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Music Review Classic case of black consciousness raising

CHRIS SEARLE sees an astonishing group of musicians deliver a message of struggle and hope

Vocal Classics of the Black Avant Garde
Cafe Oto, London

IN THIS 60-minute programme, an amalgam of vocals, text and experimental jazz, East End vocalist Elaine Mitchener and fellow artists draw on some of the standout works from the 1960s and 1970s African-American avant-garde, itself influenced by the burgeoning civil rights movement of the period.

The performers enter the space blowing on kazoos, tapping on iron and chanting rhythmically, with Mitchener singing “Every day is a struggle” and her pulsating voice palavers with the simmering alto saxophone of Jason Yarde and the searing lyricism of Byron Wallen’s trumpet.

It’s followed by a commentary on Jim Crow racism, with Neil Charles’s bow beating the strings of his bass like a drum until Wallen’s open horn — first muted, then lucid — Yarde’s militant alto, Alex Hawkins’s intense piano runs and Mark Sanders’s crescendo of drums crown the words: “Jim Crow is wrong/One day he will be gone.”

This band plays with a union of sonic extremes with what Isaac Rosenberg called “great sunken silences” following musical thunder. The mere breath of drums, a rustle close to silence comes from Sanders’s drumsticks, transforms into an eruption of sound and everything in between.

Poet Dante Micheaux reads now-times lines speaking of a “penitentiary of tears,” of the “common tools of knife and gun” and “the hell of where we are.” It’s leavened by Caribbean extracts from Stuart Hall, Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and Louise Bennett’s Colonisin’ in Reverse.

Micheaux finds a true synchronicity, not only with the horns of Yarde and Wallen and the cyclonic power of Hawkins’s piano, but with Mitchener’s prophetic sister voice as she sings of “the dawn of freedom” and how “justice is our avenging angel.”

It’s a marvel that such a small urban space as Cafe Oto, in the hard streets of Dalston, can contain all this music with its profound messages.

But Micheaux, like a griot of old, tells us why. These astonishing musicians — living, unified spirits of hope, consciousness and struggle — are awakening the “spirits among stones.”


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