Academic and Cultural Analysis of Samora Pinderhughes' The Transformations Suite

Opening music of the second song on the album. The upright bass plays an ostinato that emulates a rocking boat as we listen to Jeremie Harris, a black poet, speak in anger about the history that is embedded in him, the bass line a metaphor for the burden of history that follows his every footsteps into today:

We built you, Sam

In tears and sweat and blood

[...]

leaving holes in our todays, murdering any hope for tomorrow

 

What happened to that God you spoke of?

Punched down my throat, kicked in my face

I ain't seen him in your eyes lately

I ain't heard him in your words

You even walking like the devil these days [...]

The culture you called stool,

stepped on and then stole [...]

scratching for breath in the land that calls them pariah

for trying to breathe

second hand murders you had a first hand in creating

the love you sold, smashed and shoved into the holes of ships


The reconciliation of slavery and segregation eras, indicated by phrases like “love you sold, smashed and shoved into the holes of ships”, with contemporary issues like Black Lives Matter and the prison industrial complex, hinted by “scratching for breath in the land that calls them pariah for trying to breathe”, calls us to reassess the past in the hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the present, consequently calling on change and a resurgence of power for the future. This is the goal of composer and artist Samora Pinderhughes' The Transformations Suite (2016).

Samora Pinderhughes makes his album very much about tradition, as the album website summarizes: Transformations Suite (2016) continues “in the tradition of artists such as Bob Marley, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and Tupac Shakur” by painting “a musical picture of the current state of social inequality and injustice in the United States and beyond”. The way it is conveyed mobilizes motifs of tradition, perhaps to make the spoken word and sound more translatable to the every day listener – storytelling by way of spoken word, biblical allusions, and referencing great black writers and musicians who came before, literally and not so literally. For example, the poem in “History” bears diction similarities to Langston Hughes' “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”, as “History” uses Uncle Sam as a synechdoche for white people and explains how they left them to “rot and fester, to ooze, bubble, and pus”, and “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”, also a one-word titled H poem, questions if a dream deferred will “fester like a sore” or “stink like rotten meat”.

Now, the musicianship of Pinderhughes and literary caliber of Harris's words are undoubtedly extraordinary. But the way Pinderhughes is conveying his message, flipping the script on a macro level, is what is the most revolutionary. He builds his message by not just utilizing tradition, but by ultimately reworking, representing, and digesting it. Pinderhughes calls for a reappraisal of history by using the jazz genre as the basis for his musical approach and sound, a genre that initially gained popularity from its ragtime origins playing behind minstrel shows, followed by its presence in Broadway shows in New York or other talent productions, whether it be dance or just watching the band on it's own, where black people largely served as entertainers for white people. It is not a coincidence that he is using that genre again to ask for white people's attention again, but this time, to make them engage with and confront their history via the medium that merely entertained them in the past.

Another way Pinderhughes arguably reworks tradition is by his imposition of classical harmony and instrumentation in addition to a largely jazz inspired and black artist oriented genres that demanded its presence (much like Harris' and the Black Lives Matter movement's voice). In the song “Cycles”, Pinderhughes offers this as periods of juxtaposition between powerful and emotional solos that are backed by characteristically jazz harmony. Classical music is one of the only genres of music can be traced back to Europe and essentially to white people. By using it to not only provide contrast to the soloists, but to enhance the emotional experience of Harris' words and the soloists who do participate in the parts of classical harmony, it can be argued that Pinderhughes is making a statement by blending the two kinds of music. Genre fusion and multi-inspirational music is extremely characteristic of contemporary music, so Pinderhughes uses this as a way to convey a message to white folk about the future: that they are an inseparable part of their history and plight whether they like to admit it or not, and that they need to be brought attention to how that has yielded movements like Black Lives Matter, that there is still suffering being had, and that it is a cue for white people to actively fight for equity. It also arguably calls for the reconciliation of two worlds that, in contrast to current media and the academic structure of our institutions, are often made up to be divided. It establishes that much of Black Lives Matter's success depends on white folk to recognize their privilege and conditioned defensiveness of the white race and to support black power and cultural celebration. In that way, it states that it depends on the cooperation of these two worlds - asking for a recognition of differences and how that ultimately influences our goal of equality and unity. It can also be added that Pinderhughes' band, unlike many Black Lives Matter tribute albums, is not composed of all black people. In fact, Pinderhughes and his sister Elena, who sings and plays flute on the album, are mixed race with black and latino roots. The bass player and the drummer are white. This makes the same kind of statement, asking for the cooperation and awareness of all backgrounds in order to help Black Lives Matter achieve equality and end suffering. If they can come together and create beautiful music, then that is a sign that they can come together and foster a safer environment and a stronger outcome for the future of black people in America.

