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This article was written on 10 Dec 2005, and is filed under Miscellania.

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Vijay Prashad: The Karma of Brown Folk

This is not really my area, and I don’t claim to offer a full assessment of this book. Prashad offers an examination (sometimes in the context of whiteness studies). of images of South Asians in America and links protest movements within the community to other anti-capitalist and liberation movements around the globe, especially those of African-Americans. I’m not South Asian, and I don’t have much comment on the central theses of the book, but this one passage troubled me, when Prashad discusses John Coltrane’s studies with Ravi Shankar:

Coltrane’s complex spirituality did not abandon the urges of liberation, a fact that led Ravi Shankar to leave one session in dismay, since “I was very much disturbed by his music. Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading the Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I still heard much turmoil. I could not understand it.” Coltrane, despite his schooling in the arts of India, remained grounded in the class cultures of the United States, and he continued to express his link to the anti-racist struggle in his soulful but turbulent passages.

There are two distinct ideas conflated here. The first is that Coltrane didn’t forget about racial issues in the U.S. in the 60s even after immersing himself in music and spirituality. This is inarguable. The second is that Coltrane’s music remained representative or figurative of that struggle; i.e., that it was not a music just of freedom or spirituality or ecstasy or peace, but of struggle itself.

As the equally “turbulent” Albert Ayler said, “We are the music we play. We keep trying to purify our music, to purify ourselves so that we can move ourselves–and those who hear us–to higher levels of peace and understanding.” Ayler and Coltrane’s music is much less the sound of struggle than it is an ecstatic, unmediated sound. There’s another quote that I can’t find, possibly by Ayler (?), in which the speaker says that it was the crippling damage of drugs that caused Charlie Parker to stick with more rigid bop structures and not fling himself into pure free jazz. I hear Coltrane (and Ayler, and Sam Rivers, and Marshall Allen, and Jimmy Lyons, and Pharaoh Sanders, and Marion Brown, and John Tchicai, and Noah Howard, and Anthony Braxton, and Roscoe Mitchell) straining against human mental limitations itself and articulating a physical vocabulary of sound, not one that’s limited to single emotions like “soulful” or “turbulent.” The effort continues in different places and contexts.

Prashad is incorrect in going along with Shankar’s opinion and making the facile association that an African-American man blowing loudly and atonally on a saxophone is an expression of his struggle, or that it is inherently less peaceful than ragas or taksim. There are players of that period in America for whom struggle assumed a primary place in their music: I would say that Sunny Murray qualifies, certainly Charlie Haden, and sometimes Archie Shepp (though frankly I hear more fury in Masayuki Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe’s work of around the same time). But even an angry elocutor like Cecil Taylor was always careful to separate the cultural context of his music from the content of the music itself. By conflating the two in close succession, Prashad gives his work over to long-deflated stereotypes. The idea of Coltrane as expressing struggle is as much a misapprehension as that held by those who described Anthony Braxton as emotionless and cerebral because he claimed Stockhausen, Warne Marsh, and other white musicians as primary influences (no names–there have been too many to mention).

Prashad, who does his share of self-righteous fingerpointing in the book, at one point expressing offhand astonishment that “One of Deepak Chopra’s friends, stunningly, is Rosa Parks.” I respect Prashad’s efforts for social justice and feel a bit of personal joy at his celebration of South Asian underground music culture (which deserves a book or two itself), but I think that his ideology could use some internal self-examination to avoid its own unwarranted assumptions.

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