from the backward looking American Exceptionalists in the Grand Obstructionist Party who continue to believe it is a white man’s world; deluded white supremacists anachronisms that refuse to see the paradigm shift taking place in front of our eyes.

It is our good fortune at this juncture in history to have a President who really understands the world beyond the US and Europe. By virtue of having a highly educated mother who recognized the value of a multi-cultural education, and having lived in Asia as a child, President Obama views the world differently from his Eurocentric predecessors in the Oval Office.  As a consequence of this unique perspective he understands that the road to future American prosperity goes through the emerging industrial societies of Asia.

Ironically, it was the shortsightedness of many of these same white nationalists, and their multi-national corporate partners in crime, who formulated the policies and practices of shipping jobs and technology overseas in order to maximize profits, which created the global economy.   Now it threatens to devastate what is left of the American manufacturing sector and render the US industrial working class obsolete.  How did such a paradox come to pass?  It is the obvious but unintended consequence of an investor class who decided to move capital and technology to cheap labor markets overseas because it didn’t matter where their money was invested so long as it got the greatest yeild.   In other words, the workers are nationalist while the corporations and investors are citizens of the world.  But as the bible warns: Ye shall reap what ye sow!

Once The Best In the world!

A B-29 Assembly Line

Over half a century ago when the world was at war, and modern civilization seemed in danger of being engulfed by the fascist powers in Germany and Japan, America was known as “The Arsenal of Democracy.” This was because of a manufacturing sector based in Detroit that could produce a B-29 bomber aka “The Flying fortress,” every twenty-eight minutes – and this was a machine with two million moving parts!  Yet had it not been for the dogged determination and stellar vision of President Obama the American  auto-industry, whose plants and workforce made those marvelous machines, would have gone the way of the steel industry; which went the way of the Dinosaurs.

Although he was unable to consummate the free trade agreement he sought with South Korea, or get the members of at the G-20 economic summit to cease criticism of the US Federal Reserve’s decisions and censure China for manipulating their currency in order to make their exports more attractive in world markets – a clear violation of the standing agreements regulating international trade; and his visit to the Asian economic summit in Japan amounted to little more than a sightseeing tour, President Obama did conclude a ten billion dollar trade agreement with India.  If he can muster some cooperation from the now Republican dominated congress, there will be much more where that came from; stimulating job growth in the American manufacturing sector.

The Majesty of India: An Ancient Civilization

Black Indians: Photographed by Lisa DuBois

The alternative to the President’s policies for dealing with the unrelenting phenomenon of globalism is too ghastly to contemplate for the American working and middle classes.  Our nation would continue to drift into a crippling economic malaise that will culminate in catastrophe for all who must earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow.  The die is cast; there is no turning back this tide of history.  President Obama is wisely trying to harness this wave and ride it into the future.  That is the real meaning of his Asian Odyssey.


Mumbai: The Cyber Center Of The World?

A typical Day at the airport


All Roads Lead To Mumbai





Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, NY

November 15, 2010


Prima Donna Absoluta!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , on November 9, 2010 by playthell

Shirley Verrett Anointed Audiences with Her Magic

A Magnificent Diva Departs the Stage

I will never forget the performance by Shirley Verrette which I attended in London during the Christmas holidays in 1981.  I hadn’t really wanted to go because it was my twins Samori and Makeda’s first Christmas.  Nevertheless I had to fly to London on the 27th, because I was trying to put together a boxing match for the Undisputed Middle Weight Championship of the world between the champ “Marvelous Marvin” Hagler, and challenger “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Olympic Gold Medalist and Undisputed World Welter-Weight Champion. I had to be there because all of the potential investors would be in the city on holiday.

Me and My Partners Meet With Sugar Ray in New York

Just Before Departing for London

As it turned out my London host Mr. Henry Faulkner, head of the Euro-Investment Group, was an Opera lover and told me about the great African America Diva who was performing the title role in Saint-Saens’s Sampson and Delilah. I knew of Ms. Verrette’s work but I had never seen her perform in person.  So I groomed and decorated myself to the height of fashion, smoked some high grade Sensimillah bud imported from the mountains of Humboldt county in Northern California, and proceeded to the theater to witness Ms. Verrette make her magic. On this occasion she was performing with the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet at the elegant Covent Garden; it was a magnificent production where nothing was spared in terms of sets and costumes. Ms Verrett appeared onstage in an African gown, exquisitely tailored for her voluptuous curvaceous physique, and she wore her hair in the au natural Afro style.

