Sunday, July 01, 2007

Archie Shepp - Live At The Pan-African Festival

From the 21st of July to the 1st of August 1969 the First Pan-African Cultural Festival was held in Algiers, Algeria's capital.

The Festival was organized by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Host to the festivities was "His Excellency, Houari Boumédienne, President of the Revolutionary Council, President of the Council of Ministers of the Algerian People's Democratic Republic, and current Chairman of the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity"; Algeria's military dictator, who had come to power in a blood-spattered coup. With the Icarian rhetorical style of Soviet-type bureaucrats, Mohamed Seddik Benyahia, the Algerian minister of Information (i.e. the minister of Censorship), said in the inaugural speech: "We have always believed that independence was not an end in itself, that it should promote the birth of new men, completely liberated and free. The task is to create, in each one of us, a new mentality, a new way of seeing the world (...)". In other words: national liberation should be the first step towards ideological brainwashing. The African Dream had already started to go sour.

The OAU was quite self-satisfied with the Festival: "Never before had African culture and arts given such a brilliant display of their richness, variety and genius. Above cultural and artistic achievements, this First Festival was the triumph of African solidarity and sense of purpose, the triumph of AFRICANITY". The OAU's satisfaction with the dislay of culture and arts was not entirely unjustified: the Festival had been able to attract quite a number of important jazz musicians from the United States. There, the Black Power movement had just come into being, and the rhetoric of that movement underlined Black African ethnic identity politics and Black nationalism - not unlike the propaganda of the Pan-African Festival. Thus, it was not illogical that militant American jazz-men would gravitate towards Algiers to participate in the Festival.

In the first (November 1969) issue of The Black Scholar, Nathan Hare wrote "A Report on the Pan-African Cultural Festival":

"There was a battle in Algiers in late July, with lighter skirmishes both old and new, and emerging signs of struggle which low lurk ready to boomerang around the world in the years (and months) to come. The troops came together, African generals and footsoldiers in the war of words and politics that splashed against the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea - in the first Pan-African Cultural Festival - from everywhere in greater numbers than ever before; from San Francisco to Senegal, from Dakar to District of Columbia...

Hundreds of delegates came from thirty one independent African countries and representatives from six movements for African liberation, from Palestine to Angola-Mozambique and Congo-Brazzaville. And there were Black Panthers and 'black cubs' and old lions from the American contingent.

Secretly exiled Eldridge Cleaver chose this occasion to reveal his whereabouts, and expatriated Stokely Carmichael came with his South African-exiled wife, Miriam Makeba. Kathleen had her baby during the festival, and there was Panther Minister of Culture, Emory Douglass, inernational jazz artists such as Nina Simone and Archie Shepp, and Julia Hevre (the late Richard Wright's daughter, now living in Paris).
LeRoi Jones (whose passport had been held up) could not get over, but there were: the serious and quietly charismatic young poet, Don L. Lee; Carmichael lieutenants, Courtland Cox and Charlie Cobb; Panther Chief of Staff, David Hilliard, who had to return to the United States before the Festival was over to take care of a crisis with the Chicago Police; and the compassionate black Parisian poet Ted Joans. There were many young black Americans who had not been invited but who had cared enough to piece together their own fare."

Archie Shepp performed at the Festival on the 29th and 30th of July 1969 and apparently he was in a pretty militant mood: "We are still black, and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus! We have come back to our land of Africa, the music of Africa. Jazz is a black power! Jazz is an African power! Jazz is an African music! We have come back" he harangued to the audience.

Shepp played together with a great line-up: Clifton Thornton on cornet, Grachan Moncur III on trombone, Dave Burrell on piano, ex-Sun Ra Arkestra member Alan Silva on bass, and rhythm revolutionary Sunny Murray on drums. The jazz-man played with a large group of Algerian and Tuareg musicians, possibly Diwan percussionists (Diwan is an Algerian style related to Moroccan Gnawa music).

Dave Burrell: "I was part of the all-star group that Archie Shepp put together to take to the Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969. (...) When I got to Africa and all of the countries were represented with their musicians, I heard drums all day and all night. Finally, it was our turn to play and they had us in a boxing ring in the town square. The boxing ring had an upright piano in it. I will never forget being led through the crowd to the boxing ring and getting in under the ropes. It was a very, very hot and intense evening. The music started to play itself and the people's energy made it easy. After that experience, we got to play in a hall opposite Oscar Peterson and Nina Simone. The French press was there from Paris and they talked about coming through Paris and doing a series of recordings. By this time, I was very spiritually charged".

The sessions were recorded and released by the French BYG/Actuel label under the title "Live At The Pan-African Festival". Given the conditions in which the recordings were made, it comes as no surprise that the sound quality is rather poor. Sunny Murray's drumming and Silva's double bass are completely drowned in the trance-inducing fury of the massed Algerian and Touareg percussion: drums, tambourines and karkabous (metallic castagnettes). Dave Burrell's piano can be heard only occasionally. The wind-instrument players - Shepp himself, Thornton and Moncur III - improvise their lines over the North-African rhythms, but the jazzmen's playing seems a little lost at the roaring sea of North-African percussion. Perhaps Free Jazz is too much of an individualistic music to comingle succesfully with the communal ecstatic music of Diwan. Let is not forget that Jazz is a Creole music, not a "pure" Black music, let alone an Arabic music. Shepp's "Live At The Pan-African Festival" mainly has value as a historical document.

Nevertheless, the Pan-African festival was an important moment in jazz history, as it provided a great inspiration to the musician's who attended it and who were invited to record in Paris by BYG Actuel's Jean Georgakarakos and Jean-Luc Young. The number of albums recorded after the Festival in Paris for the French label testifies to the impression that the occasion made on the musicians, and many albums directly or indirectly referenced the Festival: Clifford Thornton recorded an album called "Ketchaoua" (the name of the Algiers district where they had performed) on August 18th, 1969, and most of the album's titles explicitly pointed towards the Festival; Sunny Murray recorded an "Hommage to Africa" and Grachan Mocur III "New Africa"; the sleeve art of Archie Shepp's "Yasmina, A Black Woman" featured a North African photograph; and the last track of Shepp's "Blasé" was called "Touareg".

So perhaps it it a little too ungenerous to call "Live At The Pan-African Festival" "...mainly interesting as a historical document". Perhaps it is better to marvel at this intersection of decolonisation, Soviet-style dictatorships, Black Panthers, Free Jazz, Avant-Garde and Paris' May 1968 movement; and better to quote Michel Leiris for the second time in the blog: "As far as I am concerned, I love everything that presents this dimension of mixing, everything mixed blood, from sarcophagi dating from Roman times with faces of splendidly made-up women painted in the most realistic way to Fuegeans wearing European pants found in shipwrecks, not forgetting Alexandrine philosophy and the unmatchable elegance of Harlem negroes along the way”.

Meanwhile, the definitive history of the Pan-African Festival waits to be written.


david_grundy said...

A very interesting post this one. I like the idea of Shepp's band playing in a boxing ring! You've got a good blog here.

valter said...

Thanks David!

Le roi textile de Suède est de retour said...

<3 this post!

jay steichmann said...

Nice post. One minor edit that I saw is that it is Clifford Thornton who plays pocket trumpet, and valve trombone who played with Shepp on this recording.

Robert Wade said...

See my photos from Algiers and the festival at: