Take a dollop of Sun Ra, a slice of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a vibrant touch of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, a little Burnt Sugar, a grain of Griot Galaxy, and a good portion of Yusef Lateef, let it simmer on a laser beam, and you have an approximation of the recent Afrofuturism concert at Carnegie Hall. It’s an intriguing intergalactic evening when you combine the musical/cultural mix of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble with Angel Bat Dawid’s Autophysiopsychic Millennium, which is just part of a series of events highlighting Afrofuturism.
For the uninitiated—and most of those in attendance at the concert seem to be up on the trend—Afrofuturism was to some extent explained in the program by two members of the Concert Hall’s Afrofuturism Curatorial Council: Ytasha L. Womack and Sheree Renee Thomas. The concept, Thomas writes, “reimagines old gods and journeys beyond colonial borders, space and time. They choreograph new movements and reexamine traditional narratives, excavating the past to observe the rhythms of the present. And they help make our world anew.”
Womack, often deemed a leading authority on Afrofuturism, has an extensive interrogation of the concept in her book on the subject, defining it as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation.” In effect, it is the philosophy of sci-fi, creative nonfiction, and history that is a cross-pollination uninhibited by boundaries or narrow definitions.
What cannot be said in words evolved on the stage with Mitchell’s flute in exchange with punctuations from Christopher Williams’ trumpet and the alto saxophone of Darius Jones as they established the tone and structure of “Xenogenesis Suite,” a composition Mitchell said was inspired by the author Octavia Butler, who is often cited as a progenitor of Afrofuturism through her determination to expand the genre devoid of ethnicity. This gave way to the scintillating, Cecil Taylor-like flights of pianist Angelic Sanchez. Most engrossing were the duets between cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams.
A brief intermission allowed the audience to catch its breath only to have it heaved into another sphere of rapture with Dawid and her crew that even while setting up an elaborate stage as they sprinkled some sort of particles on the floor and several bowls, slowly began chanting “Autophysiopsychic” and the reference became even more evident that it was Lateef’s unique definition of the music often called jazz when his image on the back wall loomed over the performance. Meanwhile, dancer and ritual-space holder, Sojourner Zenobia, weaved gracefully around the musicians, much in the manner June Tyson did for Sun Ra and his Arkestra. After the chant, the opening song sounded like Lateef’s “Love Theme from Spartacus” and Dr. Adam Zanolini demonstrated his versatility on flute, bass, and conga drums.
When Dawid, arrayed in finery that resonated like Yemaya, the Santeria orisha, summoned the group on her bass clarinet, the response from the guitars of Tazeen and Lufuki was warm and peaceful in contrast to the blast from the saxophones, including the vibrant tone of Mike Monford. Toward the finale, the three horns were a powerful blend, a tapestry of sound that reminded of the cluster of notes from Mitchell, Jones and Williams during the first set.
Taken together, the two sets are exemplary of Afrofuturism’s potential, a potential that suggests that past is prologue and like the Sankofa bird, faces forward but looks back. In this context the ensembles captured the essence of the musical griots now on the ancestral plane and those here among us aspiring to take that continuum into the next boundless, cosmic place, and helping to make “our world anew.”