a column by
Juma Sultan Courtesy of Eremite Records
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64. – Paul McCartney, 1967
I hardly ever think about the Beatles, and I like to think I didn’t even think much about them back in the ‘60s (I occasionally imagined that they might ultimately create a mass audience for radical music by feeding them micro-chips of commodified and narrativized musique concrete [some of the terms would come later, but the feelings were there], a fantasy of which I was ultimately disabused when in 1969 I watched a mass audience booing Lennon-Ono-Clapton for playing radical music – well, sort of, Ono screaming in a bag while the rest of the band made Velvet Underground-style feedback), but that weird bit of music-hall confectionary that McCartney whipped up for their magnum opus was in my head this morning as I woke up, prompted I suspect by two things: the fact (obvious to me) that I’ll be turning 64 in a few weeks and (much more significantly) listening yesterday to the music of Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society on Eremite’s handsome and just-released box set, Father of Origin, music that insists on the nature and memory of its era. The ‘60s left me equal parts cynic and true believer, and the two got together again to listen to this box set.
Juma Sultan is a name from the past (and one I’ll confess to missing then), a musician who briefly appeared at the center of the universe, playing hand drums on stage with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock (For the limits of the continuum initiated by that Hendrix appearance, let me refer you to the web-site of Gerardo Velez [www.gerardovelez.com] who also played percussion on that Woodstock stage). Sultan is also heard on a widely circulated bootleg tape by Hendrix’s Gypsy Sun and Rainbows that includes a version of Sultan’s own “Sundance.” That was, of course, not Sultan’s only accomplishment: born in 1942, he had worked with Sonny Simmons in California, played drums and bass around New York from the mid-sixties on, and was living in Woodstock in 1968 where he had developed a band concept (and a band) called the Aboriginal Musical Society, the core of which consisted of Sultan on bass, drums and an array of other instruments, and his friend and percussionist Ali K. Abuwi (sometimes referred to as just Ali Ali, not to be confused with Rashied Ali’s club Ali’s Alley – a facsimile menu from which is included in the set). From the late-60s to the mid-70s, the two operated recording facilities in Woodstock and New York City and acted as recording engineers and promoters, working with Studio We founder James DuBoise. Sultan and DuBoise were key organizers of both the New York Musicians Jazz Festival and the Bicentennial Jazz Festival and played key roles in the early years of the New York loft scene.
Sultan and Abuwi acted as recording engineers to a host of significant musicians at the time as well as documenting hundreds of hours of their own music. For the past few years Sultan has been operating a web-site called Juma’s Archive (www.jumasarchive.org). It consists of mostly very short clips of music from his vast recordings, often with frankly terrible sound. Lately there have been substantial efforts to rescue Sultan’s archive, including support from Clarkson University and the NEA. There’s a book due out in 2012 from Wesleyan by Stephen Farina called Reel History: The Lost Archive of Juma Sultan and the Aboriginal Music Society as well as more recordings.
Eremite is certainly leading the way with the box set called Father of Origin, based on Sultan’s etymology for “Aboriginal.” It’s a 12 x 12 box with a 28-page booklet containing an extended essay by Michael Heller on the music contained therein and the history of the Aboriginal Music Society. The set contains three different sessions by the Aboriginal Music Society on two LPs and a CD. That may seem like an odd mix of formats, but the set may be as much about the historical status of the LP as it about the music. The first session covers two sides of an LP; the second is divided between two sides of an LP, but the second side is played at 45 rpm and lasts six minutes; the third and longest session is on a CD. I’m glad there wasn’t an eight-track. I would’ve had to search for a vintage pick-up truck to play it. Every detail seems right and the materials are first-rate. The set is gorgeous, in the way that only an opulent treatment of the fragmentary and dishevelled can be. I recall once seeing exhibited the colored-paper scraps of a Surrealist artist that had been retrieved from a wastebasket and assigned to his estate with a rubber stamp signature of authenticity (Hans Arp, to be specific).
The love evident in this production is not misplaced, and it’s the hallmark of Eremite’s Michael Ehlers’ work as a producer (the label’s reissues of rare LPs by Sunny Murray and Bobo Shaw have also been impeccably done). The music of the Aboriginal Music Society is real and in this treatment sounds real in a way that music rarely can now. When you turn to Juma’s on-line archive, you get wisps of what he recorded. You might hear a badly recorded clip of the fine but largely unrecognized tenor saxophonist Arthur Doyle playing for 14 seconds or a 30 second clip of a Wilbur Ware band. Here you get long jams – the major works here range from 18 to 48 minutes – developed on the rhythmic dialogue of Sultan and Abuwi. It’s not directly derived from any African source, but it’s strongly rooted in a belief in the transformational act of drumming. You can trace Juma’s sources to that black band playing in New Orleans’ Congo Square in the early years of the 19th century, and this music seems like an attempt to recover that lost power, just as this box set is a special invocation of the musical legacy of its era. Juma remarks, “I was playing the kind of drums that I felt the guys were playing when they’d cut off your hands and didn’t allow you to play [here in America]. . . ” This is forceful music that aims to strip away the limitations of jazz, including the limitations of received language and virtuosity. It’s a stirring aesthetic for improvised music. Even if very few people seem to want to listen to it, far more people should actually do it.
