Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora – A Review

Diaspora (Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra) experienced an amazing reunion on Saturday, April 10, 2010 at Sistas’ Place. The group featuring Alex Harding on baritone sax, D.D. Jackson, pianist with bassist Radu, drummer Reggie Nicholson, poet Louis Reyes Rivera and poet/vocalist Monique Ngozi Nri, is a phenomenal band that last performed together as a unit in Washington D.C. at Freedom Plaza on a hot early evening July 4, 1999. The only musician that was different from then to now was D.D. Jackson, who replaced guitarist Masujaa in the Ensemble in recent years.

Ahmed Abdullah's Diaspora

The 1999 concert was memorable for several reasons. It was a double bill with Craig Harris’ Tailgator Tails and that group featured Carla Cook, who was not a known entity, at least to us, at that time. The outdoor temperature was a very humid 104 degrees, in the shade. Another important detail of that concert was the fact that the wonderful Katea Stitt (daughter of the great Sonny Stitt, who is a producer and supporter of many musicians including the late great Sekou Sundiata ) brought these two groups together. Yet another important fact was that Paxton K. Baker, Senior Vice President of BET, was in the audience and that was a very significant reunion. Mr. Baker (who I had known through my work with Sun Ra), before he was head of a student committee at Temple University, when he brought the band called the Group (Marion Brown, Billy Bang, Sirone, Andrew Cyrille and Ahmed Abdullah) there in 1986, was now in a very powerful position. As Senior Vice President of BET on Jazz (it’s name at the time) he was able to help the Jazz cafe that Viola Plummer had just asked Abdullah (circa;1998) to be the Music Director of. Mr. Baker offered Sistas’ Place a very generous stipend that unknown to us at the time would last for at least seven years and would help the venue grow into a world class cultural institution. Another attendee was Deborah Ifeoma Nri, who traveled from London to NY and DC to hear the gig.

There is obviously a particular magic these musicians combined bring that was evident from the first note of Liquid Magic, an Abdullah composition that dates back to the 1970s -1980s collaborations with dancer Dianne McIntyre. Monique Ngozi Nri added her voice of poetry and song to the mix with her poem There is a Healing Place followed her song I Want to Go where The Sun Shines Through. This before the full ensemble chimed in to take the composition to never never land. The next song, The Ruler, written for John Coltrane, one of the progenitors of Jazz: A Music of the Spirit,( LINK TO PDF) is a 3/4 vamp based off the music of McCoy Tyner’s Three Flowers, with a very different melody. Both of these songs were recorded on a 1987 Silkheart recording called Liquid Magic, Ahmed Abdullah Quartet and featuring tenor saxman Charles Brackeen, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Alvin Fielder. Malachi Favors has since moved on and I’ve heard that Alvin Fielder is not well but I don’t know where Charles Brackeen is. if you know please tell us…

Abdullah believes it is important that his own compositions be played, at least by his groups, even if no one else plays them. Hence, the beginning of the show. The next composition was one by another progenitor of the Music of the Spirit, Sun Ra. His composition, We Hereby Declare… served up enough funk to get the audience ready to dance and the capacity crowd seemed like they were ready. The group then moved into another original called Allah’s Blues. Both of the last mentioned songs featured the poetry of Louis Reyes Rivera. He was able to get to the essence of the music with his words. The set ended with Canto II, an African-Brazilian piece originally heard on one of Clemetina De Jesus’ recordings. Unfortunately Ms. De Jesus was stumbled upon by Ahmed Abdullah in the same year she left the planet, 1987. However, on another Silkheart recording done in that same year, Canton II with the Solomonic Quintet featuring Charles Moffett, was recorded and in the year 2001,the song was recorded again with NAM (Alex Harding, Masa Kamaguchi and Jimmy Weinstein) on a recording called Live At The Vision Festival.

Even the intermission was full of the energy that only Sistas’ Place and the music can create. Viola Plummer, acting as MC, introduced the house to a lady named Laura who was celebrating her birthday (and who is related to Oliver Bish of Sistas’ Place). After a vigorous happy birthday sung by everyone, Laura introduced her family (which included her daughter who is expecting a baby). Louis was moved to recite a poem for the child to be which began, ” I would have liked to have met you…” By the end of the poem there were barely any dry eyes in the house.

The second set began with one of Sun Ra’s one hundred compositions that go by the name of Discipline. This one called Discipline 27. As explained to the audience, Sun Ra was big on discipline because he believed in Freedom and knew that one does not exist without the other. Throughout the night a woodwind player from Chicago, Ernest Dawkins, was in the house. As the Ensemble moved to African soil with the Miriam Makeba composition Magwalandini, Mr Dawkins was asked to sit in on alto saxophone.

The group and house that was already in high gear went into orbit. Mr. Dawkins is a mean alto sax player who truly plays music from his soul and of the spirit. Everybody stretched out on this number and much room was given to Reggie Nicholson who did some magnificent mallet work before the song was brought to a close. Magwalandini is a South African song and gives reason why Diaspora is both about the Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra and the African Diaspora. Next, the band did a sing-a-long with What Do You Do…The lyrics of which say “What do you do when you know that you know that you know that you’re wrong?” Well, according to Sun Ra, the only thing you can do is “face the music and listen to the cosmos song”.

The next piece, Tapestry From an Asteroid is a very interesting Sun Ra composition in that for all the years we’ve heard it, we never heard both lyrics and music played together. Back in the days of touring with the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Maestro would have June Tyson sing this beautiful melody, acapella. The band would only come in at the end of the song with a space chord and that would be that. Both lyrics and melody are beautiful and puts one in mind of something beyond the ordinary. Monique Ngozi Nri did a splendid job of singing the melody with Alex Harding adding some fantastic obbligato work. D.D. Jackson played 16 superb measures and the song was taken out again. Traveling the Spaceways was the appropriate last song of the evening. It began as duet with Alex Harding and Radu doing a gutsy exchange that brought everyone into their world. After the song built to a crescendo with Louis Reyes Rivera’s poetry expressing the spirit of the song, the audience was invited to do the “space hop,” which once again got house with the audience on their feet.

It was a wonderful night, a Sistas’ Place night where we combine the cultural with the political and the social. After Viola Plummer’s brilliant closing remarks in which she complimented all the members of the D12 Movement for their dedication to the cause, donations were raised towards the ongoing rescue effort in Haiti.

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