Tag Archives: Liberia

Farewell, Bra’ Hugh

The world lost one of it’s greatest musical ambassadors of Pan Africanism the day it lost Hugh Masekela, known as “Bra Hugh” in South Africa and much of the world. One of my best-received blog postings on “riquespeaks” dealt with the history of Masekela in Liberia during the 1970s. As exciting as that period was for me personally, it was only one small portion of the truly incredible life Bra Hugh led.

Hugh’s South African origins put him in a unique position to understand the African diaspora, and he parlayed that into one of the most unique bodies of work in musical history. His musical journey through life started in South Africa and took him to the United States, both New York and Los Angeles, Lagos, Nigeria, Ghana, Zaire, Guinea, and many other points along the Transatlantic world. He parlayed this unusual cultural fluency into a songbook that covers a wide array of Pan African experiences, such as “Stimela”, “”African Secret Society”, “Grazing in the Grass”, “Bring Him Back Home”, “Mama”, “Mami Wata”, and many others. He utilized his fellow South African natives such as Philemon Hou (the composer of “Grazing in the Grass”), as well as Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas musicians The Jazz Crusaders, and at other times, the Ghanian musicians who made up Hezbollah Soundz. Truly I can not think of too many other musicians who have covered so many points on the African diaspora as Bra Hugh.

It all began as a young jazz loving man in South Africa. Hugh, born in 1939, was a youth during the years that the Apartied system began to become more strictly codified into law. The Apartied system itself was inspired by the Jim Crow system in America, and also had many things in common with the suppression of Indigenous people in the States. One of the insights I got from his autobiography that surprised me was that, looking at American movies that featured Black people way back in the ’40s and ’50s, Hugh and his compatriots viewed the United States as a progressive place where Black people had freedom, as the thought of white Boers making movies that featured Blacks was totally inconceivable at that time. He would soon get the chance to come to America and see the strain of racism that influenced that of his country.

Masekela grew up in the unique position of being an African who had a strong connection to the culture of African Americans, through the language of jazz music. He was a huge Louis Armstrong fan, in addition to following the newer be bop school as represented by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He actually received a trumpet from Louis Armstrong himself, mailed all the way from the States to South Africa. Eventually, he was sponsored by Harry Belafonte to come to the States to study music, and he would come to be mentored by Dizzy Gillespie, another one of his childhood trumpet heroes.

Of course, now would be the perfect time to mention his relationship to Mama Africa, Mariam Makeba. Mariam was actually several years older than Hugh and it seems their relationship was more of an infatuation on Hugh’s part in the beginning. But Miss Makeba played a pivotal part in Hugh’s life, setting up his connection to come to America, housing him when he got here and in general, teaching him about the facts of life. Eventually, this would include their famed marriage, which also put him in a rarefied jazz club, along with great artists like Max Roach and Miles Davis, in terms of being a jazzman and having a wife that was a well renowned creative force in her own right.

Makeba facilitated life in New York City for Hugh, where he studied music on scholarship from Belafonte and immersed himself in the early ’60s jazz scene. The early ’60s was a fertile creative time for jazz, although not the absolute height of the music’s popularity commercially. During that time period, representatives of every school of jazz existed, from New Orleans trad, to Swing, to Be Bop, to Free Jazz, Soul jazz and the different schools that would dominate the ’70s, including fusion. It was a somewhat daunting environment to learn in, with the music existing and yet going through so many changes. It was Miles Davis, himself a searcher for new forms who told Masekela, “Don’t try to play the shit we playing here. Take what you learn here and do what you know from over there (Africa) and do some shit that NONE of us can play.”

That is exactly what Masekela did when he recorded Philemon Hou’s “Grazing in the Grass.” The lazy, funky instrumental, replete with cowbell and a beautifully soulful melody, became one of the signature hits of the late 1960s. Masekela took that success and hit the very heights of the entertainment industry from a social standpoint, marrying Cab Calloway’s daughter and hobnobbing with stars like Sly Stone.

Masekela was in a very precarious position however, and as the open nature of the ’60s passed on, it was very hard for him as a South African banned in his own country to sustain hits in the United States. He covered all the bases, and yet lacked a base of his own at the same time. And his music began to become more and more political after the feel-good triumph of “Grazing in the Grass.”

So he took his music to Africa, and what he did there was very unique in its time and even today. He left the United States and put his musical celebrity behind trying to bring African music more to the forefront. His ban in his home country of South Africa facilitated his development as a Pan Africanist musical impresario, as he began to focus on West Africa during the ’70s. He worked with Fela Kuti and recruited bands from the West African region. The albums he recorded during the ’70s with Hezdollah Soundz, and on his own record label with Crusaders producer Stewart Levine, Chisa, are all worthwhile Afro Funk workouts that could easily satisfy modern crate diggers.

Hugh also cast his personal lot in Africa at that time, living in Guinea and Liberia. He also was instrumental in organizing the concert that paired with the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, featured in the movies “Soul Power” and “When We Were Kings.” The concert was even more of a Pan Africanist festival in its planning than what it eventually turned out to be, as the list of artists that didnt make it included Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. Hugh was cheated out of the proceeds of that concert by Don King, but the achievement of putting it on still looms large in Pan African history.

Hugh never again had a hit like “Grazing in the Grass” but that does not negate the body of work he made that was largely autobiographical, especially when you listen to songs such as “You Told Your Mama Not To Worry”, and “The Boy is Doin’ It”, which detail his long life away from South Africa. As the tide was eventually turned against Apartheid, Hugh was a key musical fighter in those battles as well. Re-examining his body of work will unearth a treasure trove of musical bounty.

