BLACK EARTH, BLACK IDENTITIES, AND AFROFUTURISM ring messages at CTIJF 2019: Flautist Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble.

There are particularly moving and important themes in this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival offerings which attracted this writer immediately after assessing the artist lineup. Telling, indeed, about our increasingly destabilising contemporary world and how music is becoming reactive. Various artists from Black identities brought ancestral histories and current struggles for equality and justice to the fore, not just in their sound – we’re talking music, right? – but in their message.

Giving voice to the unheard profoundly resonated a truth, but with a sense of love and inclusiveness. ….cause we’re all in this together…… Particular focus, I found, was on the Black female, the feminine in nature and spirit, the Earth as being the root of soul that Mothers all, and on her-stories about chained freedoms. African American flautist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble breathed message and emotion into her flute as her two female percussionists led the rhythms which detailed African rootedness, torture of separation from a motherland, and resolve in making the new land listen and take note of beautiful identities which honour spirit, tradition, and caring for all humanity to better sustain Mother Earth.

photo credit: Lauren Deutch

Collectively, Mitchell’s purpose with poet/pastor/singer husband Calvin Gantt was to convey messages of peace, hope, and courage to the downtrodden, or what she refers to as ‘Afrofuturist fantasies’ wedded with social activism.

During her press conference, Mitchell giggled about how her teenage journaling was influenced by African American futurist and science fiction author, Octavia Butler, whose works had also attracted Mitchell’s mother to paint about futuristic fantasies, like black mothers with their babies sitting on Saturn. Butler’s stories inspired three of Mitchell’s music projects, one dealing with a black woman on a space ship who wakes up, and then must deal with extra-terrestrials she encounters. “ So my music reflects all aspects of life – the horrors, struggles, joys, etc. – and is not always at ease with sound,” Mitchell admits. Another off-putting moment for her band was their performance a day after the USA elections of 2016 and how the band had to stay focused after the shock announcement that D. Trump had won the Presidential election. Their audience was seeking refuge and the band felt it must not become overwhelmed by the heartbreak and distain of their fellow Black and white communities brought about by this result. As Mitchell explained, “I feel instrumental music isn’t enough for me; I feel I have to make lyrics about what’s going on in our humanity in order to provide some hope.”

Regarding the question of the worthiness of music technologies and how it affects creativity, her points again addressed social justice issues. “We focus too much on technology which is geared to making money. Rather, we should focus more on our humanity and the way we treat each other, recognize our human suicide, and support communities with ecological sensitivities.” This resonates with why she chose the flute: “As a child, I related to birds, bugs, and nature. The flute embodied this nature. My voice is the same range as the instrument, so using my voice is a way of leaving evidence that a woman was here, in music that doesn’t always celebrate women as it should.”

Continuing with her take on tech: “I try to embody or model in my music how we can bond together better, with different musical languages co-existing together. The Western way of doing things is coming to an end. Very few people benefit while many suffer. In this regard, I have explored electronics and am working on a CD as my first electronics venture.”

Likewise, jazz education at university level can be a bit exclusionary: “I think if you have a conservatory method, then you are automatically closing access to a lot of great talent which can offer other skills. You have to bring in the jazz musicians as teachers, and not just those who have academic credentials. I have seen students who audition for music school; some will prefer to show their improvisation skills; others will read their scores. Many schools will take the student who can read. This is a privileged position which many great musicians don’t have.”

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Mitchell’s Master class revealed talent galore in her 9 piece band, several being multi-instrumentalists and well educated in the industry. Mitchell herself boasts a number of awards and leadership service, including being the first Black female president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. But ‘leadership’ is not what she intended; rather creative messaging to get the truth out there.

In their festival stage performance, her Black Earth Ensemble presented some ambitious, highly rhythmic self-composed songs in their festival performance, filling the stage with their energetic repertoire. The band concluded with a highly emotional incantation in gospel style by singer Avery Young in “Save the Children”. The singer was actually in tears and received consolation from fellow singer, pastor Calvin Gantt, who proceeded to preach how we must save the street children of Capetown. While one can applaud such a noble message, it also strikes of typical American arrogance known too well to hosting audiences, especially coming from a first-time-visitor to Capetown, or for that matter, to ‘Africa’. Well, as I listened, I was always looking for the music amongst the messaging. Percussion (bongos, congas, and drums) can easily overpower vocalists and instruments. I’m afraid this is what happened. Yet, Mitchell’s mastery of the flute is jaw-dropping, as is her laudable attitude to make right what has gone horribly wrong in our world. 

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble 2018 album, Mandorla Awakening II:Emerging Worlds can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP7FRucsNKc

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