The tapes have been brilliantly restored by Mike King of Reel Recordings, whose description of the tapes reveals both the problems of the original recordings and suggests the scale of his efforts to bring them to the highly listenable state that they appear in here.
The first LP was recorded in a studio in Boston in 1970. The group is a combination of ABS musicians – Sultan and Abuwi and the trumpeter Earl Cross, a regular associate – and a group of musicians who were then also resident in Woodstock and all members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band – guitarist Ralph Walsh, saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie and drummer Philip Wilson. That membership in the Butterfield band is symbolic of the era. More than just jazz musicians working in a more popular form, their skills dovetailed with Butterfield’s interest in expanding the possibilities of the blues, evidenced in the modal space jam of East-West, recorded in 1966. Modality and free jazz were opening up the possibilities for improvisation for musicians unversed in the complex harmonic language of bebop, and loose, modal improvisation was becoming a kind of lingua franca. “Fan Dance,” heard here in three segments, is like almost all the music here: its essential power (and it’s tremendous) derives from the sheer density of the drumming, with Abuwi, Sultan and Wilson creating a dense pulsing fabric. There’s speculation here that another hand drummer/percussionist is on the bulk of the session, but that may just be a part of the culture of multi-instrumentalism – the little instruments of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example, or the massed percussion of the Sun Ra band. The durability and specific contour of the music derives from the abilities of the soloists – Cross and Dinwiddie – to construct linear materials across the tapestry of percussion.
Sultan apparently paid for some 56 and a half hours of studio time in Boston, the subject of a letter included here in which he complains about the cost and claims the material is unusable because of the incompetence of the engineer. One might readily sympathize instead with the engineer, faced – in the new age of the overdub – with musicians picking up assorted drums and flutes at will. Cross plays both trumpet and mellophone; Sultan plays bass, hand drums, percussion, ahoudt (a saxophone mouthpiece attached to a straight piece of wood with finger-holes), and wooden flutes.
That marriage of modalism and multi-instrumentalism reaches another dimension in the “Ode to a Gypsy Son,” one of two pieces here attributed to Sultan as composer. Apparently Cross, Abuwi and Sultan stayed behind to record it after the end of “Fan Dance.” What’s most remarkable is its resemblance to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, or at least the adagio movement that Gil Evans arranged for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. It’s not quite the convergence of the continents – America, Europe and Africa – that one might have expected, but there it is, a mellifluous dialogue between Abuwi playing flute (his biography here includes flute studies at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory) and Cross’s mellophone. In the midst of the epic drum jams here, it’s a bit like the old joke, “I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out.”
The second LP is a much more contained ensemble, a trio of Abuwi, Sultan and the tenor saxophonist (and here percussionist, as well) Frank Lowe, heard here in 1971, a couple of years before his own recorded debut as leader and already a significant presence. It’s the sheer power of Lowe, his ability to roar and wail across and through the bass and hand drums, that’s crucial here. It’s controlled and effective music. Flip the LP over, change the turntable speed and you get the second of Sultan’s compositions, “Sundance,” a simple pentatonic piece far from the refined and exotic scales of Abuwi with Cross and his trumpeter’s vocabulary on “Ode to a Gypsy Son.” Sultan plays the melody on alto saxophone.
The most consistently impressive music appears on the 48-minute session on the CD. It documents a visit by St. Louis Black Artists Group (BAG) members to the AMS in Woodstock (the date is uncertain: 1969 or later), so you get a remarkable octet that has Abuwi and Sultan, as always, the return of Gene Dinwiddie and Phillip Wilson, plus the game-changing assembly of Julius Hemphill on alto saxophone, Abdul Wadud on cello, Charles "Bobo" Shaw on hand drums & percussion, and Rod Hicks on bass. The long jam suggests free blues, of course, because that’s what it is, with an environment of dense drumming around a pulse. What makes it transformative is the emotional power and sheer virtuosity that Hemphill and Wadud bring to the event. It’s not just the longest work here: it’s also the most focused and the most intense. It’s essential listening.
The Aboriginal Music Society belongs to an incendiary time when the boundaries between musics were temporarily falling, and the possibilities of new relationships seemed to exist everywhere. In Sultan’s avowedly social program for recording and disseminating music, there’s also an insistence on the relationships between musical and social structures and the ways they might reflect and affect one another. The special beauty of this set is the way in which it seeks to memorialize that vision, from the lengths taken to match performance lengths to the best possible medium (and the unimaginably living sound of an analogue LP of an analogue restoration of an analogue recording) to the meticulous reproduction of sometimes decaying photographs. In its tactility as well as its sound, the set resists the easy reproducibility of the digital, insisting on the presence of the artefact and the rarest flash of color. Father of Origin lends a coolly reflective timelessness to a world as lost as it is intense, the intensity of which still feels like necessity. The set honours that intensity in the process, creating presence.
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