His autobiography “Still Grazing” is one of my absolute favorite books and one I recommend to any fan of his, lover of music, Pan Africanist, historian of the ’60s-80s, and every bibliophile and lover of a good story. One of the things that struck me was the similarities his life had to that of his hero Miles Davis, although their personalities were rather different. But they had many interesting parallels and points of intersection, from Miles advice to play a mixture of American Black and African music, to their marriages to powerful female entertainers that they both tried to downplay ( Hugh to Mariam and Miles to Cicely), their drug addiction, the turn they both took away from pure jazz into a music that fused R&B and rock with jazz, and they also had many points of intersection in New York City, even dating some of the same women, and the impact Hugh had on Miles during Miles silent period, playing at the Nightclub Mikell’s. It also has much in common with that other jazz trumpeter who made it big, Quincy Delight Jones. All of these make for complelling reading and a story that brings a wider view of Jazz and popular music in the changes of the 1960s.

Mainly, when I think of Hugh’s life, I’m happy for him more than I’m sad that he passed. He survived both Aparteid and the pain of being away from his country for 40 years while also making music and recieivng love from many people. And he lived long enough to see majority rule return to South Africa and to serve as a respected cultural ambassador for his country, spending the last 20 plus years at home in South Africa. It all adds up to one of the most incredible lives imaginable and one we should be happy was set to music.




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Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Edition III: “Bra” by Cymande

One outstanding aspect of the musical climate of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the flowering in popularity of Black musical groups from parts of the Diaspora outside of the U.S.A. This trend was exemplified by acts and groups such as Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Manu Dibango, The Beginning of the End, Mandrill, T-Connection, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela, and today’s subject, the Caribbean funk group Cymande. These groups, through their expansive African based rhythms and the incorporation of other grooves cultivated by Africans estranged from Africa, both paid tribute to deep African roots as well as exemplified the new flavors that had picked up in the numerous ports of call along the Transatlantic slave trade. Today’s song from Cymande, their classic “Bra”, is a song that has stood the test of time as a unique example of Caribbean Funk.

“Bra” is a song that derives it’s unique rhythmic effect from contrasting rhythmic feels. While the tempo is brisk, Steve Scipio played a bass line that pulled back on the time, while the horns long sustained notes create another feeling on top of that. You’re grabbed from the first notes of the intro, as Scipio plays a firm note on the first beat and another beat on the upbeat of beat 2. He’s only playing TWO notes in the fist bar of the pattern, but the feel and placement of them is enough to create a baseline the listener won’t soon forget. Immediately after the bass hits hard on the first beat, guitarist Patrick Patterson plays a sweet toned guitar slide followed by some fluttering trills, in a style very similar to the Curtis Mayfield guitar ballad style. The horn section then comes in on the upbeats, playing a very sharp, staccato arpeggio, walking up the notes of a major chord, then holding the top note of the chord for a whole two bars, before working their way down and sustaining another note. All of this is laid on top of Sam Kelly’s drums, which are playing a variation of Clyde Stubblefield’s stop and start drum groove made famous on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, with the rhythmic gaps/rests lining up with Scipio’s bass line. Working in concert with that are the conga drums of Pablo Gonsales. The result is a dipping, bouncing Caribbean funk groove with all the jerkiness of Island music, yet the pronounced “One” of mainland funk, with a sweet coating of melodic horns on top.

When the vocal comes in, the horns stop playing to give the vocals center stage. Joey Dee sings a tale of African redemption with a slight West Indian accent, with heavy reverb on his mic. “Time Has been lost for trying/we have been left outside/looking at passions dying/Emotions grow strong on time.” After which, the famous sing a long chorus is introduced, “But its all right/we can still go on.” Underneath the chorus the rhythm begins to get more active, as Scipio expands his bass line with class Jamerson/Rainey/Jemmont rhythmic business as Patterson also becomes more aggressive in his rhythm guitar strumming. The horn riff returns and on top of it all the percussionists start to spice up the groove with small rhythmic instruments, with the tambourine rattling like a snake for an instant. After the chorus the vital rhythmic bed continues on for a saxophone solo, under which the rhythm players introduce more variations. Midway through the song, the song breaks down to just bass playing along with percussion. The bassline on the break is an incredibly funky variation on the main rhythm, with the drums playing kick drums on all four beats and the percussionist teasing out melodic rhythms. The groove slowly builds up layer by layer until we get back to the top of the song for one last repetition of the main verse until the song comes to a close on a hard stomped out, “But its ALL RIGHT!”

“Bra” is a song that for a time I thought only my Dad and family knew, and I thought the group was African for the longest. Then in the ’90s Spike Lee used their songs on several movies of his that I enjoyed very much, including “Crooklyn” and “The 25th Hour.” I remember the first time I heard it on one of his films, excitedly showing it to my Dad and asking him what the name of that song was, because I’d heard it all my life but never knew anything about the group. It was later I found out Spike Lee’s connection to them made sense, because being a pan-Carribean group, with New York City’s strong Carribean influence, their music was very popular during the early day’s of Hip Hop, and “Bra” and their other fantastic hit, “The Message”, were considered early Hip Hop breakbeats that had even occasionally been sampled. Both songs are excellent examples of Post Civil Rights and Black Power era ’70s solidarity music, done by a group of Rastafarian funksters in England who’s origins spanned the Carribean. Their music as a whole very uniquely pulled together the Caribbean rhythms and Rastafarian ideology of Reggae with the hard edged vibe of American funk. Also there is much confusion over the title of this song, but “Bra” is simply the old school way of spelling a word that has been popular among Black people again in recent years, the shorthand “Bruh” for the word, “Brother.” This word is not only popular among American blacks (and now everybody else as well) but is also almost an official term of address in other Black countries, such as the great South African Hugh Masekela’s nickname, “Bra Hugh.” Also in Liberia where my mother is from it was a term of endearment, followed by the given name, for males you were close to. So the title of the song is in itself an example of the unique unifying ability of Cymande as a musical group that mustn’t be forgotten!

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Filed under Black Issues, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Dad, and two Jazz visions of Liberia

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

March 3rd, 2016 marks the seventh anniversary of my father, Herman L Hopkins Sr.’s passing. As I think about him on this day, among all of the experiences and memories I have of him, I’m drawn the most to talk about two jazz compositions by two Tenor men. Dad was a contemporary and a fan of both of these musicians, and I grew up hearing them. Coltrane of course is one of the most celebrated musicians in music history, and one who represented the zeitgeist of his times, with his deep, soulful probings, consummate technical mastery, and his Eastern spiritualism. Curtis Amy was more of a blue collar, hard working musician, but his move from Texas to Los Angeles reminds me of the migration many Black people made from the South to West Coast cities, my father being one of them. I tend to think there is something in particular in the sound of people like Curtis Amy, Wilton Felder, and others who made that South to West move that calls my Dad back to mind for me more than any other music I hear and enjoy.

