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Akua Allrich: Washington Rising

Franz A. Matzner By

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AA: No, no, no. I just sing. I love languages, so if it is in a different language, I will [study] and ask others for help to learn how to pronounce everything. I don't want to ask someone after that speaks the language and hear "you have got it all wrong, you aren't saying anything!" I like the challenge. And I also like to express culture and different cultures. That is what I enjoy. I may not know every word, but I will make sure to research the meaning of the song.

AAJ: In your performance, you seemed to be pulling not only from the traditionally American jazz tradition, but from the African jazz tradition as well. This is clear when you are singing Miriam Makeba pieces, but it also seemed to be the case on other tunes.

AA: For me, it comes more from the artists I have been exposed to than particular genres per se...I was exposed to Miriam Makeba—for example—so long ago that that is just jazz to me. And Harry Belafonte—which is Caribbean-style jazz—and then there is Fela Kuti, which isn't jazz at all, it's Afro-funk. Because I was exposed to all these together so early, they come together in my mind with jazz as the base.

AAJ: I just want to point out that you are making it very difficult for those of us who have a predilection to label and define everything.

AA: [Laughs] I know!

AAJ: One could say you are describing the very definition of a cross-cultural fusion, where from the very beginning the influences are fused together. It also seems that the globalization of musical cultures is changing things. At the same time we maintain genre and style divisions, they are also becoming ever blurrier. Music can travel so quickly and the cross influences so immediate that those divisions are pretty permeable.

AA: It breaks down everything. It breaks down so many barriers. It allows you to emote and express and to relate to people and to each other. You can be from totally different walks of life and if you hear a song and like it, you can have a conversation. I don't know you from Adam, but there is something to connect on—it can move people's spirit.

AAJ: Do you think there is a risk that if you break down all those barriers you lose the value of maintaining a culturally distinct tradition?

AA: I think so. I think it is very important to celebrate the uniqueness of every culture. I think it is important to know and respect [each] culture. It is also equally important to recognize they are distinct. People always say we are a big mixing bowl, we're all one, you know. That's good, you have to treat people as people and with respect, but you also have to preserve the sanctity of a particular culture. If you blend and merge it enough it will become something else, and you will forget what is what.

AAJ: That produces a tension with folks, perhaps especially in jazz, that are prone to say music is just music. You know, there's just two kinds of music, good and bad. That may make sense at one level, and certainly in jazz history the motivation behind the statement makes sense as musicians tried to push back against some of the early stigmas, but at the same time there is a risk there. So let me try to finish with a question, I noticed in your performance and on your album that you had pieces that were clearly in the jazz tradition, clearly rooted in the African tradition, and others that were clearly fusion.

AA: That is my way of maintaining distinctions, which is important. Whereas my own personal compositions, I have a lot of fusion elements, jazz fusion, but there are also [other] distinct genre elements as well. My center may be jazz, but it is important to acknowledge those elements. That may be why I talk so much at my shows.

AAJ: Let's keep going with the show. You put on a quite a performance that draws on a wide range of influences. You also seem to know just how to move a crowd. You performed a very poignant version of "Mississippi God Damn," which I noted really got the crowd going. Why is that song still relevant? Why does it get everyone...

AA: So riled up? It's true. It does...The song is the definition of injustice, which is constantly going on. Particularly for the African-Americans of this country—we like to wish that it's gone but it isn't and I think the song is unfortunately still relevant.

AAJ: But do you think you should change the title to "Arizona God Damn?"

AA: [laughs] What I like to do is throw things in like "New Orleans God Damn," or "California God Damn." It's true, there is always something going on. There are other songs, too, like "Sinner Man," you could sing that song for centuries. For example, when you think of the oil [companies]. You are talking about someone who is just sinning, and you have no control over it. All you can say is that you will get yours. I think all those old tunes are so relevant, even today. It's sad.

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