The Transformations Suite (2016) employs special manipulations of traditions and the sound created by this particular group of musicians to make it the piece that it is. Many other musical artists and groups have also dedicated an album to Black Lives Matter, each with their own individualistic messages. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) took advantage of Lamar's already established presence in popular music and used that as a platform to bring widespread attention to the serious issue that is modern day racism and mass incarceration. He forced people to rethink the role of popular music, which usually serves a nonchalant role as background music in malls or school dances in which no serious issues beyond heartbreak are conveyed in the lyrics. This forced people to acknowledge the lyrical content and stop the dismissive culture around popular music, and similarly, the dismissive culture around black lives. It also forces popular culture to acknowledge that hip hop is a black originating art form, as it is combined in the album with multiple other black art forms like jazz, R&B, funk, and more that are not heard as much in popular music. Solange's A Seat at the Table (2016) asks for empowerment and recognition of suffering of black people, calling for a conversation about modern black oppression in popular culture that is shunned or too uncomfortable to want to have. She, too, plays on tradition and history, notably by having her dad speak about his experiences growing up with racism and the cycle of incarceration and drug abuse that black people might find themselves entering. These works have initiated nationwide conversation about the injustice black people endure and how we can actively fight to end it. Let's hope that this art keeps being created, empowering black lives and their allies in a time when a significant part of our country has resorted to historical regression.

Short Review of Regina Carter's Reverse Thread (2010)

In Regina Carter's Reverse Thread (2010), we find the epitome of Pan-Africanism, consistent with the black power and Pan African movements of the 60s and carried just as powerfully through to today. It is even arguable that her album title suggests a project that was 'woven' together by running a 'thread' through Africa and finding its way back to each and every root that represents Africa – geographically and ideologically. The word “reverse” on its own can represent multiple things. It represents reversing the connotations associated with Africa and Africans, as they have strong foundations in places like Cuba and the Caribbean as well. Reverse can arguably resemble a major theme of Bebop, which is said to establish what we know today as one of the major pillars of the “jazz language”, an African American founded music. The music lines of Bebop involve lines moving in contrasting motions and chromatics surrounding chord tones, often through opposing directions. There is a chronological reversal observed when we find that all these communities were bound by their African origin before they found themselves in different geographical locations. It reverses the idea of extreme nationalism or superiority of certain nationalities over others because genetics reveal they are one. It calls to counter the idea that nationality and race are not synonymous. The word thread, on its own, maintains a metaphor for the African diaspora, stringing all people of African origin together. In addition to the title, the music just as easily represents the idea of African diaspora.

Carter's first song, “Hiwumbe Awaumba” (or “God creates” in English), utilizes the idea of reversal and challenges the stereotypical geographical and cultural associations with certain instruments, which is much of what Pan-Africanism fundamentally seeks to decipher. The use of an accordion and a violin simultaneously may immediately make one think of Europe or early American jazz, but upon hearing how they are played and the percussion and bass rhythms that accompany it, we are reminded that the violin bore as much an African root as it did a European root – we see violin represented in early classical European music as well as in Ugandan music that translated itself into the people who were brought to America and founded the first origins of blues and jazz. We recognize that the violin, like the banjo and the guitar, bore a strong history within African culture and the early foundations of Black American Music. Not only is the violin's origin more complex than one might initially think, but for those of African descent, it started even before America. The accordion also is characteristic of Spanish flamenco music and Mexican mariachi music, which would make sense in the context of African diaspora because Spain and Africa heritages intersected in Cuba, and African and Spanish roots have contributed to Mexican heritage and genetics. Furthermore, the syncopation in the bass line and the straight eighths feel of the drums suggest Cuban music more than what we would later anticipate to be jazz and blues. Jazz and blues rhythmically are canonically represented by swung eighth notes and triplets that do not appear in this song, despite those genres being first to come to mind when we think of Black music. The idea of reversal comes back to mind again – African music had made its place beyond just America. The chord progression also suggests something simpler than we might hear in jazz music, further destigmatizing the idea that African music is limited to what it was in America.

We can also observe the second song, “Full Time”, which takes on a sort of 12/8 feel alternating with a reggae feel. This intermingling of rhythms, placed adjacent and weaving in and out of each other in the same song, employs the idea of Pan-Africanism and bringing multiple African nationalities together. In this specific case, that would be Jamaican and Afro-Cuban music. In the song “Day Dreaming on the Niger”, we hear a compound 6/4 meter and djembe that is characteristic of early African music. We also hear diminished harmonies, upbeat straight eighth syncopation, and accordion that suggest Spanish music, and improvisational lines based around pentatonic and blues scales, weaving in and out of time, representative of standard jazz language and improvisation. This calls to commence the joy of a shared race with multiple cultures in Carter's vision of the African diaspora.

Carter's Reverse Thread (2010) is a captivating embodiment of the beauty of Pan-African ideology. Despite manifesting in different cultures, one race is the thread that ties them all together and enables vastly different styles of music to blend into one lovely melting pot of sound and culture. The cultures remain distinct on many fronts, whether that be food, music, social customs, clothing, or any other features of our identity. But by reversing our thread back through time, we find the essence of diaspora – the origin remains a constant.