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Playing For Keeps: Improvisation In The Aftermath

Ian Patterson By

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Playing For Keeps: Improvisation In The Aftermath
Edited by Daniel Fischlin & Eric Porter
352 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-4780-0814-9
Duke University Press
2020

Musical improvisation is often described as a conversation. A universal language. Musicians trading back and forth seem to be having a blast, which, on occasion, for players and for listeners alike, can attain transcendent qualities that are difficult to interpret, never mind articulate.

As the twelve essays in this collection edited by Daniel Fischlin and Eric Porter attest, improvisation means different things to different people, and manifests itself differently from one culture to the next. A fun dialogue for some, for others, improvisation is a manifestation of struggle, giving voice to the victims of historical and socio-political injustices. Often, it is no less than the sound of resistance, resilience and self-determination.

Little wonder then, that academics the world over are increasingly invested in this important subject, one that reveals almost as much about the oppressors as it does about the oppressed and the marginalized. What these essays reveal, is that improvisation is more than a philosophy. It is a tool for responding to disaster and for coping with trauma and stress. For many, it is a way to find a voice, in the face of those who would seek to silence, control and—in the most extreme circumstances—to eradicate culturally and politically. Improvisation can be, in short, a survival mechanism.

Musical improvisation is fleetingly of the moment, but importantly, as the editors state in the book's introduction, ..."its resonance—in thought, memory, practice and affect—continues to shape the world, necessarily engaging and potentially transforming the societies where it is made and those to which it travels."

There is much at stake. Improvisation, especially of the co-creative, inclusive kind state the editors, drawing on the work of Puerto Rican sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel, is a response to monocultures that: "threaten difference on a planetary scale..." In this hypertechnolgical world of rapacious corporate interest and diminished human rights, the task, declare Fischlin and Porter, is clear: "To live on we must move on." Playing for keeps, indeed.

The collection begins, not with an essay, but with a poem by sound experimentalist, visual artist, and reeds player Matana Roberts. Manifesto is a reimagining of the American Constitution, one that demands recognition of the rights of "the ever-growing mongrel race." Global in message, the poem is local in accent. Matana addresses the "United States of Hysteric-a" and calls for unity. One line above all, gets to the heart of this book's underlying message: "We are improvised, yet we should synchronize to bring the best of ourselves to the fore..."

The other artist-led response to the theme of improvisation in this collection, by illustrator Randy Duburke, takes the form of eight drawings inspired by Nina Simone's political songs. Images of Ku Klux Klan and burning crosses, of demonstrators with placards demanding racial equality, of baton-wielding police, and of a man held in a police officer's choke-hold, echo down from the 1960s Civil Rights era to today.

In one poignant collage, the photos of Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) are juxtaposed against the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, where, on September 15, 1963, they lost their lives to a bomb planted by white supremacists. Simone responded with the song "Mississippi Goddam." Du Burke's illustrations, though addressing a specific period of history, can be read as part of a historical continuum, where improvisation—using the tools at hand in the moment—is used to negotiate the present.

It is no coincidence that settler/colonial/apartheid-cultures form the backdrop to most of these essays, for it is in precisely such contexts that inequality, acculturation, and oppression provoke improvised responses. In The Exhibition of Vandalizim: Improvising, Healing, Politics, and Film in South Africa, Stephanie Vos relays the reaction of South African saxophonist/composer/improviser Zim Ngqawana to the vandalization of his Zimology Institute, a space on the outskirts of Johannesburg devoted to free improvisation and the mentoring of young jazz musicians.

From the mangled instruments, Ngqawana and pianist Kyle Shepherd improvised a musical performance, a process that was recorded by film maker Aryan Kaganof. This improvised performance served as a "healing ritual," and an act of resilience, but in a country with the greatest inequality between rich and poor in the world— according to the World Bank—it also served to highlight the improvised economies of the poorest blacks. The vandals/burglars were targeting the metal of the Zimology Institute's instruments for its scrap value.

In this instance, Ngqawana and his colleagues' response comes across as symbolic and poetic, uplifting even, but it is perhaps the case that the most telling example of social agency, self-organization, and empowerment in this story came from the vandals/burglars, and their response to their ..."environment of precarious living conditions and improvised livelihoods...."

Improvised response to threats against indigenous culture is a theme common to several essays. In The Rigors of Afro/Canarian Jazz: Sounding Peripheral Vision with Severed Tongues, Mark Lomanno examines how Afro-Canarian jazz musicians exert agency in the face of Spanish colonialism that has systematically eroded Afro-Canarian history and culture.

Lomanno charts the centuries-long policy of the Spanish to control the historical, political and cultural narratives of the Canary Islands. Importing white sand to cover black volcanic beaches was done with tourism in mind, but it is impossible to escape the underlying symbolism. The Canary Islands, however, is not a mono-cultural story. By drawing on musical influences from North Africa, Ireland, and America, Afro-Canarian jazz-fusion musicians address their own cultural hybridity, in what the author describes as ..."acts of resistance against histories of settler-colonial power and silencing..."

In Experimental and Improvised Norths: The Sonic Geographies of Tanya Tagaq's Collaborations with Derek Clarke and the Kronos Quartet, Kate Galloway shows how Canadian Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq challenges long-entrenched stereotypes of the Inuit people.