One thing I can say about Dad’s life, is that music was a constant in it, growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. When Dad was young he played around with several instruments. My Grandmother Leona bought him a Piano, on which he learned to pound out some Boogie Woogie, and then a Trumpet, for him to better play the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie. Dad played at them, but never got seriously disciplined enough to become a musician. No matter, music was still a huge part of his life anyway, on 78, 45 and 33 rpm records.

Dad joined the military in the late ’40s. He wanted to go into the Air Force to become a Pilot, and passed the Air Force test, but ended up going into the Army with one of his buddies who didn’t pass. His friends Parents vetoed his military aspirations, leaving Pops a 17 year old in the Army by himself. After he made it out of the Korean War, he joined Grandma Leona, His Aunt Mattie B, and several other relatives on the West Coast, first in Seattle, Washington, then in San Francisco.

The Bay Area in the ’50s was a vibrant West Coast extension of the “Chitlin circuit.” The West Coast of course does not have the cluster of big cities found on the Eastern seaboard, but The Black communities of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and their surrounding cities, as well as Seattle, were always tour stops for the national Black touring acts, due to their growing Black populations. In addition to that the Bay Area had a thriving Blues based music scene, centered in places like 7th Street in Oakland, and the Fillmore District in San Francisco.

At that particular time Dad was married to a special lady I call “Miss” Juanita. At first he lived with his mother Leona and her husband, Mr. Cliff, himself a musician, in San Francisco, but eventually he and Miss Juanita purchased a home in Menlo Park. Dad was attending school at San Jose State while working as a MUNI Bus Driver in the City, and then a Mailman.

Music was a huge part or his social life and leisure time. This was during the era of Hard Bop, and he built up a big collection of jazz, blues, classical, show tunes, R&B, and pop balladeer music. He also studied the Tenor Saxophone with a musician who sometimes subbed for the Duke Ellington orchestra. Sometimes he also M.C’d for nightclub acts, played percussion instruments, and did music reviews for the Sun-Reporter, a local Black newspaper. His career aspirations had shifted to Journalism and the Law by that time, but Music was still a constant thread through all he did.

I’m still not 100% sure of everything that led Dad to Liberia in 1959. I do know that he was very active in Civil Rights actions here in the Bay Area. This lead to him being a person watched by the Police. He told me of one final climatic fight with the cops, where an officer handcuffed him and tried to push him to the ground. Dad swung his handcuffed hands and cut the officer behind the ear. The Cop bled so much Dad was afraid he’d cut a major artery. After that he’d have trouble with the Police every time he went to the 49ers games at the old Kezar stadium.

I think the race based troubles of the times, Dad’s activism, and a sense of adventure all conspired to bring him to Africa. Some Bay Area natives who can still remember the ’50s sometimes get caught up in it’s relative integration. But there were still subtle forms of Jim Crow in existence at the time, which would come to full light a few years later when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Liberia was suggested by a West African transfer student. Africa as a whole was a great topic of interest among Black people in the ’50’s, an interest that would explode during the Black Consciousness era of the ’60s. More and more African nations had gained their independence throughout the decade and the old African American dreams of a dignified life in Africa were rekindled. Liberia was one of the original targets of those dreams, during the 19th Century. The African business student thought that Liberia would be a better country for my Father and Juanita to settle in. The basis of it was Liberia’s history as a country founded by American Blacks. The official language was English. The Constitution and flag were modeled on that of The United States. It even deeper than that, unlike the stories people generally hear about Africans, Liberians generally had a positive attitude about American Blacks. This was due to their history, but also to the steady stream of American Blacks going to Liberia over the years as soldiers, missionaries, Teachers and technical workers.

Liberia had several periods where it seemed a truly massive influx of Blacks would flow in from the Diaspora. Liberian officials were expecting this before the Civil War held up the prospects of freedom. Then during Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement, Liberia was the target of his repatriation schemes, until the Liberian government realized Garvey’s resettlement might mean a take over and loss of power for them. Liberia saw a great influx of American investment during and after World War II. It’s status as a Black Country in Africa with ties to America made it a common landing spot for American Black Teachers, trainers, missionaries and others. At one time during the ’70s, even The Black Hebrew Israelites were given refuge in Liberia before eventually settling in Israel.

The Hopkins family made a six month stop in Harlem with my great uncle Edward from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Dad told me his favorite album during that time was Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” featuring John Coltrane and another favorite, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on saxophone. I forget exactly why they were delayed so long in New York City, it might have been Visa problems, but by the time they got ready to board the boat to Liberia, all their funds had been depleted.

When Dad and Miss Jaunita got to Monrovia, they circulated well enough to get invited to President Tubmans inauguration. Another jazz favorite of Dad’s played there, the flautist Herbie Mann, who would make an album, “The Common Ground”, off his Liberian Hi-Life influences.

Although Dad went to Liberia to study the Law and be involved in various business activities, music was still a foundation. He was the M.C at an establishment called “The Playboy Lounge” (picking up the nickname “Playboy Hopkins), and ran another one called “The Tropical Hut.” He was also Music Appreciation lecturer at various High Schools in Monrovia. One of his biggest musical activities was serving as a DJ for the Voice of America’s “Sound of Jazz” program. One of the biggest perks of that gig was getting reels of the latest and clasic jazz releases and live performances. Eventually Dad and Miss Juanita got divorced, which is when he met my mom and they got married. But his love and appreciation for music continued on to the time I came around. He even promoted a disco-funk concert in Monrovia in 1979, bringing Brooklyn group, Crown Heights Affair to the E.J Roye building for a series of concerts coinciding with the OAU festival.

