Art for Life16

Art for Life16


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Art for Life: My Story, My Song

By Kalamu ya Salaam



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Six. The Reconstruction Of A Poet (contd.)

 Producing & Recording Poetry

In 1989 I produced and recorded “A Nation Of Poets” featuring Amiri Baraka, Pearl Cleage, Haki Madhubuti, Wanda Coleman, Kalamu ya Salaam, Mari Evans, Askia Muhammad Toure, and Sonia Sanchez. A CD of that event was released by the National Black Arts Festival in 1990. I also self published A Nation Of Poets, a small book of poetry featuring all of the poems I presented.

            I made no serious attempt to distribute or directly sell A Nation Of Poets. I did not view the book as a written document but rather simply as a set of lyrics to accompany the recitation. At that time I was still struggling with figuring out how to compose my poetry so that it worked as both speech and text. But more than the technical questions, there was the fact that I absolutely abhor self promotion.

            All of my adult life as a professional writer had been spent in a context within which we pushed the collective rather than any one individual. After twenty-five years of functioning in one way, to suddenly begin self promotion as an individual is not only very, very difficult, it is also distasteful.

            Although the seemingly simple work of pushing my book was not my speed, serving as the producer (conceiving and coordinating all of the activities and supervising the recording) for the NBAF poetry program was both acceptable and arduous but relatively uncomplicated for me to see through to successful conclusion.

            Similar programs at the Schomburg Library in New York (in February of 1990) and for the Caribbean Cultural Center (in October of 1990) in New York followed. I also produced and recorded New World Poets for the Houston International Festival in April of 1991. The New World Poets were multicultural: African Americans Jayne Cortez, Haki Madhubuti, Thomas Meloncon and Kalamu ya Salaam; Asian American Genny Lim; Chicana Evangeline Pinon; Native American Jack Forbes, and Puerto Rican Tato Laviera. All of us worked out of a strong oral tradition. I coordinated and recorded a poetry night in New Orleans featuring Amiri Baraka from Newark, Jimmy Santiago Barca from New Mexico,  John Sinclair from Detroit, and myself from New Orleans.

            In November 1991 I produced Bright Black Words, a special two nighter at the Contemporary Arts Center. The program featured New Orleans poets Labertha McCormick, Arthur Pfister, Mona Lisa Saloy along with myself and the Word Band and a workshop production of my verse play, “Malcolm, My Son.” In March of 1992 “Malcolm, My Son” won an award from Rites and Reason Theatre at Brown University. This two-person play deals with the definition of manhood in the context of young, gay male coming out to his mother.

            Writing it in verse was not a premeditated act. I was not trying to make a sentimental statement. I wanted an overtly political statement. But I realized this was an emotionally charged issue and as I got started, I also realized that poetry was easier to do than dialogue. For one thing, I was not trapped into using “realism” nor even “chronology.” Once I got started it took only four or five days to complete. Here is an excerpt in which the mother, Amina, responds to her son’s questioning about the uniqueness of his condition.

MALCOLM: Were there ever any other gay men in our family?

AMINA: If you open the closet in the hall,

If you root around in the corners of the attic,

If you dig in the crevices of basements,

Go to the old picture books

And look into the eyes of our blood…

The felt hat worn across that great aunt’s eye

With a man’s tie dividing her breasts,

The big-eyed youth hiding on the edge of the picture

His hands clasped in his lap staring with terror

At something way beyond the camera…

In the tear-strewn trail

Of all those still-missing ones

Who left home and disappeared

Somewhere across the Rockies or into

The soft belly of Europe,

The cousin you never heard from again

After he reached fifteen and left the church choir

And had the beautiful voice

That broke your heart to hear him

Reluctantly sing goodbye,

Or the one you only heard from through

Occasional phone calls at odd times

During some randomly selected decade…

Like I said, this is nothing new.

We just keep pretending we’ve never

Dealt with all this before, pretending.

But we are now no more sick

Than we’ve ever been during this sojourn

In the wilderness of being forced to make do,

Striving, although often valiantly failing,

To create wholeness from the twisted scraps

Of what’s left after labor rape

And racist assault on our human selves.


Do you understand?

             The Word Band was a poetry performing ensemble which I directed. We had Kenyatta Simon, a percussionist, and two vocalists/reciters Maria “Gingerbread” Tanner and Anoa Natambu.

            The Word Band, now in hiatus, was my most advanced articulation of poetry as music. Most of the poems were my own, although we also had “Answers In Progress” by Baraka and a Mari Evans poem in our repertoire. What was sweet about The Word Band is that I figured out a specific musical reference for each piece, and then did specific arrangements. The idea was to function as a band playing specific charts but also to maintain, indeed, to require improvisation. Each arrangement had cues so that the band members would know when to make the changes. While the poems were always in the foreground, they were recited as music. I consciously set out to cover the entire sweep of Great Black Music — everything from elemental blues and a cappella gospel moans to really “out” new music a la late period John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders.

