Three syllables – stress on the first one – Ma-ta-na. The multi-talented artist has been an obsession of mine in the last couple months (scroll down for my album review of Mississippi Moonchile, the latest installment in the Coin Coin series). True to form, I was about to say goodbye to bloggy land– keeping amateurish culture blogs is so 2013! – and bang, it hit me. Matana Roberts. I’m so thankful the composer, vocalist, alto saxophonist and self-professed sound quilter is giving me a chance to bring wynt into 2014. That’s how empowering art can be.
Having given a good listen through Coin Coin Chapter 1 over the weekend I feel somewhat recharged and eager to hammer in the message, dear readers: Matana Roberts is a great artist, a soulful experimentalist that should be known beyond the jazz/improv sphere. Constructed like a suite, Coin Coin 1 explores the ongoing consequences of slavery in present-day America through Robert’s deeply ingrained sense of storytelling and compositional prowess. For an artist whose roots are anchored in that traumatic heritage, I’m stunned and moved by her ability to stitch together the narrative of African American history without sounding preachy or pandering to the lure of the oneoff concept album. Built around the iconic figure of Marie-Thérèse Métoyer – a freed slave and family lore role model “[she] learned about before [she] learned about Harriet Tubman” (Interview in The Wire 356), the suite evokes a string of women’s slave narratives skillfully set to a variegated sound tapestry including Robert’s sing-speak, gut-wrenching shrieks, searing alto saxophone lines and a 15-piece orchestra that reinforces the album’s spiritual aura. It’s fairly rare these days to hear music that is at once fiercely political, artistically challenging and emotionally powerful. The sheer scope of this projected 12-part series is mind-boggling and it speaks to Robert’s urge to connect the scars of the past to its ongoing echoes in today’s American society. Robert’s blistering sax on the opening “Rise” sets the tone for an album that acknowledges its jazz and free improv roots just as it nods unapologetically to the Armageddon chamber rock originated by Godspeed on the Canadian Constellation label. For that matter, Roberts has contributed to the band’s Yanki UXO (2002) and Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra’s Kollaps (2010) and here the use of a simmering pandemonium of violin and electric guitars building and waning as the story unfolds somewhat recall the trademark soundscapes of the label. However, there is inevitably a more Afro-American-centric agenda here and a clear sense that Roberts has gained invaluable experience from her time with the 40-year-old Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) arts and education collective, which has been an influential fixture for African-American artists striving to make artistic statements rooted in political, open-ended artforms. Here is an artist trawling through family archives documenting slave auctions where her ancestors were sold like cattle and building on that background to make a work of art that is by turns chilling, entrancing and, yes, uplifting. Like any good work or art, this one is multi-layered, showing off Robert’s painstaking attention to form and structure. The devastating shriek on the second track, Pov Titi, is the ideal introduction to Robert’s radical griot-style song-speech: “I was born a child of the moon, in the year of seventeen hundred and forty-two…hustling to survive so that others may strive to be something more than me”, she intones over a descending bass line soon fleshed out by the swelling orchestra.
Astonishingly, Robert’s diverse vocals, a rotating mix of rhapsodic chant, epic spoken word poetry and melodic fragments doubling instrumental lines are so galvanizing that it alleviates the human tragedy she’s relating. That cathartic effect percolates through the album like a healing balm working its way into open wounds. In one particularly affecting piece evoking the bidding in of women slaves, “Libation For Mr Brown: Bid Em in”, Robert’s obsessive refrain works like a soothing mantra as she impersonates the auctioneer reading out the characteristics of the woman to be sold. As she gathers strength and defies her oppressors, a steady beat settles in and Matana vocalizes a line to get the bass going, followed by piano, drums and a rising canon tailing off into the brooding sax.
What I find remarkable about Robert’s art is that the complexity of relating the African-American experience is reflected in the diversity of musical ideas she layers together. The contrasting mixed media mediums she taps into, which seem to take on even more power in a live situation, reflect an artist pushing her voice forward – “I am Matana, I am Matana, I am Matana”, she repeats on the simply titled “I am” – to give voice and empower others. Rarely has experimental music sounded so immediately accessible and innovative. Thankfully, Matana Roberts has more albums in the works. An exhilarating prospect.
On Constellation: Coin Coin Chapter 1: Gens de couleur libres (2011), Coin Coin Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile (2013)
Personnel on Coin Coin Chapter 1:
Matana Roberts: reeds/voice ; David Ryshpan: piano/organ ; Nicolas Caloia: cello ; Ellwood Epps: trumpet ; Brian Lipson: bass trumpet ; Fred Bazil: tenor sax ; Jason Sharp: baritone sax ; Hraïr Hratchian: doudouk ; Xarah Dion: prepared guitar ; Marie Davidson: violin ;Josh Zubot: violin ; Lisa Gamble: musical saw ; Thierry Amar: bass ;Jonah Fortune: bass ;David Payant: drums/vibes
Mississippi Moonchile still streams for free here (The Wire magazine) but get the nicely packaged LP if you can.
Also worth checking out: The Chicago Project (Central Control, 2007)