Home Masthead Griots of the Underground Railroad

Griots of the Underground Railroad



So, sad though it be that the journey we make each day remains the same, how fortunate that Duke and Bird, Mingus, Monk and ‘Trane begat, two of today’s most enduring musician-griots: Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter. Although they approach their art from dramatically different ends of music, they appear to form, not only a direct line from the blue musical genealogy of their ancestors they lie at almost opposite ends of the line, this Soul Train that takes us forward. Sanders – almost alone in his deeply spiritual approach, appears in complete communion with our ancestors as his music lights up our ‘journey to the one’. And Shorter, almost alone in his ability to experience life from every aspect of his being – his music is so simple; cerebral, tonal, yet tactile, as he speaks of a life happening to the life unborn!

Both Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter are at the height of their powers – both standing in the future and looking back as they perform their art with song and story intertwined! In a luminous career that was ignited by the legendary association with John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders – who was part of the proverbial Holy Trinity of John Coltrane (The Father) Sanders (The Son) and Albert Ayler (The Holy Spirit) – came very quickly into his own after the tragic death of Coltrane. In fact his is the midpoint in perhaps the straightest line from Coltrane’s work of the final years. Approaching life from a similar point of view, Sanders took the spiritualism of ‘Trane and made it his own. Where ‘Trane meditated on the oneness of being, Sanders extrapolated, and made all civilization his palette, discovering the oneness of all being and its relationship with the earth itself. Naturally this took him to Africa, where it all began. His revelatory oeuvre is as spiritually deep as it is dazzling! Griots-Pharoah-Sanders-Trane-JDGAlways at the top of his game, Sanders is a timeless musician at one with the ancient tones – whether he is playing the blues, or laying out the music in a carpet of sound. Sanders transcends all methods of being which makes him so completely in tune with the earth that he absorbs its ancient celestial rhythms and, by exploring the myriad tonalities of his beautiful tenor horn, he creates a music that gushes into our senses like the tumbling, unfettered sea, conjuring up fractal images and memories, blue moods and flashing seraphic visions of life. With joyful spirit and profundity of knowledge driving his art, Pharoah Sanders moves like a man in perfect communion with God. His music, in turn, moves in and out and through him. I get the feeling that every time he breathes, the air in his lungs swirls with every structure and concept of musical art. It sweeps up the history of ages, the magic of life and the religion that binds whole civilizations. His voice is the voice of many – from Africa, to India and Japan, yet it remains so completely his own in the interpretation of the many worlds that his heart and soul has traversed! You hear this on a series of recordings Sanders made for Impulse – Jewels of Thought, Black Unity, Tauhid, Karma and Thembi – and in Journey to the One but most spectacularly in his almost supernatural collaboration with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco in the Bill Laswell production – The Trance of the Seven Colors and in Letter from Home also produced by Bill Laswell.

Griots-Pharoah-Sanders-Mahmoud-GhaniaThe Gnawa collaboration is, perhaps, the most perfect showcase of Sanders’ otherworldly talent to create a story of his own for a tradition of spiritual healing that came hundreds of years before his time. Joining Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, the Moroccan guimbri player, spiritualist and griot, Sanders comes into his own from the opening bars played with spectacular tonality on his horn. The purity of his sound and the deep conviction of his intent to be one – he is one! – so completely Pharoah, allows him to offer seamless melodies into the Gnawa ritual context. And the Gnawa musicians, for their part, embrace Sanders’ sound and vision as if it were just another part of their history. On Letter from Home, a more recent Laswell outing Sanders does much the same with Hamid Drake, Aiyb Dieng and Foday Musa Suso, as he reminds us that ‘Our Roots Began in Africa’ and even before that, we heard the music in our heads while we inhabited the sea (‘Ocean Song’). ‘Kumba’ – features a dialogue with Musa Suso, in much the same vein as it did on the Gnawa project. And if you think that Sanders has abandoned the blues and gone Afro centric, you only have to go back to his legendary collaboration with Sonny Sharrock – Ask the Ages, (Prod: Laswell) – where we traverse the timeline of where the blues began, where it developed through delta and plain and where it has traveled, to its astral incarnation.

I mention but a few of my favorite Sanders musical projects, merely in a humble attempt to illustrate the art of Pharoah Sanders, urban griot who reminds us time and time again, that we, like him came from Africa, where all life began. Through him flows the immensity and complexity of life – its sorrows and joys, the beautiful and the ugly – as we ultimately move inexorably through the trance of a myriad colors and textures of human existence. Inevitably I become a better person after each musical encounter with Pharoah Sanders – for I am swept up by the beauty and hope of his music. And my soul is elevated. It soars as I get up and dance, unabashedly. With intimations of journey’s end, my spirit is already set free!

Griots-Pharoah+Sanders+Thembi+JDGAnd so it is too with a musical expedition to the heart of Wayne Shorter! If Sanders is the earth poet, the sagacious, terrestrial griot, then Shorter is the celestial, spirit child agape at the immensity of the world, inhabiting the beautiful, blurred lines where legend and history, myth and reality meet. And they meet in Joycean cascades melded into a voice so completely his own.

In Wayne Shorter the art of the story and song become inextricably entwined like the languorous embrace of lovers on a midnight bed, softly playing out a night of elaborate love-making. But if Shorter can be tactile, sensuous and emotive, he can also be cerebral and thought-provoking as he blazes – with his dramatic compositions, featuring a truly innovative approach to harmonic changes – developing ever new ways of perceiving the Universe with all its human folly in relation to the benevolence of its Creator. It is almost as if Wayne Shorter inhabits the realm of apocalyptic visions, and both man and the Burning Bush as well.

Raul da Gama is a poet and essayist. He has published three collections of poetry, He studied at Trinity College of Music, London specialising in theory and piano, and he has a Masters in The Classics. He is an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep technical and historical understanding of music and literature.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.