I thought she was stunning!  When she began to sing the beautiful passionate aria, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” in that wondrous voice that seemed a special concoction of the God’s when they were trying to outdo each other, I was captivated from the first note.  As the opera unfolded it turned into a sexy colorful spectacle whose visual extravagance greatly enriched the musical offering and Ms. Verrett sang with such deep spiritual power and sheer sonic beauty she seemed to metamorphose into the Yoruba Goddess Oshun, as she touched our souls with her singing.

She sang with the hypnotic power of the Sirens in Greek mythology whose voices could send men willing to their doom.  But I saw only life in its highest expression in this noble Africoid songbird, and my spirit danced to her song. I imagine it is this charged feeling that permeates the concert halls where she sings that the critics are referring to when the speak of Ms Verrett’s “blazing intensity.”  The audience showered her with love and applause throughout the performance, and in the end they gave the cast a standing ovation…yet I could not escape the feeling that the ovation was really meant for Ms. Verrett.

If Shakespeare was right and “all the world is a stage,” Shirley Verrette has played every corner of it.  As one of the great classical singers of the twentieth century she was in demand by producers of Grand Opera around the world.  A beautiful woman with a prodigious gift, Ms. Verrett sang the Mezzo and Soprano repertoire.  She was at home in the most difficult roles in the literature of classical European music, performing the works of great composers in German and Italian, from Mozart and Wagner to Puccini, Verdi and  Bizet.  By any measure this is a great accomplishment in its own right for anyone.  Yet it was especially impressive for an African American woman like Ms. Verrett.

Given the Darwinian character of the Opera world in general, which is filled with highly motivated well trained ambitious singers who have practiced and studied for a lifetime waiting on their chance to finally get on stage, it is twice as hard to get a shot when an artist also has to overcome a racial caste system, in which their talent and preparation is premptorily discounted because of the color of their skin.  That’s what Ms. Verrette faced at the beginning of her career, but she believed in her talent and forged ahead.  It is impossible to know how many outstanding black classical singers just quit rather than face the unfairness of it all.

Many of these classical musicians made careers teaching in African American high schools and colleges, passing on their knowledge to the next generation in the hope that their students would one day get the break they didn’t.  I heard many of them as a boy; they seemed to be everywhere.  We even had an all black Chopin society.  My Aunt Marie was a pianist, organist and choir master. Plus there was a black college in my town that was privately owned by the Baptist convention.  And there were some excellent musicians on campus,  so great musicians who played and sang the literature of European classical music were commonplace.

Some of the most gifted artist simply left the racist nightmare in the USA and made careers in Europe.  This is what singers like the great contralto Marian Anderson – of whose voice the Italian Maestro Aturo Tosconini said “is heard once in a century!” – did as she concertized in Scandinavia where her artistry was lionized.  But in Ms Verrette’s generation black female classical singers began to break through and others continue to follow.

One could argue there were no greater classical singers of the last half of the twentieth century than Leyontine Price, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo (who is Afro-Puerto Rican ) and Ms Verrette.  The generation of African American Diva’s who followed them – like the great dramatic soprano Jessye Norman and the mesmerizing coloratura Kathleen Battle – held to the elevated standard they set.  Some people say that the reason these artists are so super is because they knew they had to be better than their white counterparts; everybody in their community kept telling them they had to be “twice as good.”  Dr. Condoleezza Rice attributes this attitude as a major motivation for the kind of spectacular achievements she attained, as does General Daniel “Chappie” James and many other African Americans who did outstanding things in spite of the tyranny of the racist white majority.

Soprano Leontyne Price

Prima Donna Absoluta


In the title role of Verdi’s Aieda


Since Opera is musical drama it is not enough to be merely a great singer, one must also dramatize the role, get into character so to speak.  In this Ms. Verrette was also superb.  In her 1968 debut at the Metropolitan Opera – the summit of the Operatic universe – in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen,” Allen Hughes, the New York Times critic, seemed as impressed with her as I was thirteen years later.  “”She is good-looking, and she has a beautiful voice that moves smoothly from low tones to high and plays around freely in the treacherous middle without audible shifting of vocal gears” he gushed. “She also has an attractive stage manner and personality. She laughs easily and convincingly, flirts beguilingly and registers changes of attitude and feeling without hamming or posing.”