            Many people talk about jazz as a model for their poetry, most mean simply that they reference the music. Some quote the musicians, some sing the music, some lists song titles and album titles, some even describe musical scenes, or do comparatives between a quality and a known musician (“as blue as B.B. bringing black blues by stroking the strands of Lucille’s singing hair”). While I share those techniques, I also believe there is a deeper region.

            There are other possibilities such as using actual music forms: the AAB or AA’B of classic country blues; the AABA “standard song” form; and, the more complex forms pioneered by Duke Ellington which are basically structured on theme-variation (A, A’, A”) within a three or four part development such as A, A’/ BBC/D. This translates into an introductory statement with an embellishment, followed by a classic blues statement/statement/contrast or concluding statement, and finished off by a coda.

            Although theme-variation (A,A’) with the A-part established by a specific word or phrase which is repeated at the beginning or the end of a line is a very common device in Black poetry, I’m not sure how many poets consciously work with this form as opposed to simply using it because it feels like the technique to use.

            In addition to form there is also the use of words as sound and rhythm devices rather than for a specific meaning. This is particularly true of non-conventional, slang, and so-called “curse” words. In Black poetry the word “shit” is not used solely to literally refer to excrement. In fact, in the Black lexicon shit is a completely neutral word in and of itself. It’s meaning (if there is a meaning) is purely contextual and sometimes, even then, used as a structural device to achieve rhythm, rime or inflectional emphasis.

            Another option is the employment of “dirty” tones which refers to playing notes off-pitch or sliding in and out of intonation. One can alter the spelling to use both the original meaning of the word as well as a comment on that meaning. One of the more common examples is spelling America in this way: “Amerikkka.” Another way to use dirty tones would be to repeat the word with variations such as “America, Amerikkka, A Merry Caw, A-Murderer.” These are just some examples of structural approaches to poetry based on music.

            In this regard, some of today’s rappers are really inventive in their word play and reflect a musical sensibility in how they rhyme. Unfortunately, rap is almost entirely a verbal art and therefore the printed words often don’t even make it as lyrics because so much of the meaning is contained in how the words are “sounded,” i.e. cadence, inflections, intonations, melody, etc.

            My effort with the Word Band was to go to the next step of using vocal arrangements. Of course, this group has to be heard to be appreciated and plans are underway to release two or three selections by The Word Band as part of a projected CD whose working title is New Orleans Soire: A Gathering Of The Saints / Kalamu ya Salaam & Friends. Saints is a collaborative recording of me working with New Orleans musicians in a wide variety of musical contexts ranging from a piece called “Congo Square” performed with Percussion Inc. (this selection is commercially available on a cassette called America Fears The Drum, produced by Don Paul out of San Francisco), to totally improvised poetry performed with Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder’s avant garde ensemble, The Improvisational Arts Quintet (with whom I performed at least once a year at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival). Other musicians are blues guitarist Walter Washington; legendary traditional jazz banjoist, guitarist and vocalist Danny Barker; saxophonist Tim Green; a cameo by my brother, trumpeter Kenneth Ferdinand.

            I had also developed a working relationship with Chinese American Fred Ho, a baritone saxophonist, composer and political activist. We called our collaboration the Afro Asian Arts Dialogue. We did a tour through Detroit, Flint and Lansing, Michigan. We performed at the Newyorican Theatre in New York City and at Bandeis University in the Boston area. We performed for in Atlanta and at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. Recordings were made of our performances in New York and Madison.

            My intention is to release this work in recorded form because I know that the fullest appreciation of poetry in the oral tradition will not happen unless and until it is heard. This necessarily requires getting into the “business” of recording poetry. Although there are a few publishing houses who regularly record poets, there are no companies currently specializing in producing, recording and distributing African American poetry.

            I have served an apprenticeship in the recording business by working as a producer with All For One Records (AFO), a small independent jazz label founded by Harold Battiste. I have the experience but lack an infrastructure and necessary capital. This is also a major part of my problem: I have the demonstrated ability to fulfill a variety of required functions.

            I am not only a writer, I am also an entrepreneur, an administrator, an arts producer, a radio personality and a father of five. Each of those areas has its own sphere of influence and expertise. I have developed myself in each and find myself very often pulled away from my writing and editing work to function in another area. How else could it be?

<—My Life Is the Blues   A Black Poetics—>

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam


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music website > writing website > daily blog > twitter > facebook >

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Guarding the Flame of Life

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New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran ‘Julio’ Green

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02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)

(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”

Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Track List 1.  Congo Square (9:01) 2.  My Story, My Song (20:50) 3.  Danny Banjo (4:32) 4.  Miles Davis (10:26) 5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8.  Intro (3:59) 9.  The Whole History (3:14) 10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11.  Waving At Ra (1:40) 12.  Landing (1:21) 13.  Good Luck (:04)

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated  23 July 2010



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