ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




 I want to give Art Blakey’s drumsticks /


to some child without a father / to use

as chopsticks/ to pick the stars from


beards of giraffes/ sitting on milk

crates/ in front of liquor stores




Dancing in a Book’s Arms

A. Rita Gaines Reviews Kamau Daáood’s


The Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems

City Lights Books (San Francisco, 2005)


In The Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems, Kamau Daáood compellingly broadens my view and experience of American literature written with African specificity.

Daáood swings a linguistic saxophone. Daáood is the saxophonist in James Baldwin’s Another Country “humping the air, filling his barrel chest, … and screaming through the horn.”

Daáood–writer, word musician, arts institution founder, and ipso facto community arts activist and healer—does all he does with African and African American specificity to artistically confront this world’s wars against humanity and the ecology. Moved by a poet, compelled by a linguistic saxophone, I am with all that.

There is nothing to do but concur with Daáood’s publicists that he “is a powerful artistic and social force, an inspired seer/seeker. Whether collaborating with renowned musicians, heading up a performance group, or inspiring and nurturing new talent, he speaks to and from the urgency of his time.” There is nothing else to do I mean except dance with the book.

Daáood’s The Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems is poetry to dance to, with and for. If you can agree with Columbia Encyclopedia that “dance is the art of precise, expressive, and graceful human movement [feeling and action united], traditionally, but not necessarily, performed in accord with musical accompaniment,” then it might also be said Daáood’s poems actually dance.

Here in The Language are South Central Los Angeles ballets, woulousodongs, capoiera/calypso/condomble moves. Daáood’s poems boogie for wallflower readers stuck on spectating and the dance-ready alike.

These poems move energy multidirectionally and simultaneously as easily as, according to the African Movement Vocabulary presented in When The Spirit Moves: African American Dance in History and Art, “African dance moves all parts of the body, in contrast to many European forms that rely mostly on arm and leg movement.”

Out on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, #57 of the Pocket Poets Series, The Language—a precious-sized 5″x6.25″ book—is 6’5″ Daáood’s third, counting two rare now out-of-print collector’s item chapbooks.

Long-awaited, this 1970 to 2004 collection, The Language, is a brand of think-on-your-feet haute culture for every man, poetry provocative as the lyrics of Marvin Gaye, that other favored native Angeleno prophet.

Daáood is a prophet with honors. Writers Chris Abani, S. Pearl Sharp, Lynell George, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Merilene Murphy and Michael Datcher have long sung his praises.

“There are prophets among us and Kamau Daáood is one of them,” writes Abani, author of GraceLand and Dog Woman. “His poems are psalms. His language shimmers, raging against injustice and racism, yet held in tender balance. […] His art is an abiding love for the world. His genius is that he believes it.”

Second to fathering and building community arts institutions in Los Angeles (especially the Watts Towers’ arts programs and World Stage literary series’ Anansi Writers Workshop), Daáood has written and performed for more than 30 years.

Daáood’s poetry belongs to a vital tradition of indigenous American art rooted in African techniques; that canon that is the Anansi taleteller’s, bebop’s, hip hop’s and the linguistic saxophonist’s historically transported and translated easily to forthcoming artistic emanations.

Inarguably perhaps, Rex Butters writes in All About Jazz, Daáood “holds his own, the words building imagistic phrases flashing pictures to the mind’s eye, journeying back to reinforce the original idea, just like a saxophone solo.”

Take “Blakey’s Sticks” (a favored track on the widely acclaimed Leimert Park compact disc release by MAMA Foundation), offered in the Wounded with a Blessing section of The Language:

I want to give Art Blakey’s drumsticks/

to some child without a father/ to use

as chopsticks/ to pick the stars from

beards of giraffes/ sitting on milk

crates/ in front of liquor stores// men

who have swallowed grief/ and

extracted the secret of seasons/ men

who have suffered and/ found the

stillness of a Mali morning/ riding the

red eyeball of/ a hurricane/ on a street

corner in Watts

In “Blakey’s Drumsticks,” Daáood swings a kind and strong linguistic axe, not so much against words long-trapped in petrified forests long-deprived of this style of wind and breath, but moreso to invite inside those considered outside the possibilities of these winds, these breaths in to all-inclusive blooming, everlasting springtimes. Bless the poet. Daáood’s kind and strong linguistic axe rings proactive, reminds us to breathe against the need to possess and consume without sharing and against holding back from giving back.

Daáood re-introduces in “Blakey’s Drumsticks” linguistic intention in jazz implications, encourages humility as a way of speaking, offers the consummate reader/listener a way of seeing Art Blakey’s highly cherished drumsticks being given to a nameless (any) child without a father.

The Language is purely Daáood’s, his takes on Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Horace Tapscott, Bob Kaufman, drumbeats rising to clouds returned to earth as trees in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park where he lives and poets under the moniker of “word musician.”

This poetry of Daáood’s, who early fed the poetry bug eating at him as one of the last-wavers of Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop that started in the 1960s and honed skills with the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra under the direction of pianist and composer Horace Tapscott (1934-1999) in the 1970s, is bound for world acclaim.