A high compliment indeed from a first rate opera critic, but then Ms. Verrette was not only richly gifted by the muse of song: she was also very well trained.  By the time of her maiden voyage at the MET, Ms. Verrette had studied voice at the Prestigious Julliard School and won the much coveted Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  She had wowed the crowds at the Opera Mecca’s of Europe such as Italy’s Spoleto Festival, where she first performed Carmen in 1962, and in her 1966 debut with the Royal Opera in London, she sang the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” i.e. “At The Masked Ball.”

In spite of the racism she encountered early on Ms. Verrette kept her eyes on the prize and won the world with her personal grace and gift of song.  Although I am an avowed atheist, I believe if there is any such thing as a divine force in the world then great music is the voice of the Gods.  A pagan by sensibility and choice, if I were to believe in a divine force it would not resemble the grim and angry God of the Semitic monotheist; there would  many Gods like the Gods of my polytheistic father’s fathers.  Gods who loved wine, song and women just like me; in whose image I am cast.  And there would surely be goddesses, because from what I have learned from my daughter Makeda’s investigations into the subject, the Goddess’ are enchanting; hence I am certain that I would bask in their beauty, power and intelligence, just as I have done with their mortal sisters ever since I first began to notice them as a young boy and fell hopelessly in love with my piano teacher.   Thus in my Pantheon, or in any culture that practice Goddess worship, Ms. Verrette and her sable sisters in song would all be Goddesses.


I even know some devout Christians that believe a gift such as theirs can only come from God.  They believe that no amount of training can elevate the merely talented to the height of artistic excellence we hear in singers like Ms. Verrette and the other Divas mentioned here.  This was made clear to me on trip to Florida not so long ago.  I was talking to my boyhood friend Gerald Hammond, himself among the musically gifted. In fact, Gerald was from a musically gifted family like the Marsalis Family or the family of Hubert Law’s.

Gerald lived next door to me and all five siblings played musical instruments well, some were multi-instrumentalist and the all sang like a band of angels, including the mother and father, who were church musicians.   throughout the day I heard strains of Shuberts’s Ava Maria, or snatches of a Chopin Polinaise, or some thunderous passage from John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” playen on the brass.    All five children won full music scholarships to Florida A&M, which was much coveted in those days by gifted African American musicians all over the nation – Africa and the Carribean too –  and competition for them was steep.  Anyone who has heard the world renowned musicians Julian and Nat Adderly perform will know the quality of artist the program produced.

I had returned to the beautiful old Spanish Town of St. Augustine Florida – the oldest and easily the loveliest city in North America – for the Easter holidays and I discovered that a beautiful young black lady was scheduled to sing at the town’s Easter Sunrise Service held downtown on the magnificent Castillio de San Marcos. Such a thing was unheard of in the racist city that I fled many years before. When I found out that the young singer also had a degree from Julliard, I was shocked that she would be singing in Gerald’s choir at St. Paul’s AME Church, where he was Minister Of Music.

When I asked him why she was not in New York plying her trade in the big time, since black Divas were dominating the operatic stage, he said that while she was beautiful, talented and well trained: “she does not have that gift from god that all truly great musicians must have.”  And since Gerald was not only a great singer – a powerful basso profundo – but also a brass player, he told me as a matter of fact: “Wynton Marsalis is a Julliard dropout, but he is changing what we previously believed was possible on the trumpet.  That’s because he dose have that gift from God!”

Ms. Verrette certainly has that gift from God that Gerald was talking about if there is any such thing.  But if you are a believer in things divine  just listen to Ms. Verrette’s rendition of Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate,” and her duet with the marvelous Wagnerian Dramatic soprano Grace Bumbry. The worst crime of our media, schools and churches is that these women are better known to European audiences that to Americans…including African Americans alas!  Yet no finer example of the talent, dignity, elegance in style and manner, of American womanhood exist.  Ms. Verrette represents the best in African American culture; the exaltation of excellence, and   respect for the intelligence and work it requires.