John Coltrane and Curtis Amy were two saxophonists he taught me about in the 1990s, both roughly around the same age as Dad and with very similar sensibilities. I know it really would have blew his mind to hear music that they recorded inspired by Liberia. Somehow, as much music of theirs as he had, their Liberia themed records escaped him. The fact that two musicians he admired were in some way inspired by the same country he was drawn to, shows that in some way, Liberia was meant for him, and other minds he admired were thinking along those lines as well. So I share these two songs in this blog , in memory of Dad, and as a tribute to Liberia.

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Filed under All That Jazz, Autobiographical Musings, Liberia/Africa

Riquespeaks : Looking Ahead to 2016….what’s in store

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2015 has been an eventful year both on this blog and in my life as a whole. The year was my first full one after having left Oakland and moving to a neighboring East Bay city, and I was extremely busy at work. My primary blogging outlet was on my friend Andre Grindle’s blog, Andresmusictalk, where I developed the “Anatomy of the Groove” column and encouraged several other developments on that blog. “Anatomy of The Groove” enabled me to do something that is one of my passions, write about and promote new good music, specifically in the real, of funky music. The other exciting development in my writing career was I began writing for a new online and print magazine, “Kwee, The Liberian Literary Journal.” My involvement with the Journal stemmed from blog postings that my readers here at riquespeaks enjoyed the most, several of my posts that dealt with pre war history in the country of Liberia, West Africa. These posts on Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Hugh Masekela were a heartfelt contribution from me to Liberian history, information my musical digging lead me to that I knew others would appreciate as well. The response my readers gave to them, sharing and reporting them lead to this exciting oppurtunity, writing for a magazine that aims to create and strengthen a literary culture for Liberians. I enjoy writing for “Kwee” because it’s a very creative assignment, and it involves my favorite part of writing, the resarch it takes to get the facts straight. The creativity comes from unearthing little known stories about Liberia and crafting them in a way so as to broaden the narrative, history and story of Liberia. It can be a very challenging task, but as such it’s also the most rewarding. It allows me to go beyond e typical bloggers obsession with stuff I like into something that is important to a larger sphere of people. As such, in three short years of blogging, my Liberia posts and articles at Kwee represent, my whole reason for doing this.

Being the loyal Scorpio I am though, I always dance with who brought me. riquespeaks Is still of the utmost importance to me because of the immediacy and freedom it offers me as a writer. I also dig the time bomb nature of blogs, how something I wrote two years ago can blow up out of nowhere, and totally beyond my control. I anticipate 2016 to be my busiest writing year yet. My activities at “Kwee” will continue, as I strive to refine my articles and continue telling the story of Liberia in the larger world. 2016 is an election year, and I plan to do more of my own brand of political commentary, focusing not so much on policies and numbers, but on the thoughts behind political events and what they say about us as a nation. You can also of course look forward to plenty of reviews of the music, books, and movies that I feel set new templates for Black/African creative expression in 2016, as well as retrospectives on some of my old favorites. I will continue the column I introduced this year “Music for the Next ONE”, which deals with contemporary, non ’70s funk music. Some artists who will be featured soon are XL Middleton, Anderson Paak, and I will also continue to deal with under the radar funk from the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s, maybe with more passion than before. My appreciation for funky songs in the past 25 years or so continues to grow as I realize how much funk we had in a time the Funk was downplayed as a genre. To that I will be adding a new column that will deal with those funk classics of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. Though I know records like “Brick House” and “Shining Star” were much enjoyed in their times, I think there is still more to be said about the big time funk. I’d like to collect some of these funk stories out there in one place, give my own impressions of the music, talk a little bit about the structure of these songs and their appeal musically, and discuss what their impact has been over the 50, 40, or 35 years they’ve been around. Including how they’ve been sampled, covered, or used in television and film. I also have many other things coming up, but I’ll let them develop before I speak on them. But here are a few things you will be able to read for sure on the blog this year:

“Ben Carson and Islam”: Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson made some remarks a few months ago about the possibility of a Muslim President that provided a teachable moment I felt America let drift off it’s radar screen. It’s far easier to show outrage, for or against, than to have a sensible discussion in America today. While I feel what Ben Carson said was unwise, I do feel it was based on a point of view about America that is legitimate. The only problem is when Dr. Carson points the finger at Muslims, he has three pointing back at American religious fundamentalists of all stripes. America missed a chance given to us by Dr. Carson’s comments to discuss religion, Democracy, and whether or not any religious fundamentalist, Christian or Muslim, can serve this nation and retain the individual liberty and freedom of choice that is supposed to be a part of this nations soul. I will kick start that conversation here.

“20 years of Funk”: Rickey Vincent’s seminal book, “Funk: The Music, People, and Rhythm of the One” will turn 20 years old in 2016. This book is the reason I blog and write about Funk. I cannot underestimate it’s importance for me. Now, Funk was always my favorite music. It took me a long time to appreciate ballads, and the synth pop dance records of my youth could only satisfy me up to a certain point. I always loved Hip Hop, but musically it has it’s limits as well. But until Rickey Vincent did his book, I had no proper language to put James Brown, P Funk, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, Grover Washington Jr, and Michael Jackson in the same stream of music. The industry would call one Soul, the other R&B, the other Hip Hop, some Jazz, all to the detriment of the understanding of “funk.” I knew the groove but I didn’t know it represented such a thorough cultural system, really the cultural breakthrough and attitude of the decade of the 1970s. My understanding has grown from there into finding funk “in all aisles of the record store”. Now some of my favorite funk songs come from artists who cut in many different genres. I thank Rickey for this understanding he blessed me with and I will celebrate it this coming year.

“Dad and two Jazz Visions of Liberia”: I did an article in “Kwee” about two jazz records dedicated to Liberia, by the tenor saxophonists Curtis Amy, and the great John Coltrane. Since the article in “Kwee” was for the public at large, I didn’t get as personal on how those two records remind me of Dad and his time in Liberia in particular and why they are so special personally. In 2016 I will write about that here.

