The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston

Composed by Randy Weston + Arranged by Willard Jenkins
(Duke University Press; Durham, North Carolina)

Chapter Seven: Uhuru AfriKa

African music is the music of life and it only imitates life itself through songs of nature and man. It is the original in as much as it springs from the life of people and songs that relate to the people. It is innovative in that it changes as peoples change. To a great extent it is a music of experimentation because the natural flow of life is an experiment.—John Henrik Clarke

Freedom Africa

As I’ve always stressed in interviews and whenever I’ve spoken in public, my whole life I have been reading about and immersing myself in Africa. I have been forever fascinated by and deeply interested in the history of Africa, the current problems of Africa, the triumphs of the African people, the political situation in Africa . . . and that interest came long before I made my first trip there. I was always in tune with Africa and I was always upset about the separation of our people, the separation of those people who are considered part of the African diaspora from the Motherland itself. The terrible effect of colonialism was to separate our people, and it was always very painful for me because I’ve always seen the similarities in people of African descent, not the differences. My dad always said that black people would never be free as a people until Africa is free; that’s the only time we will be collectively strong, when Africa is strong. But as long as Africa was weak, we would continue to be weak; he stressed that all the time, and that’s why we must help to rebuild Africa, because we’re all black people of the world and we owe that to our Motherland.

I wanted to create a large-scale suite to illustrate that the African people are a global people and that what we do and who we are comes from our collective experience, from our African cultural memory. And no matter where we are . . . whether we’re in the Fiji Islands, whether we’re in Brazil, or Cuba, Europe, or the United States, we all come from the same African family, going all the way back to the very first civilization. I wanted this suite to be performed by African people not only from different parts of the world but also from different areas of music. This idea had been in my head for years, and finally in the late ’50s it started coming together. I once met a great Somali poet named Musa and he told me something that really stuck with me: “The first thing that changes is the music,” he said, “the music changes and everything else follows the music. Where does the music come from? The music comes from the universe, the music comes from our ancestors; we don’t know where.” The music that we tend to take as ours is really coming from the Creator, and it comes at certain points and through certain artists to give people inspiration, to set a tone for certain serious things that are happening and going to transpire in world history.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a very interesting period because everybody was so full of fire. The civil rights movement was blooming, the black student movement in the South was growing, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. were showing the way and making great strides toward raising our consciousness, and it was truly an incredible period. There was all this movement of energy toward the freedom and liberation of black people. It was also a time when several African nations, such as Ghana, were declaring their independence from colonization. I wanted to write a suite dedicated to Mother Africa. My father taught me at a very young age that I was an African born in America, that I have to understand African history. So I decided to name this major work Uhuru Afrika, which is Swahili for freedom Africa.

This was also a time when several other musicians and I were very active in trying to develop the African American Musicians Society; Melba Liston was one of our vice-presidents. We were going through a lot of changes as far as racism, and a lot of crazy things were going on for black musicians. The alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce was right there as one of our leaders; he was one guy who kept us on course as far as the business of music was concerned. When I remember Gigi Gryce, I think of one bit of sage advice he always stressed: “Never sell a song.” Too many musicians have sold their music for little or nothing, often for some kind of instant gratification that certainly won’t sustain them into the future. Musicians would sell their songs for practically nothing and someone else would reap the long-term benefits, especially if that song was popular. I remember the song I wrote for my son, “Little Niles.” I never really thought it was that great, yet there were people who made me play that song all the time; one was Gigi Gryce, and “Little Niles” became a standard, which has enabled me to collect royalties ever since. Gigi had a lot of courage and I knew I wanted him to be part of the Uhuru Afrika project for sure. This was definitely a period of organizing and increased consciousness among black musicians, and Gigi was at the vanguard of that self- determination movement.

This work Uhuru Afrika had been in my mind for a while, so I started gathering my resources because I knew this would be an important and laborious undertaking. After Melba Liston and I collaborated so successfully on those seven waltzes for children and recorded the “Little Niles” project, our friendship and working relationship were growing, and I definitely wanted Melba to write the arrangements for Uhuru Afrika. When she consented I breathed a big sigh of relief, because I knew this project would be guaranteed successful.


Uhuru Afrika: The Language

For the text I was very anxious to use an African language in Uhuru Afrika. I was still so upset by how African language was presented in the media. I could also vividly recall the ridiculous images of those awful Tarzan movies I had been so into as a boy, and how they depicted the Africans and their language. Tarzan had these blacks carrying stuff on their heads, saying, “Bwana this, Bwana that, Bwana the other” . . . So I made up my mind that Uhuru Afrika had to use an authentic African language, not some gibberish or nonsense from television or the movies. I wanted to present this work of music where people would hear the beauty and depth of an African language, and at the same time show the power of the drum.

I spent time at the United Nations doing some research on African languages. It was a very exciting time because I had always wanted to have contact with Africa. Thanks to my friends at the UN, A. C. Thompson and Richard Jennings, who knew everybody, I was introduced to a lot of the African personnel at the UN. Whenever there was a party for Kenya, the Congo, or any of the other African countries, Richard would always make sure I got a ticket so I’d have a chance to meet these ambassadors.

