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Valerie June Hockett
2021 Andrews McMeel Publishing
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Amanda Gorman
2021 Viking Books
A couple of rising poets are making their mark on the literary scene worldwide with new books that give us renewed hope for the future of the written word, in this generation and beyond.

One of those poets, Valerie June Hockett, is already a popular singer-songwriter well versed in the art of writing lyrics to music in the American folk-roots field. Her Appalachian twang on audio tracks, however, is only distantly audible on the printed pages of her debut book, Maps for the Modern World.

Hockett’s poems in this collection provide a spiritual roadmap of sorts, lighting the way forward to a place of mindfulness, togetherness and possibilities in a fracturing material world.

In “Sacredness of All Things,” she writes:

Give thanks to each and every being that has
Come to teach and celebrate at your side
Pay attention to where you sit in a room
The way you dress your body
Chew your food
Breathe in air
Each moment is a different breath
You will never breathe the same air twice
Sitting in the same chair
Eating the same fruit
Biting from the same exact curve of its succulent skin
With the same thought on your mind.

This is your time.

Dealing with the social and political realities of today is part of her roadmap, as she writes in “Responsibilities after Voting”:

So who holds the pen?
Is it women, or is it men?
Or is it you,
Yes, meaning you
In the shoes you’re standing in?
Tell me who…with every motion
All in action
Without the news as a distraction
Holds the pen?

The poems in Maps for the Modern World are divided by spiritual theme, with introductory prose notes by Hockett preceding each section. Uniquely, each poem title comes at the end, not the beginning, of the piece. Sketches drawn by the author herself also accompany every poem throughout the 150-page book.

The life realities of being Black and a woman from the southern USA are confronted, most notably in “Ode to Fuckin’ Feelin’” (by far, the best poem title in the book) and in “Slave Mind Blues”: “History can make you a prisoner / What world do you wish to see? / Live there.”

The second poet, Amanda Gorman, shares that journey as a Black woman writer in America, but comes at her poetic craft from a markedly different yet no less inspiring angle.

Call Us What We Carry is a collection of poems touching mostly on the coronavirus pandemic and how it upturned people’s lives. The book, her second published work, is a poetic hodgepodge of social commentary, historical marker and stylistic wordplay.

Gorman is best known to the world as the youth poet laureate of the United States who, at age 22, gave the official poem recital at the inauguration of U.S. president Joe Biden. That beautiful poem is included in this book, but it is only a part of it.

In “What We Did in the Time Being,” Gorman writes of surviving a public health crisis:

We grasped our loved ones
By the slash of a screen,
Felt ourselves Zoombies,
Faces trapped in a prison of a prism.
The petty zoo[m] as it were.
& what could we have done differently?
We only have one way to not die.

Part and parcel of the American pandemic story is the racial justice protests that erupted in the wake of the death of an African American man, George Floyd, at the knee of a white police officer, which Gorman covers in her poem “Fury & Faith”:

Black lives matter.
No matter what.
Black lives are worth living,
Worth defending,
Worth every struggle.
We owe it to the fallen to fight,
But we owe it to ourselves to never stay kneeling
When the day calls us to stand.

In “The Miracle of Morning,” Gorman writes of the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, after the worst seemed over:

We see a dad with a stroller taking a jog.
Across the street, a bright-eyed girl chases her dog.
A grandma on a porch fingers her rosaries.
She grins as her young neighbor brings her groceries.

While we might feel small, separate & all alone,
Our people have never been more closely tethered.
The question isn’t
if we can weather this unknown,
how we will weather this unknown together.

So, on this meaningful morn, we mourn & we mend.
Like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.

As a budding wordsmith — and one who calls Harvard University her alma mater — Gorman has a keen, instinctive understanding of the power of the written word as an expression of the soul. In this book, she bounces similar-sounding words off each other and even fashions the physical appearance of some poems into the shape of Planet Earth, a whale, a slave ship, the U.S. Capitol building and so on.