Review of “Midnight”: I’ve always felt, since I first read “The Coldest Winter Ever” that Sister Souljah’s book cycle was a major work. On my last birthday, 11-11-15, Souljah released the novel that saw her beloved hero character, Midnight, end up in jail. I hesitate to review the Midnight books because I enjoy reading them so much. In this review I will explore why I feel Souljah’s wide international sweep, ethical vision for African people’s, and unique viewpoints on Manhood outweigh her preachiness and often times prosaic and stilted language. Souljah’s “Midnight” represents her critique of America, as well as her solutions for Black people in America. I never cease to be amazed by the thoroughness of her vision and critique and the almost scriptural life system she lays out in her “Midnight” books. It’s almost like the comprehensive cultural critique of her old group Public Enemy put into book form.

“Pharrell and the Art of Interpolation”: the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit shined a light on a creative technique that has always existed in Hip Hop (and music as a whole). Pharrell Williams has been a master in his musical career of taking the feeling of older pieces of music without electronically sampling them or copying them wholesale. This series will be a celebration of his music and his influences, as well a s either a possible defense, or further indictment, depending on your outlook.

“Its Time for A Bill Russell Statue in Oakland”: We all know Gertrude Stein’s famous Oakland quote, “there’s no there, there.” While that quote is almost always taken out of context, sometimes we try our damnedest to make it true in The Town it would seem. One of the problems is we don’t preserve or create enough landmarks to represent our cities rich history and potentials. In Bill Russell, we have the greatest winning player in NBA history. As such, Mr. Russell is also a symbol of the journey of the black community to Oakland during the second great migration, which provided Oakland with the dynamic Black population that defined the city for half a century. As a great example of sportsmanship, dedication, humanitarianism and achievement, Bill Russell is one of the greatest people to come through the Oakland public school system. Honoring him here would symbolize the achievements of the time period during which Oakland became the most diverse city in America and a city talked about all across the globe.

“Miss Veronica”: a tribute to a dear friend and mentor I lost in 2015.

There is much more in store but that is just a little bit to whet the palette. I’d like to wish my readers much success and happiness in the coming year, thank you for your support and make sure to check in with me in 2016!

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I Like the Sunrise : Duke Ellington’s “Liberian Suite.”

William V.S Tubman assumed the Presidency of the Republic of Liberia in January of 1944 with the end of World War 2 still over 18 months away. The nation was 3 years away from it’s Centennial, which was no meager accomplishment. The small nation with it’s delicately balanced population of repatriated peoples of African descent and Africans indigenous to that land had struggled to maintain it’s reason for being, black political independence, on an African map that featured a mere two shapes not administered by the English, French, Portugese, Dutch or Germans : Liberia and Ethiopia. And Ethiopia itself had just been mired in a tragic yet heroic battle with fascist Italy. Only Liberia and Hati existed as Black governed constitutional republics. image

Liberia’s position in this reshuffled deck of cards was a vital one that was growing in importance, with Firestone National Rubber already on year 18 of a 99 year lease by 1944. Because of that lease agreement and the low cost rubber it afforded the Allies, Liberia and her underpaid rubber tappers were a part of the American war effort just as surely as the soldiers on the battlefield and the industrial workers cranking out tanks, planes, guns and bombs in the repurposed American factories.

The weakness of the European world powers in the wake of the calamity would pave the way for the United States position as the dominant world power. The inability of these colonial powers to maintain their possessions would also pave the way for the anti colonial movement and the creation of new African states. President Tubman understood these forces and sought to take advantage of them in order to move Liberia forward.

Liberia’s position was unique, being more closely aligned to the new world power than any other African nation. For the preceding 100 years of Liberian independence this relationship produced little of tangible benefit, as the white supremacist guardians of power in the States had no interest whatsoever in assisting Black governance’s viability. Ironically, the new countries that had suffered the indignities of colonial domination would receive more in the way of roads, hospitals, schools, health care and education than Liberia ever would from the U.S.

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But President Tubman more than understood the game. He sought to invite U.S development not through the humanitarian missionary’s who had always rendered brave and selfless service to Liberia. He sought to open up Liberia to foreign business investment, which would sky rocket in the new post war business investment climate. Part of this out reach to Liberia’s “step mother”, the United States, would be directed at the sons and daughters of Africa in America. There is a famous Jet magazine with an open letter from President Tubman admonishing Black Americans to remember Africa. And for the 1947 centennial he would commission two great black artists to produce works to represent the history and the potential of the Republic, Melvin B Tolson, the famous black poet was commissioned to write an epic poem on the founding of Liberia he titled, “Libretto for Liberia.” Liberia would also commission a musical suite from a man who’d already been recognized as the most advanced composer and progressive practitioner of African derived musics in the world at that time, Edward Kennedy Ellington, the “Duke”.

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The Duke was already recognized as the most original and diverse Black composer in American history to this point, and was also beginning to be recognized as the greatest and most original American composer of all time, a position that increasingly became chapter and verse as his career progressed. His music was seen as a totally original combination of Afro Diasporic rhythms, Black traditional melodies, Afro forms like the the Blues and the rhythmic vamp, blended with European harmonies, and forms like the musical suite. Yet, even his advanced harmonies often contained notes of dissonance, and it seemed everything he did musically, including his percussive piano style, retained a strong “Negro”, African origin. By the time he received the commission to do “The Liberian Suite”, he’d already been in the music industry almost 25 years, with his hits, “It Don’t Mean A Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Black Beauty”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Creole Love Call”, “Caravan”, “Don’t Get Around Much”, “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”, Take the A Train”, and many more already staples of jazz and pop music, as well as American life.