Grace Bumbry: Wagnerian Soprano

Prima Donna Absoluta

The world of music will surely miss this great artist and fine lady, who spent her reclining years as a professor of Music at the University Of Michigan, one of America’s wealthiest and most influential institutions of higher learning. The beautiful little college town of Ann Arbor was an excellent place for her to spend her final years, ensconced in a community of pedagogues and their eager students.  Ms. Verrett had many valuable lessons to teach beyond music; like how to go forth and make your way in the world of men without ever losing that feminine touch; how to make female intelligence and prowess sexy.  Fortunately for us, through the alchemy of You Tube we can watch her perform forever!





A note to African American aspiring opera singers

‘To young singers who desire careers, I say, “Be ultra-prepared.” In studying, build perfection in layers. Solidify your vocal technique; master every detail and nuance of every language you sing in; know the score as perfectly as the conductor; develop your interpretative ideas from the score and libretto so that you don’t arrive at the first rehearsal an empty vessel waiting to be filled; in sum, don’t give anyone a legitimate opportunity to criticize any aspect of your artistry.  A tall order?  Yes, but not impossible! See to those things you can do to become competitive, and don’t sweat the petty stuff!

Barriers of one sort or another will always be players in this game; given this verity, one must determine to destroy, go around, go over, or go through them in order to realize one’s potential and live the life one is given. Under no circumstances should one throw in the towel until life itself dictates it must be done; until such time, my advice to young singers of color is to pursue your dream come hell or tsunami!”



George Shirley

World renowned Afro-American Tenor

Distinguished Professor of vocal Music

University of Michigan

Colleague of Shirley Verrett



Videos Of Some Of My Favorite Performances!

(Click the video onto full screen for best viewing)

Double Click to see Shirley Verrett

Double Click to View Ms. Verrett in Performance


Double Click for Marion Anderson



Double Click for Ms. Bumbry


Double Click For Ms. Price


 Double Click For Jessye Norman



Double Click for Kathleen Battle



Double Click For Martina Arroyo


Double Click For Don Shirley




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

November 9, 2010

Triumph Of The Untutored Mob!

Posted in Playthell on politics on November 3, 2010 by playthell

Rand Paul: Doctor No!


Well, disaster has struck!  Over the next few days countless explanations of the Republican sweep in the Mid-term elections will be offered.  For Democrats and progressives of all stripes the situation was summed up by Demetrious Lawrence, an African American worker in Georgia: “Two years ago we changed the Guard, but we failed to guard the change!”

The truth is that added to the racist hysteria on the right, the constant attacks on the Obama Administration by deluded ideologues on the left, and reactionary identity politicians among racial and sexual minorities, arguing ad nauseum there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans, managed to convince many college age youths of all races and non-white minorities to sit the election out – which is verified by the election results.

If you were dissatisfied with the pace of progressive change under President Obama and the Democrats – the most productive Congress in terms of passing legislation that benefits the broad mass of the American people in over fifty years – Let’s see how the new Congress works out for you.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an enlightened liberal and one of the most effective Congresspersons to ever occupy that powerful office, is being dumped for John Boehner, a reactionary right-wing ideologue!

The Energy Committee, which is responsible for regulating the oil industry, will now be chaired by Texas Congressman Joe Barton. This is the clown who denounced President Obama’s brilliant handling of British Petroleum by forcing them to put up a 20 billion dollar recovery fund for the people of the Gulf Coast – calling it a “Chicago style shakedown,” and even offered an apology to BP!

Eric Cantor, one of the leaders of the New Congress, had nothing to say that made any sense in his post election remarks regarding the policies Republicans will introduce to “turn the country around and create jobs.” And Minnesota Congresswoman Michel Bachman of the Tea Part faction made even less sense than Kantor. There was none of the crazy talk about investigating her Democratic colleagues in the House for “Un-American activities.”  That kind of talk was aimed at gaining the support of the Tea Party crazies.  Last night she talked only about cutting taxes for the very rich.  That was her solution to all our problems! She repeated herself so often MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews asked if she had been hypnotized before she came on the show.

Everywhere I look I see signs of disaster.  Ron Paul – a misplaced technocrat, right wing ideologue and amateur politician – who is the Republican Senator elect from Kentucky and a radical Tea Bagger, could soon throw the world into a financial crisis if he filibusters the Senate’s attempt to raise the debt ceiling and forces the US government into default due to his dogmatic position on the national debt!  And so it goes. It is clear that the reactionary Republican crowd taking charge is clueless as to where the solution to the crisis in American capitalist civilization lies.