I knew it would be difficult selecting one common language for the text; after all, it was my understanding at the time that Africa was a land of over nine hundred different languages and countless dialects. So I met with several African ambassadors and other Africans who worked at the UN. When I asked them which language would best represent the continent, they said Kiswahili. One of the people I met there was Tuntemeke Sanga from Tanganyika, which is now post-colonial Tanzania. This guy was a real revolutionary.

Sanga, who was a professor of Kiswahili, was something of a revolutionary even then, and he said that Africa would not be free until it had the atomic bomb. Melba Liston, me, and some of the musicians wound up studying Kiswahili with this guy. He translated Langston Hughes’s freedom poem into Kiswahili, as you hear it on the record. Brock Peters, who sang the male part of the “African Lady” selection, was originally supposed to recite the freedom poem, but Sanga’s voice was so incredible that we ended up using him on the recording.

I saw Uhuru Afrika as the most important music I had ever written. The prelude was Langston’s freedom poem. I wrote the suite in four movements: the first movement was “Uhuru Kwanza,” the theme of which was that African people have a right to determine their own destiny. The second movement, the vocal piece that Brock Peters and Martha Flowers sang, was “African Lady,” which was written as a tribute to all the great black women who had impacted my life, beginning with my mother; all those sisters toiling away to support their family, putting food on the table, doing menial jobs and putting up with all kinds of indignities. The third movement was called “Bantu,” which signified all of us coming together in unity. The last movement was titled “Kucheza Blues,” for the glorious moment when Africa would gain its full independence and black people all over the world would have a tremendous global party to celebrate.

The Players

Since I wanted this to be a really important suite, I knew it had to be played by a thoroughly unique orchestra. Melba certainly had a lot more big-band experience than I did, she knew all the great big-band players. After all those years she spent playing in the Gerald Wilson, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones bands—not to mention writing for Duke Ellington and numerous large ensemble recordings—I totally relied on her judgment when it came time to hire the musicians for Uhuru, and from that point forward whenever we had a big-band date. She always wanted several key players to be the backbone of the band, people she knew from her big-band days, people who were versatile and who would lend dexterity and distinctive voices to their particular section. So we started out with Budd Johnson on saxophones and Quentin “Butter” Jackson on trombone, they were very close friends of Melba. These were musicians who could read any music inside out, who could interpret anything; they were our foundation, the keys to develop this big-band sound I was hearing in my head. We picked Charlie Persip to play the trap drums because Charlie was in Dizzy’s band with Melba. Most of the other musicians I picked. She wanted to have a certain passage for double flutes, to capture the sound of the birds on “African Lady.” So I got Les Spann to play the guitar and double on flute to go along with Jerome Richardson, another very versatile musician who could play all the reeds and flutes. I also wanted musicians that were in tune with our history; musicians who were aware, musicians who took pride in being black, pride in being African Americans. It was a combination of all those things and that’s why we wound up with such a powerful lineup. We hired Gigi Gryce, Yusef Lateef, Cecil Payne, Sahib Shihab, Jerome Richardson, and Budd Johnson on reeds and flutes; Julius Watkins on French horn; Clark Terry, Benny Bailey, Richard “Notes” Williams, and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and flugelhorn; Quentin “Butter” Jackson, Slide Hampton, and Jimmy Cleveland on trombone; and Kenny Burrell on guitar. That was one of the greatest orchestras you could put together, and we haven’t even gotten to the rhythm section.

Africa is civilization’s heartbeat, so the rhythm section had to be very special. We wanted to have a rhythm section that showed how all drums came from the original drum, the African drum. So we got Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria to coordinate the rhythm section and play African drum and percussion. I got Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba to express the African drum via Cuba. Max Roach played marimba, Charlie Persip played jazz drums—G. T. Hogan subbed for Persip on “African Lady” when he couldn’t make the second day of recording—and we had two basses, George Duvivier and Ron Carter. To sing Langston Hughes’s lyrics for “African Lady” I wanted two singers who knew jazz but were not necessarily known as jazz singers. So I got Martha Flowers, a soprano who was largely from the European classical tradition, and for baritone Brock Peters, who was primarily known for playing Broadway shows and singing folk music. Putting all these forces together was an amazing experience.


In Process

Working with Melba is always an adventure, and this project was no exception. She was very particular, very orderly, but she was also so creative that sometimes she would decide to make last-minute changes in the arrangements to get things just right. Sometimes she would write something and it seemed like the arrangement was all set; only to have her say, “No, I think I want to change this.”

Needless to say, it was quite hectic and frantic up until the moment we started to record. Even with all of Melba’s creative powers, Jerome Richardson and several of the guys were still copying parts the day of the first recording session. I was living in that apartment that those two sisters from Langston’s office had leased to me on 13th Street, and up until time to go to the recording session guys were writing out parts. Melba had people copying parts on the ceiling, on the walls, on the floor; it was a comical scene. The poor copyist was on his feet so long that his legs were completely swollen by morning; he had worked so hard with no rest. What a scene: we had to actually carry this guy down the stairs in a chair to take him to the studio!