Ellington in particular had a reputation for the specific ability of his music to represent African American life, from the disembarkment from the slave ships, on through cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and rice fields, through the black triumph of the Civil War on to the position of Black people in the cities in the modern era. His titles and music , “Black Beauty”, “Harlem Air Shaft”, “My People”, “Black, Brown and Beige”, “Drum is a Woman”, Creole Rhapsody”, very specifically covered topics of Black pride and what was then called “Negro life.” Ellington was what was known in the ’20s as a “race man”, an individual who had devoted his talents and voice to the sophisticated, deliberate progress of the Negro race, all over the world. He had been raised with this strong sense of racial pride by his parents in Washington D.C, where there was a strong educated black community even in the years after the Civil War. During his 1920s residency at the Cotton Club his orchestra provided the music for scandalous dance shows featuring lightly tanned female dancers doing dances in jungle outfits and settings for Jazz Age white patrons. He came up with an imaginative style called “Jungle Music” by some, featuring the powerful growls of trumpeter Bubber Miley. This music with it’s reimagining of Africa was hailed as a major musical innovation.

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Make no mistake, getting Ellington to compose music for the Liberian centennial was a major coup for the nation that deserves more attention. Liberia was getting possibly the freshest and most original composer recording music at that time. It was also however, a special opportunity for the Duke. Ellington premiered his extended suite “Black, Brown, and Beige” at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and it was met with condescending criticism, mainly of the sort that jazz was not a music suited to demanding longer forms. “The Liberian Suite” would be not only Ellington’s first international commission, but also his first commission from a Government of any sort. The suite was performed at Carnegie Hall twice, but to my knowledge has yet to be performed in Liberia itself.

The suite begins with the beautiful hymn like ballad “I Like the Sunrise”, performed by the Ellington bands velvet voiced Baritone, Al Hibbler. The song was meant by Ellington to invoke the yearning for freedom and independence of an enslaved person in America, with the land of the rising sun, Africa and the east, being the symbol and focus of hope. This song is therefore a theme song for those hoping to find freedom in Liberia, which if we study history closely, includes many more people than the Americo Liberians of the 19th century. It also includes tribes like the Fanti, Mandingo and other tribes, West Indians, many people from other parts of Africa during the times of colonial domination, and many other Black Americans who came to Liberia in the almost 170 years since it’s original founding. Ellington is writing of Liberia as a land of hope, promise and freedom from soul draining bondage.

The song begins with a beautiful trumpet obbligato and features quiet restrained backing as Hibbler sings of the promise of Liberia. This song has also been interpreted over the years by people such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

The rest of the suite is instrumental, organized around 5 “Dances'”. Ellington here uses the motif of rhythm and dancing as both a vital connection to Africa, her music, and the idea of freedom contained in the Liberian story. The music is a combination of bluesy themes, solo’s from his band members, and Afro Diasporic rhythms channeled through Latin America and the Caribbean. My personal favorite is “Dance No. 5” which has the most infectious, funky bass figure of the whole piece.

“The Liberian Suite” is a unique musical accomplishment for Liberia, Duke Ellington, and the African diaspora as a whole. Here a small black nation, as old as a long lived human, recognized and commissioned an extended work from an American Black artist who’d go on to be recognized as one of the greats of all time. Liberia proved here to be a sponsor of black talent from all over the world, it was a small symbolic glimpse of the grand dreams the nation has always nurtured. “The Liberian Suite” then should by no means be confined to the margins of history, but it is up to Liberians to embrace it and make it their own. For instance, it would really be an honor to have Wynton Marsalis, an artist who considers himself the heir to Duke’s musical legacy, perform this suite with his Jazz At the Lincoln Center Orchestra at a gala affair in Monrovia in the near future. It would also deepen the piece if it’s performed in collaboration with African musicians, as Marsalis did with The Ghanaian musician Yacub Addey in his “Congo Square” suite. It would also be a point of pride if this suite were added to the music curriculum in Liberian schools, it could be studied and integrated with indigenous music to form a kind of classical musical language for Liberia. Because my fondest hope of all is that the Liberian bicentennial, Liberia itself would have produced it’s own Duke Ellington to compose music that reflects the nation and where it will be in 2047. That Liberian musician will be faced with a great task I hope they are well prepared for, both honoring the nation in sound and following in the foot steps of the great Duke Ellington!

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Riquespeaks on SoulSchool TV: Calvin Lincoln and Riquespeaks salute Joe Sample and the Crusaders

Last week was an excellent week for me as I taped my first appearance on SoulSchool Television, which aired in Vallejo, California as well as around the world wide web last Friday. The show was also repeated all weekend. Taping the show last Monday really started my week with a bang because it was fulfillng a dream I’d had for quite some time. I have already ran it down here on how viewing SoulSchool in my teens was something that helped me along the road of deeper music appreciation. Between my parents, Rickey Vincents funk book, my older hip hop heroes like M.C Hammer and Chuck D, and SoulSchool, I was able to escape the vapors of negative thinking and violence that was being sold in much of the pop music of that time period.

And there couldn’t have been a more apt subject to make my first appearance talking about. I’m sure many of you reading this are already aware of the passing of the great Joe Sample, keyboardist and founding member of the Crusaers, formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders. The Crusaders are a group who’s music I’ve always dug, being exposed to it in the home. But as the years have passed, I’ve found out more and more how essential they’ve been to music as session players. Members of the group played with Billy Joel, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Hugh Masekela, Hues Corporation, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Smith, Carole King, Barry White, Seals & Croft and many many other artists. That list puts them up there as a truly dominating force of the 1970s music for me.

The Crusaders anthemic 1979 song “Street Life” is a landmark in particular for me. I grew up hearing the bright, brassy voice of Randy Crawford testifying, “That’s all that’s left for me.” When I was a kid, that song was some other kind of adult business. It was funky, bluesy, hip, jazzy, with a high gloss sheen and notes of sadness at the core when you licked away the sweet coating. It was one of my fathers favorite records, and looking back I could see why. In 1979 my dad was a 48 year old African American lawyer, naturalized as a citizen of the Republic of Liberia, where he’d lived for 20 years. He was on his second marriage and had five kids, unaware he had one yet on the way. But for me personally, I’ve always associated the world weary vibe of “Street Life” with where Liberia was in 1979. ’79 turned out to be a pivotal year in Liberian history, with a major civil disturbance known as the Rice Riots occuring that April when the President attempted to raise the price of rice, the staple food, during the midst of the world wide late ’70s recession and commodities squeeze.