On these precious-sized pages of The Language, Daáood humbly gives us 35 poems which are more than the sum of their parts. These 35 poems are the writer’s choice at 56 to express, as only a word musician would, 34 years of constant motion, dervishes inspired by upward sound spirals, captured sparks rising off a pad from an ever-ready pen.

An angst-ridden teen back in the 1960s who at 18 could have joined the Last Poets and toured the world, Daáood’s ever-ready pen and pad stayed put in Los Angeles where he built a lighthouse for newer writers on Degnan Boulevard at the World Stage, an arts education and performance gallery he co-founded with master drummer Billy Higgins (1936-2001) in 1989.

The Language is an important book. It is more than immoveable type bound by a handsome silver blue cover. There is definitely more to The Language inside at the gut level than superficial wordplay and unmoving cleverness. Daáood is a true word musician whose poems rise off the page when read and become again the pure sonic vibrations of the writer’s intentions. Consistent with the African art tradition of beauty and purpose wed, Daáood’s is not the poetry of idolatry to idle nouns and do-nothing verbs. Daáood’s poems are actionable.

The Language is the real deal. Whirling along lights fantastic in the arms of poetry that breathes and belongs to word dancers and wallflowers alike, The Language is poetry for the famous and the nameless–men, women, children and trees.

Some of the poems in The Language are to/about people Daáood wants to make sure we know like his sons, RaSudan and Akhenaton, or people he wishes we knew better like his mother, Delores Keyes.

“Blue Pachuca,” for Daáood’s mother, in the Search for the Purest Water on Earth section of The Language, is a pivotal poem in this collection:

Blue Pachuca/ lady of sorrow/ your

father is from the Philippines/ Manila

and Africa in your bloodstream/ and

sailed to me, Negrito// my uncle is my


.   .   .    .

Blue Pachuca/ hair of Manila in blue

light/ bebop and salsa laughter/ you

have taken your mystery with you/

gone like the silent flight/ of birds of

paradise/ from a vase/ of warm tears

It is not easy to re-focus how the world looks at and experiences art through African and African American lenses, but it is time and true to that, Daáood has done well. Straight, no chaser, The Language poems rock. Here is music to dance to. Here are dedications to/for people and concepts the author knows and shares. Here are words that can reconnect the person, any person (you?) to earth mother Africa and to the holistic dynamics of African art.

In ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes, Kalamu ya Salaam asserts, “Most literary criticism gives short shrift to, and very little critical understanding of, black speech/black music as a source of black poetry. Most literary criticism does not consider that our [African] ancestral mother tongues were tonal languages, which to some non-Africans sound like singing rather than talking.” Ya Salaam continues, “[A]ll poetry started out as sound rather than text, closer to song than to monotone talking.

“Moreover, even the paragon of English poetry, … even Shakespeare was primarily working in an oral tradition using the vernacular of his day. It is not inappropriate to argue that Shakespeare created the English language as a vehicle for literature. During his day, most literature was written in Latin or French. Shakespeare elevated folk forms and the peasant patois of his era to a literary art form. Shakespeare took the vernacular and created high art.”

In stride with other never-miss-a-beat jazz poets—Jayne Cortez, Sekou Sundiata and ya Salaam, Daáood has shown and continues to show us African-influenced literary art as words that do anything but handsomely sit idly on the shelf. The Language is energy moving. Catch it dancing, if you can.

From the title poem, “The Language of Saxophones“:

prana moving through time

signatures/ bop blown through a

wormhole/ aimed at the earlobe of

God/ pondered DNA in saxophone

solos/ rising over the hills of the lips/

whirling wonder/ articulating the

language of bruises and bliss/ in

urban lit fires of spirits/ places and

spaces of being/ if you had been there/

you know there



bibles and juke joints/ slurring the

edge of english/ where speech collides

with guinea/ vocal chords plaited like/

nooses knots and braided whips/ rise

from the throat/ remembrance of cruel

tattoes// collected oratories of

solitude/ sometimes the eyes become

the ears/ sometimes the hands sing of




sacred act/ to vibrate the air/ and

shape meaning/ write on the wind/

with reverence/ the will of a mind/

seasoned in the wanderings of silence/

a language/ common as the song of

water// truth is


Source: Kamau Daáood. The Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems

. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2005. (pp. 1-4)

a. rita gaines — my credentials? my credentials are my words shaped to deeds. i am a writer. i’ve been at it since age four or five, a published journalist since age 12 or 13, etc., etc. and here i am, publisher and writer from birth who finally sees herself as 150% publisher and writer plus some, yay! i could say wanda coleman sent me, ntozake, uncle ish, quincy, reg e. gaines, kalamu or amiri, but i’m’a just go on my own word and words.

*   *   *   *   *

Kamau Daoud performs Live with The Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra

Kamau Daoud recites his poem written for Horace Tapscott

Kamau Daaood – Liberator Of The Spirit (for John Coltrane)

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posted 24 September 2005




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Related files:  Dancing in a Book’s Arms Zillion Tambourines  The Language of Saxophones  Los Angeles

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