Alas the whole election has a Barnum &Bailey air of unreality about it. Women voted against the policies of the most pro-Woman President & Congress in history; rust belt workers went big for the party of globalism and outsourcing; those who cursed the Wall Street bailout voted for the party fighting regulation of the financial industry; the so-called grass roots Tea Party candidates are bankrolled by anti-labor billionaires, and many blacks stayed home – contributing to the demise of the first Black President’s congressional majority and rendering him impotent to achieve the goals they seek.

Witnessing President Obama suffer the slings and arrows of the press corps earlier today was a sad spectacle indeed.  The press is painting this stunning defeat at the polls as a rejection of President Obama’s approach to governing. I think it is no such thing; rather it is the irrational response of a people who are dangling on the verge of personal disaster and are angry, scared, insecure and confused.   And it is driving them to self-destructive behavior – like leaping from the frying pan into the fire!   All of Thomas Jefferson’s fears about the dangers of an ignorant electorate have come to pass.  The political behavior of many voters in this election is the political equivalent of drinking the Jonestown Cool Aid!

On Our Dysfunctional Democracy

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on November 1, 2010 by playthell

Mama Grizzly: The Alaskan Barbarian who rules the GOP


If anything is clear from the cacophonous noise that attends the mid-term elections, in which the public is inundated with carefully crafted political advertisements containing various degrees of fact and fiction – it is that our democracy is dysfunctional.   It is not enough just to have the right to vote, or even to exercise that right – if millions of voters are hopelessly confused on the critical issues by a barrage of disinformation, and are therefore as likely to vote against their interests as not. The So-called “Tea Party Patriots” are a striking case in point.

From a distance, they look like a real grass roots populist movement. But the truth is that they were organized by professional lobbyists shilling for the Republicans, who have skillfully manipulated their anger, confusion and deep seated racism to persuade them to vote against their best interests. To understand the bizarre character of this phenomenon, one need only compare the Tea Party rabble rousers to the protesters in France. Over there the working class understands clearly who the enemy is and they are aiming all of there efforts at them!

Since both movements are inspired by anger at the government, many Americans believe that they are same.  However the angry white workers in the Tea Party are fighting to put people in power that will do far worse to them than the Sarkozy government is trying to do to French workers that sparked the demonstrations.  For instance all the ruckus in France, which threatens to bring the nation’s business to a screeching halt, is about the fact that the Sarkozy government wants to raise the retirement age to 62!  The Tea Party Republicans want to force American workers – who already must work until sixty-five – to stay on the job until they are hobbling around at seventy!  Yet the polls show that senior citizens have contributed almost a hundred million dollars to political candidates, most of them Republicans.

The self-destructive ignorance of working class whites who support the Tea Party harkens back to slavery times in the ante-bellum south, when poor white workers went to war to defend chattel slavery.  Although it meant that they would never be able to bargain for a fair wage because they could be replaced with slave labor.  Looking at the situation from England as Civil War threatened the nation, Karl Marx wrote Abraham Lincoln and warned: “You cannot emancipate labor in the white skin while labor in the black skin remains in chains!”

Just as white workers fought to preserve a system that impoverished them in the 1860’s, the Tea Party Patriots are fighting to preserve a system that has brought the country to economic ruin and reduced them to a penurious existence.  Dr. Dubois was right when he argued with Marxist during the 1920’s that many white workers would identify with white millionaires before they would identify with black workers!  The Tea Party crowd supplies compelling evidence that his is argument is still true.

Of course, the white workers supporting Tea Party are on the right; yet whites on the left may prove an equal boon to the fortunes of the Tea Party Republican shills with their ideological obscurantism and dogmatic approach to issues. The white left is quick to point out that they are coming from a different place than right wing whites; which in reality is a distinction without a difference. They will both serve the interests of the Grand Obstructionists Party.

However many Afro-Americans and Hispanics are equally misguided.  Although they suffer the most in this crisis, their actions may contribute to the success of the Republican re-conquest of the Congress. As a result of their apathy, inspired by ignorance of the achievements of President Obama and the Democrats, they may decide to sit home and pout on election day. I have actually had some morons tell me they are going to do just that. It would be hard to find a sadder example of a people willfully shooting themselves in the head!