What was going on however was more than a riot over the price of rice. It was a full blown revolution over the long years of rule by the descendants of the African American founders of Liberia. It was led by well educated young Liberians, many with a background partially in the ruling class and partically among the native people. These young men were schooled in the United States and Europe and witnessed the upheavels of the ’60s and ’70s and wanted to bring similar liberations to their home country. They began to question things like why their country only had one strong political party, why there was a boatload of money coming in from foreign concessions and yet poverty was rampant, and why the government ministers were the richest people in the land.

At the same time, the nation was prettying itself up to host the OAU, Organization of African Unity Conference, and also recieved a visit from President Jimmy Carter in that same year.

Mom and Dad were there watching the whole thing go down. My mother always told me a story about how the soldiers had set up a blockade during the riots. My father and my older brother George had gone to run some errand, Dad deeming it only safe for the two of them to do so under the conditions the country was in. She said something to the effect of Dad having moved a blockade and the soldiers harrasing them, until he flashed his credentials as an ex member of the Port Security, which was one of his first jobs when he got to Liberia.

My parents had the foresight to begin preparing to leave Liberia very soon after that. My grandmother, Ms. Leona Birden was falling into ill health here in San Francisco. Not to mention the fact that my brothers and sisters school fees at the American Consolidated School, the finest school in Liberia, were spiralling out of control. All of this and the political trouble gave him the impetus to get up and bounce, my family left a year after the Riots, in April of 1980. A week after they arrived, Dad is laying in bed in Oakland and he gets a phone call. “Your President just died”, he was told. “Who, Carter?” Dad replied. “Carters not your PResident, I’m talking about Tolbert, man.”

There is something about the mixture of celebration, joy and pathos in “Street Life” that represents 1979, what happened in Liberia, and also holds cautionary notes for what would soon happen in the black communities of America with the crack epidemic firing up a few years after that. The Crusaders, OG’s from Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas, could have told many a young brother where that broad and spacious road led. Chic’s “Good Times” has similar notes of pathos in it, with lyrics that speak of “A rumor has it/its getting late/time marches on/you just cant change your fate.”

So music from 1979 always has a strong place in my heart and mind. When I hear a “Shake Your Body Down”, or a “I wanna be Your Lover”, or a “Street Life”, those funky, funky, joyful records, I always think about the Babylonians or Nero partying on the eve of their destructions. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tommorow we may die.” But “Street Life” is a record that mourns just as much as it celebrates.

There is a tape I’ve desperately been trying to find among my dad’s music collection I hope to share with everybody as soon as I can find it. It’s a tape from Liberia in early 1980. A young girl calls in to the radio station and requests “Street Life.” The radio announcer, in typical African “it takes a village” fasion, chides her, “You be in the street huh? What you know ’bout street life.” The girl said, “nothing, I just like the song.” Me and Pops would always fall out laughing when we heard that. It was so Liberian, and so full of the old school concern for the young. The same thing folks here talk about when they talk about the neighbors discipling you when you did bad as well as the parents.

“Street Life” was a song Joe Sample wrote, and he also played on a version Herb Alpert cut of it that very same year. I will always thank him for it and his tremendous contribution to his times. Sample and the Crusaders didn’t let jazz critics set their sound, they always let the people and the audience be the barometer of what they were doing. And they were able to touch many people because of that.

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Hugh Masekela and Swinging Seventies Monrovia : Liberian Stories 2

The section of Hugh Masekela’s epic 2004 biography, “Still Grazing”, which takes his wildin’ journey through music, sex, drugs, politics and life to 1970’s Monrovia, Liberia, is Section III, entitled “Africa.” Masekela’s return to the African continent found him at a bit of a crossroads in his journey. After leaving his native South Africa in the early ’60s, Masekela had married and divorced the great singer Miriam Makeba, released albums that flopped, studied music in New York City, met and be friended most of the great names of BeBop, Hard Bop & Soul Jazz, made love to scores of attractive women, and become both a role model and a patron of young South African musicians and students in exile in the United States. In 1968, Masekela’s recording of South African composer Philemon Hou’s song, “Grazing in the Grass” went to #1 on the pop charts, becoming an international smash. Masekela promptly got to enjoying his success, but he was not able to follow it up with a consistent stream of hits, as his personal life and partying began to dissipate his momentum. He had brief marriages that failed, consumed copious amounts of cognac, cocaine, weed and opium, and gave the world protest music after making them dance. It was the writer Quincy Troupe, who would go on to write the autobiography of one of Masekela’s heroes, Miles Davis, who suggested he go to West Africa to check out the post colonial growth of the continent. Masekela , ever the adventurer, a master at creating a life wherever he found himself, took him up on it, and it gave him a greater education in Africa than he’d ever had before.

Masekela was not exactly an expert on Africa at the time of this move, although he was one of the musicians most highly identified with Africa in the western mind. In his native South Africa he’d grown up a fan of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, of swing and bebop, which would only intensify when he traveled to the United States as a student. He was much more familiar at the time with the culture of African Americans than he was that of his neighboring African countries, many of which were still submerged in colonial dominion during his youth. The apartied government also had a part to play in this, as it could not afford to have the ideas and the spirit of freedom thriving in other African nations to mingle and inspire that already growing movement at home. People of African descent were seperated from South Africans, classified as “foreign natives.” When Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee went to South Africa to film “Cry, the Beloved Country”, they were listed as servants of the white director and kept away from the white population. “Isolating ethnic South Africans from Africans born outside the country drove a cultural and pshychological wedge between them that still exists today in the form of the most despicable xenophobia imaginable”, Masekela writes.

Masekela’s ex wife, Miriam Makeba, facillitated his pilgrimage to Africa just as she did that of Nina Simone. It was Masekela’s intention to form a group when he arrived, taking advantage of the new music being created on the continent. His first stop was Guinea, where Makeba and her husband Kwame Toure, known during the Civil Rights Movement as Stokely Carmichael. Guinea was a French West African country, dominated by Muslims, which had a communist governmental structure under President Sekou Toure. Toure was a gracious host, even showing tolerance toward Masekela and other artists marijuana smoking. Yet, in short order, Masekela began to spend an equal amount of time in a Monrovia which featured “round the clock bars, a thriving international tourist trade, and American currency.” This Liberia also possessed a typical enticement for musicians :”some of the most beautiful women I’d seen since my return to Africa.”

