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Remembering Amiri Baraka

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Amiri Baraka

From the time I was five years old, I was taught that music was as essential to me as brushing my teeth. I sat by the feet of my music teacher as she read from The Lives of The Great Composers. My teenage years were governed by music and literature—the classics, really. But by the time I was fifteen my father also introduced me to Brasilian music and Jazz. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Christian were de rigueur and so were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. To that list my aunt, my beloved music teacher, added Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Lennie Tristano. A year later I discovered Charles Mingus. Then everything changed. I felt outrage at the way the African was enslaved; taken to America and then subjected to the most heinous crimes. Somewhere in between I also discovered LeRoi Jones, who later became Amiri Emamu Baraka. I had also begun to write poetry, was aloof and was reading Mr. Jones’ poetry. I also acquired a copy of Black Music in 1968 and this was followed by an earlier book, Blues People.

Reading the second book was life-altering. So was my experience of Jazz. Everything he said made sense and my eyes were opened and at last I understood the body politic of Jazz. Like Mr. Jones, who became Mr. Baraka not too long after he published that great book, I was also less well-received among my peers—mostly white boys, musicians all, who felt slighted and became first confused about Jazz, and then felt downright left out of the Jazz, taking refuge at once in bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and the Brits. I too was confused because I lost all my friends. I vowed to turn to Mr. Baraka. I wrote him letters. He replied referring me to page so-and-so in either Blues People and Black Music, egging me on and firing me up with much of his wisdom and encouraging me to keep the faith. He also recommended a saxophonist called Ornette Coleman. I was shaken to the core, but not so much as I had been by Charles Mingus. He said try Archie Shepp. I did and will stick with that maestro unto my dying day, just as I would with Mr. Mingus.

Years passed. In 1985 I landed in the United States and began my search for musicians whom I had come to know and love because of Mr. Baraka. We had parted ways to a great degree. It began when I heard the pianist Bill Evans for the first time and heard about the hate that was heaped upon him by black musicians. I thought it was all about the music. Confused, I wrote Mr. Baraka. He did not reply. I wrote again saying that I was in Washington D.C. No reply. Then a letter from out of the blue. Come, it said. So I hopped a Greyhound and was in New York by early morning. I went to the appointed place. Mr. Baraka did not show. Amadou Diala had just happened, so I understood. But I tried and tried again the next day and the day after. Amiri Baraka had simply disappeared. I was not dejected, because I was travelling with the books, hoping he would sign them for me. So I read them again. And I understood. I understood why Jazz was the music of Black man. You could copy the idiom but without the experience it never meant the same thing.

But Amiri Baraka never wavered. If anything he became more dyed in the wool and stood fast like the old mule in Charles Mingus’ song. He wrote copiously, in 1999 he wrote A Black Mass which was performed by Sun Ra and the Myth Science Arkestra; an epic piece that once again put the black man front and centre, raising the spectre of discrimination which was constantly being brushed under the carpet. In 2009 Mr. Baraka published Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music and the earth shook again. More people were against Mr. Baraka than for him. I was saddened by this, but knew he would be unfazed. He welcomed intellectual debate and was ready to take on anyone especially if it meant he could always prove them wrong. But now he’s gone. No more debates and arguments. I miss him and the meeting we never had. But I have his legacy: his books—his prose and poetry and the drama we once put on in university: The Dutchman. That too was life changing. This is why his spirit will always be there, because of his oeuvre, which remains important and larger than life.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nice piece Raul. Very touching. It’s unfortunate that you never got to meet with him. When I learned of Amiri’s death I went into my archives and pulled out DIGGIN’ and BLUES PEOPLE. Amiri was a genius and a controversial figure because he spoke his mind, told it like it was, and still is. Like all human beings, Amiri was flawed but above all, he was a cultural warrior. May Amiri Rest In Power. He will certainly be missed.

    • Thank you Tomas. Yes, He was a truly great individual. Flawed? Perhaps, but yes so am I. Mr. Baraka had an exemplary commitment to his beliefs and his art. I still have to live with many unanswered questions, but his work will always be a touchstone for me. Thank heavens we have his oeuvre to remember him by.

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