It seems that they have failed to learn the lessons of the recent past.  Many black voters sat home when David Dinkins came up for re-election and we got Rudy Giuliani; alas he is still with us, popping up everywhere like Banqou’s Ghost!  Dr. Cornell West advised people to vote for Ralph Nader, and Al Gore lost the election by far less that the margin of victory for Bush and we got Dirty Dick Cheney for eight years!!!  This resulted in a secret deal with the oil companies and the lack of regulation led to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf  Of Mexico!  We also got a three trillion dollar war of choice.

This war of choice was in response to the attack of 9/11, which would never have happened if the cold warriors in the Bush Administration had not been so fixated on surrounding Russia with anti-missile missiles, which the most learned physicist have all assured us will not work, they failed to heed the multiple warnings they received about the impending attack.  When these jokers left office just two years ago they had wrecked the economy and we were in two protracted foreign wars.   Now they are about to retake control of the Congress, how could such an irrational thing happen?  Especially when we are facing the most critical election perhaps since the civil War!  America’s status in the world order of the future is being determined by the moves we are making now.

Tom Freidman, Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times, thinks in global terms and he sums up what is at stake for the future of our society if these reactionary, ignorant, right wing clowns in the Republican Party seize control of the Congress.  Citing a blue ribbon report on American readiness to compete with other nations for the great jobs of the future titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5” he is alarmed.  As storm watchers know, a Category 5 storm  portends disaster – Katrina was a category three!  Thus when we look at what the commission says it is clear that we as a nation are on the brink of  long term economic disaster.

Freidman tells us that commissioner Charles M. Vest, the former President of MIT, reiterates the report’s conclusions.  “In spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector,” he warns, “the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.”  According to the commission report the US is sixth in global innovation based competitiveness; 40th in rate of change over he last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the number of 25-30 years olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in the college completion rate; 22 in broadband internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in the quality of K-12 math and science education and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people. I must confess my surprise that cell phone distribution has now become one of the indices of an advanced economy; especially since text messaging is making inter-personal communication more and more difficult.

The report offers recommendations to deal with our protracted economic crisis, and President Obama has begun to implement them.  But it will cost money to bring America up to snuff.  If the Republicans take over the Congress they will starve the government of the resources we will need to address these critical problems in the public interest.  The GOP favors private interests over Public interests and nowhere is that clearer than in their attempt to make the 700 billion Bush tax cut to the rich and super rich permanent at a time when the country is facing massive deficits which they created in the first place.

The government is the only means we have to curtail the excesses of entrenched wealth – the class Franklin Roosevelt called “Economic royalists’ – that’s why they want to end all government regulation.  Clearly the Republican Party is committed to serving the interests of this class.  The working class dupes in the “Tea Party” – which former President Jimmy Carter correctly noted is financed by billionaires on Sunday – are lost in a fog of ignorance, panicked by fear, and working mightily against their own interests!

Added to the anger and ignorance of the misinformed whites is the anger, ignorance and cynicism of segments of the black and Hispanic communities who are threatening to sit out the election and not vote!  The African American malcontents are enraged because they say that President Obama has done nothing for black people – which is such an abominably ignorant attitude it invites contempt.  They appear to labor under the illusion that black folks elected President Obama – which is all the sadder because all they have to do is crunch the numbers to see that it ain’t so. Yet since everything he has done benefits black Americans as much, or more, as everyone else where’s the beef?

Considering the fact that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, victory will depend upon voter turnout.  As I write CBS NEWS is reporting a poll in whih only 59% of Democrats say they are planning to vote as opposed to over 80% of Republicans.   Thus this clueless crowd of blacks and Hispanics may well end up aiding the Republican re-conquest of Congress; which is like giving the hangman the rope to hang you with!

That is not the way our democracy is supposed to work; it is a perversion of the democratic ideal.  Such irrational behavior is irrefutable evidence that American democracy is dysfunctional. Two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson warned that a participatory Democracy could not work with an ignorant electorate, because an untutored mob armed with the ballot would elect and return the worse people to power.  The course of events in the present elections, two centuries later, prove that the premiere intellectual of the American enlightenment was also a prophet!


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

October 31, 2010