Masekela was invited by President Tolbert to Liberia to raise money for his “Higher Heights” project. “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” was one of the trademark programs of President Tolbert, taking over after the long reign of President Tubman. The program involved a fundraiser called “Rally Time”. The Makeba/Masekela concert was to be a fundraiser for that program. Masekela said they turned the football stadium out, with him playing several encores of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept folks dancing. Miriam Makeba had to repreat her smash hit “Pata Pata” several times for the Liberian audience on that day.

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Masekela was put up in a suite at the Ducor International Hotel, “on Monrovia’s highest hill, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Ducor Hotel and its fabulousness was one I’ve heard many stories about, both from my Liberian parents and even from people in the Bay Area who had visited pre war Liberia. Masekela also mentions several prominent Liberians of the time I grew up conscious of, everyone from Cecil Dennis, to “Chu Chu” Horton, who was a close friend of Masekela, to finance minister Steve Tolbert.

One of the things my mother was always proud of that rarely gets spoken is how much aid Liberia gave to black South Africans in the anti Apartied struggle. In this particular instance, Masekela was granted Liberian citizenship and a passport after his performances by President Tolbert. This was very crucial to Masekela at this time because after his defection from his country and his outspokenness against the oppresion occuring there, he was a man without a country to a large degree. Tolberts bestowal of Liberian citizenship on Masekela made it easier for him to travel and move about in the world.

Masekela quickly settled into the unique and bustling pre war Monrovia scene. He describes a city that never went to sleep, where people partied around the clock. He also had a large number of South African friends around him there, including the composer of his biggest hit, Philemon Hou. He also noted the conditions that would eventually lead to the calamnity Liberia would soon face, the deep social cleaveges between the descendants of the freed blacks from the United States and the indigenous African population. But at the same time he and other people observed this class division, it by no means stopped them from enjoying what he and other Africans of the time refered to as “Small America.”

The women he met there didn’t ask for taxi fare, like the Congolese women who’d come up disadvantaged under colonialism. The women he met had their own cars and jobs. Despite the class differences between the old “settler” families and the rest of the population, Masekela noticed that the country was informal and everybody knew the big shots, because rather than isolating themselves, they associated freely with everybody. Despite what he felt was oppresive, he met a society that seemed to have a sense of unity as well. He also made note of Liberian slangs such as referring to everybody as “my man!” or calling females “my child”, which makes me think of my dearly departed grandmother, and my dad, who’d always use “my man.”

While traveling to Nigeria, Congo, and several other African countries in search of band members, Masekela would split his time etween Monrovia and Conkaray, Guinea. While Guinea was a country of Islam and strict Marxism, Monrovia featured an African version of Westren freedom. Despite the difference in style however, he saw Toure and Tolbert as very similar, one capitalist, one communist, both autocratic.

Masekela was very influential in one of the greatest symbolic moments in the history of the African diaspora, the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, in Kinsasha, Zaire, and Liberian money was key in making it happen. Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President Tolbert, and finance minister, a man reputed to be Liberia’s richest self made man through his involvement in the fishing industry, provided $2 million to make the music concert happen. That music concert was featured a few years ago in the film “Soul Power”, and featured luminaries such as James Brown, BB King, The Crusaders, and Miriam Makeba. Amazingly, the Rumble In the Jungle, where Muhammed Ali proved himself once and for all the “greatest of all time” by defeating the heavily favored Foreman, was made possible by Liberian money, or should I say, Liberian U.S dollars. Tolbert never recouped his investment due to the trickery of the promoters and also ended up dying in a plane crash.

The African section of Masekela’s book is full of other interesting incidents in Liberia, adventures with ChuChu Horton, stories of his South African friends studying in Liberia, fights in Krutown, and general rabble rousing and hell raising. One of the most poignant however, is when he brought his mother to Liberia. Masekela had not seen his mother since he left South Africa, and he brought her to the U.S and then to meet his family and see his house in Liberia on the beach. She had the time of her life, and she was even able to meet President Tolbert. This was very special to her, because her own government in South Africa treated her as a non human, but in a black African country, she was able to meet the President due to the importance of her son. “My mother was very touched and inspired by the fact she had dined with an African President, something that was utterly impossible in her own country.” And that is something that I believe Liberia provided for many within the African diaspora, from parts of Africa and the New World as well, an example and hope to one day enjoy the self governance Liberia had been struggling to maintain since her founding.

Masekela’s time in Liberia ended as many people’s, when Seargent Samuel Doe took power in 1980. His wife and child remained there for some time, but Masekela ran out of the country when he was instructed to go see Doe at the Executive Mansion, knowing he’d been friends with so many people in the old order.

“Still Grazing” was a very important book for me personally. My family left Liberia shortly before the coup. I saw pictures of Liberia in the ’60s and ’70s and still have a great deal of family that lives there. The names I encountered in the book, I was surprised to find I knew all of them as if I was there. It seems somehow my parents stories about Liberia had seeped deeper into me than I’d realized. They always spoke of Liberia in joyful terms, as if they’d had the times of their lives living there and would never find such joy anywhere else. But for me, I’d never quite read a history of the particular times they’d lived in, especially that time period of the 1970s that led up to the war. “Grazing in the Grass” is an important book for Liberians to read, both young and old. It’s one thing to have a Liberian testify to how things used to be in the country, but it’s a whole other thing for a person who was a guest and naturalized citizen to speak to it. Though Liberia had its social and economic problems as governments and people do, it also had and has something very special. “Still Grazing” was the first book that captured the history of 1970s Liberia for me in a personal style and it’s as valuable for that as it is for its portraits of South Africa, the 1960s music scene and Hugh Masekela’s incredible life.

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Filed under All That Jazz, Book Recommendations, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")