In mainstream culture, the Inuit way of life has often been presented as primitive, and the Canadian North as desolate. Tagaq did not grow up with throat-singing, as it had been banned by the Catholic Church, along with the local language. In her collaborations with experimental musicians such as the Kronos Quartet, Tagaq draws on the sounds of her environment, using field recordings, electronics and "throat-boxing" (a cross between throat-singing and beat boxing) to challenge derogatory Inuit stereotypes shaped by colonial history. Tagaq uses her voice and high-profile collaborations, the author states, "as political tools to highlight the dynamic cultural and musical hybridity of Indigenous modernity."

Three essays explore musical improvisation in the Middle East. In Free Improvised Music In Postwar Beirut: Differential Sounds, Intersectarian Collaborations, and Critical Collective Memory, Rana El Kadi throws the spotlight on Beirut's free-improvised music scene, and examines how improvising musicians such as Mazen Kerbaj, Sharif Sehnaoui, Christine Abdelnour, and Raed Yassin negotiate sectarianism, religious divide, and political ghettoization.

In a city/country where politics/tribalism is so bound up with culture, these musicians from both sides of the Christian/Muslim divide have used improvised music to explore collaboration and interaction that is devoid of cultural baggage. That is to say, the old cultural baggage, for as Yassin acknowledges, the general public in Beirut views free improvised music as "abstract, elitist and inaccessible." Yassin and others have attempted to make their music more accessible, by incorporating samples of popular Arabic singers in their performances, a tacit recognition of the value of compromise in attempting to achieve a meeting of minds.

In Lebanon, where the present can never outrun the past, trumpeter Kerbaj has used improvisation to process the culture of violence, and to engage with the collective memory of the 1975-1990 civil war. He incorporated the archived sounds of that conflict, rifle fire and bombs, into his live performances. Then, during the short but devastating war between Lebanon and Israel in July 2006, Kerbaj recorded hours of trumpet improvisations on his balcony against the backdrop of Israeli air raids.

El Kadi describes how in improvising with the explosions, Kerbaj related to them as sounds like any other, and in the process, was able to grapple with some of the psychological scars from his childhood during the civil war.

Egypt is the setting for Darci Sprengel's essay Street Concerts and Sexual Harassment in Post-Mubarak Egypt: Tarab as Affective Politics. After the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011 there was an outpouring of cultural expression throughout Egypt. Sprengel examines the impact of Mini Mobile Concerts (MMC) in Alexandria. The MMC, which were held in public spaces without prior advertising, were designed to animate public spaces that for too many years under Mubarak had been choked of cultural forms of expression.

A major aim of these mini concerts was to create "an improvised interactive process between performer and audience that ideally resulted in affective transformation." This, essentially, defines the concept of 'tarab'—where performing and listening, prompting and responding, are part of the same process.

These public performances, the author states, were revolutionary, when seen in the wider historical context. After World War II there was complete state control of music, and female performers were viewed as immoral. During the 2011 revolution and in its aftermath, Sprengel records, dozens of women were "brutally assaulted." The author highlights the case of oud player Yasmine El Baramawy, who was sexually assaulted during a protest in 2012.

El Baramawy's street performances—as part of MMC—challenged taboos, particularly those relating to class, social norms, and gender politics. They allowed El Baramawy and her audiences to experience each other differently, a positive and potentially transforming experience for all. "When you perform music you are not seen as a piece of meat, but as a human being," El Baramawy told the author. "They can no longer deny your humanity."

Two essays take the form of extended interviews. In "Opening Up a Space That Maybe Wouldn't Exist Otherwise"/Holding It Down in the Aftermath, Fischlin and Porter converse with Vijay Iyer about his US Veterans project, and how their participation has proved to be therapeutic in dealing with the traumas that are part and parcel of war.

Daniel Fischlin's thought-provoking essay in Improvisation, Grounded Humanity, and Witnessing in Palestine is followed by an interview with Al Mada's Odeh Turjman and Reem Abdul Hadi. Al Mada is a Ramallah-based organization which, since 2009, has used music and arts education therapeutically with the traumatized and marginalized in the occupied Palestinian territories. Perhaps this chapter above all the others underlines how improvisation can respond positively to crisis. For Palestinians of all ages, musical improvisation is a key to the opening up about shared experiences of physical, mental and emotional traumas, a process that provides agency on the one hand, and that nurtures sympathy and empathy on the other.

Music, however, is not a cure-all, as Turjman acknowledges: "Improvisation opens up things, but psychologically what it opens up needs to be addressed, which the music does not necessarily do."

Other essays dealing with the slack key guitar style in Hawaii, and the 'curled,' melismatic style of singing among Oriental Israeli singers of Yemeni, Middle Eastern or North African descent, depict how musical genres are contested sites of identity politics, and how improvisation can function as a tool of resistance against discrimination and cultural colonialism. Only in Israel, however, could music that is popular with both Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers confronting them, be viewed by each side as "the music of the enemy."

The message of listening to others is a leitmotif that runs throughout the essays. It is thought-provoking, therefore, to read in Sara Ramshaw and Paul Stapleton's From Prepeace to Postconflict: The Ethics of (Non) Listening and Cocreation in a Divided Society, that, at times, it may be just as productive not to listen to certain voices, particularly in a polarized, sectarian society like Northern Ireland, the troubled arena of the authors' study on improvised music's potential to create an alternative way. Politicians and cultural funding bodies in Northern Ireland, not to mention those in other countries, could learn a lot from the essays in this book.

A major academic achievement, Playing for Keeps: Improvisation In The Aftermath is an enlightening examination of different manifestations of improvisation, their transforming possibilities, and of the ethics of listening. It may also serve as a manifesto of sorts, one that champions diversity, equality, self-expression, dialog, compassion and empathy. A such, the resonances of this tome reach far beyond the merely musical.

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