The Session

We recorded Uhuru Afrika on two successive days at Bell Sound in midtown Manhattan. With all of those musicians, and all of those different personalities, what was ironic was that both recording dates were scheduled for 9:00 a.m. and everybody was on time. Nobody was late, two days in a row, which was incredible. When the session started it was actually the first time the musicians had heard the poem at the introduction. When the guys heard the Langston Hughes poem it was quite dramatic; you could see it on their faces and hear it in their expressions. They said, “Oh, man . . . ,” because that was during the period when Africa was either a place to be ashamed of or a place that people had tremendous fear of; you were not supposed to identify with Africa.

Africa, where the great Congo flows!
Africa, where the whole jungle knows
A new dawning breaks, Africa!
A young nation awakes, Africa!
The freedom wind blows!
Out of yesterday’s night Uhuru—Freedom! Uhuru! Freedom.
—Langston Hughes, Uhuru Afrika invocation

When the musicians heard Langston’s freedom poem, the purpose of which is to bring us together, to say the freedom of Africa is a freedom for us, they instantly knew what feeling we were after; that poem really set the mood. The independence of some African countries is inspiration for us to search for our freedom and our identity. That recording session was an incredible experience, and the spirits of our ancestors were with us in that studio, everybody got into the spirit of Africa. At one point we needed a certain kind of percussion sound and some guys got the inspiration to use Coca-Cola bottles to make sounds. Everybody contributed their ideas, because when I record I like to get the ideas of some of the musicians. Sometimes they can hear things that I can’t hear. I never like to completely finish a piece until I get to the studio, because we may be doing something and someone might say, “Hey, why don’t you do it this way; let’s try it this way.” I always like to keep it open. This session was wonderful because there was the artistic control, there were the charts, there was the music, but at the same time there was a tremendous sense of freedom.



DownBeat magazine gave Uhuru Afrika a three-and-a-half-star review. Some people questioned my Africanness, they were afraid to deal with Africa. Some people said we were Black Nationalist because we created a music based upon the African civilization. It was kind of a piece that shook up some people, because collectively we have so little education about Africa. When we go to public schools, when we go to the movies – we always get indoctrinated with the history of Europe, so all of our heroes tend to be European. Uhuru Afrika was a complete turnabout; we were saying, “Wait a minute, you know Africa is the original civilization!” The critical response was a combination of those things, but Melba Liston and I were tremendously proud of this creation.

The freedom message of Uhuru Afrika was so powerful that in 1964 the government-controlled Board of Censors of the Union of South Africa officially banned the record. This was during apartheid, when the South African government persistently denied black South Africans access to anything which spoke to black freedom. Copies of the album were seized in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Copies of Lena Horne’s hit LP of last year, Now, a vocal effort aiding the fight for civil rights in the United States, were seized in Capetown and Johannesburg as the Union of South Africa officially banned the album along with pianist-composer Randy Weston’s Uhuru Africa suite . . . Weston’s is a four-movement suite—“An American Salute to an Emerging Continent”—which grew out of the composer’s interest in African music and culture.
Jet magazine, November 12, 1964

In a recent action by the government-controlled Board of Censors, the Union of South Africa officially banned two albums by U.S. artists: pianist-composer Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika and singer Lena Horne’s “Here’s Lena NOW!”
Amsterdam News, October 3, 1964

The first time we played the Uhuru Afrika music in concert was on February 4, 1972, at Philharmonic Hall, which is now Avery Fisher Hall, at Lincoln Center. We performed it with the Symphony of the New World, which was conducted by Leonard de Paur, with many of the original musicians. We played it as part of two concerts that were devoted to black history, on a program that also featured music by William L. Dawson, Roger Dickerson, and Howard Swanson, all black composers. I think the audience loved it because with Uhuru Afrika we go through so many different expressions.

We also played Uhuru in 1998 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater, for 651 Arts. But musically it wasn’t quite the same, because Melba was ill and we tried to pull it together in too short a time. We couldn’t find some of the parts; Melba had stored the music but there were some parts missing. So we went through the usual with Melba . . . it’s always an adventure! Sometimes in her travels and dealing with her illnesses, some parts of her work turn up missing. But despite that it was a powerful night and the spirits were high in that theater. Melba was in the hospital at the time, but we were able to pick her up so she could come to the concert that night. I insisted on wheeling her out in her wheelchair so the audience could see this woman whose contributions were so essential to my music. The crowd gave her a really warm standing ovation, and while she sat there beaming, all the musicians got up and serenaded her with their horns. It was wonderful to see her onstage with Billy Harper, Benny Powell, Talib Kibwe, and all the cats surrounding her, playing music for her; it was very special.

© Randy Weston + Willard Jenkins 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The Autobiography of Randy Weston -African Rhythms

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