In an act of historical ventriloquy that may strike some critical readers as overstepping bounds, Gorman inserts her own poetry onto the actual reproduced diary pages of an African American soldier during World War I in the early 1900s, when an influenza pandemic was raging around the world.

In the book’s title and penultimate poem, “What We Carry,” the author stirringly ties it all together:

The truth is,
One globe, wonder-flawed.
Here’s to the preservation
Of a light so terrific.
The truth is, there is joy
In discarding almost everything—
Our rage, our wreckage,
Our hubris, our hate,
Our ghosts, our greed,
Our wrath, our wars,
On the beating shore.
We haven’t any haven
For them here. Rejoice, for
What we have left
Behind will not free us,
But what we have left
Is all we need.
We are enough,
Armed only
With our hands,
Open but unemptied,
Just like a blooming thing.
We walk into tomorrow,
Carrying nothing
But the world.

In these new heartfelt books of poetry by two rising poets, Valerie June Hockett and Amanda Gorman, the world of writing is in good hands for the future. Long may they continue to sing their songs on the printed page, and in doing so, share the human experience with a world so desperately in need of hope and healing.
音楽 music
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Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra
The greatest living player of the West African kora stringed instrument is Toumani Diabaté of Mali, and for this outing the maestro joins up with a western symphony orchestra for a live concert — a historical first for any kora player in the world.

The orchestral arrangements for Diabaté’s half-dozen tunes on this new album, Kôrôlén — recorded live at the Barbican Centre in London, England in 2008 — are sublime, breathtaking and in soulful sync.

The collaboration is pulled off surprisingly well, considering the staid, immutable nature of a western orchestra and the fluid, flowing nature of the kora. One might expect that the sheer volume of the 30-piece London Symphony Orchestra would also have washed over the delicate-sounding kora and Diabaté’s six-member acoustic band. But that is not the case here at all.

On “Moon Kaira” (above audio clip), Diabaté on the 21-string kora and Malian virtuoso Fode Lassana Diabaté on balafon lead the way, punctuated by the orchestra’s horn and string sections in just the right places. The original African spirit of the piece shines magnificently.

Diabaté opens the track “Mama Souraka” with improvisational flourishes that show just why he is such a respected griot or oral storyteller on the kora, an ancient instrument that stands unique in the world as a combination of harp and lute played over a double-bridge.

The vocalist of the group, Kasse Mady Diabaté, displays his chops on the closing track “Mamadou Kanda Keita,” the only tune on the CD featuring a singer. Other players in the band include Fanta Mady Kouyaté on guitars, Ganda Tounkara on the ngoni stringed instrument, and percussionist Fode Kouyaté on calabash and tama drums — all top-class musicians in Africa.

On the British side, London Symphony Orchestra conductor Clark Rundell does an admirable job of holding it all together. Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner, the arrangers of each composition by Diabaté on this album, deserve credit for respecting Diabaté’s musical vision and helping it to soar in a live setting.

If there is any drawback to this recording, it is that it clocks in at about 45 minutes, which feels much too short for a landmark musical undertaking. Let us hope this is just the beginning of many more such unions to come.

This album is being released by the London-based World Circuit, a record label that boasts of an impressive catalog of Cuban and west African music selections (one of which, a team-up of the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Nigerian afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, is a must-have).

Diabaté has done more than probably any other African musician to bring the kora to the world, collaborating over the years with leading musicians from Africa, Europe and beyond.

But it is this recording, Kôrôlén (meaning “ancestral” in the Mandinka language), that marks the first time for the kora to share a live concert stage with a western orchestra, and the resulting fusion of the two classical traditions both inspires and uplifts.

The background behind how this live recording came to be is as intriguing as the music itself, and well worth a watch.

In the hands of a master musician like Toumani Diabaté, the kora, backed up here by a western orchestra, has some beautiful things to say and stories to tell. This new release is all the evidence anyone needs of that. Check out all tracks of this album for free on the World Circuit label’s YouTube page — if you are ready to hear some of the best collaborative classical music around.
映画 film
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Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, director
2021 120 min.
An overlooked chapter of African American cultural history is reclaimed with this outstanding documentary film about a music festival held in Harlem, New York City in the summer of 1969 that featured a Who’s Who of Black performing artists of the day.

Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson and many more graced the stage of the Harlem Cultural Festival over the course of six outdoor concerts in two months at a park in Harlem. Admission to the public was free.

The footage assembled for this two-hour audio/visual extravaganza sat mostly unused in storage for the last half-century — until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-leader of the American hip hop band The Roots, made it his personal mission to have the 40 hours of old videotape digitally restored and edited down to tell the story of the long-forgotten festival.

And what a story it is. Organized at the time by Harlem-based singer and promoter Tony Lawrence and captured on celluloid by television producer Hal Tulchin, the Harlem Cultural Festival packed Mount Morris Park (today Marcus Garvey Park) with an estimated 50,000 concertgoers each show.

The assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the year before in 1968 and the burning of cities across the United States that resulted were still heavy in the air. Seeking to avoid a repeat of that scenario in 1969, the powers that be in uptown and downtown New York City wanted to stage a major musical event that would channel that energy of rage into something positive and less riotous.

Divided by musical theme — blues, jazz, gospel, Motown, Latin — each concert of the festival series brought together the leading artists of the music world, many of whom were dominating the radio airplay and record sales charts that year. Stevie Wonder, at age 19, wows the audience in Summer of Soul with his ebullience on drums, keyboards and vocals. (He gets the hilarious last word in the movie as well.)

There was the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing the gospel number “Oh Happy Day” that had soared up the pop charts a couple years before, and The Staple Singers with their infectious blend of R&B, gospel and soul. Singer David Ruffin, formerly of The Temptations, and Gladys Knight & the Pips represented Motown well at the festival.

In the film Mahalia Jackson, the matron saint of gospel music, and Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers team up for a spine-tingling duet of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” backed by the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra & Choir and joined by Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had been with MLK in his last moments just a year earlier.

Who else was there? Many of the artists dominating the top of the pop charts that year, like South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela with his ubiquitous instrumental tune “Grazing in the Grass” and the vocal group The 5th Dimension with their smash hit “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In”.

If the San Francisco-based Sly and the Family Stone came to the Harlem Cultural Festival intending to conquer the hearts and minds of the younger generation with the band’s eclectic brand of psychedelicized rock and soul, they succeeded. (Sly Stone and company would go on a week or so later to steal the show at the mostly white hippie-attended Woodstock festival in upstate New York.) The band was unstoppable in the summer of ’69.

Música latina has its high moments in Summer of Soul with a couple of master conga players. Mongo Santamaria of Cuba jams on the Herbie Hancock-penned tune “Watermelon Man,” and Ray Barretto, a Nuyorican native from neighboring Spanish Harlem, appeals for racial unity in his song “Together”: “We got to do it together before it’s too goddamn late!”

There was B.B. King and his guitar Lucille, showing the crowd just why he retained the crown of king of the blues. There was jazz flutist Herbie Mann with an all-star band that included Roy Ayers on vibraphone and Sonny Sharrock on electric guitar.

Then, there was the indomitable singer/songwriter Nina Simone, pulling no punches with her songs “Backlash Blues” and “Are You Ready,” the latter being a poetic call for Black action and change, as she held the audience in the palm of her hand.

And kicking off the whole jam was the psychedelic soul band The Chambers Brothers with a tribute to Harlem, “Uptown,” that was written by the young, up-and-coming funk diva Betty Mabry, who was that summer living in New York City with her then-husband, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

It was a festival of stars, to be sure, but arguably the real stars of the Harlem Cultural Festival concert series were the masses of Black audience members themselves, with their beautiful faces and fashions and diversity captured on camera for posterity.

The Apollo 11 moon landing by U.S. astronauts took place during the run of the Harlem Cultural Festival in summer 1969, and director Thompson weaves some news clips of the landmark lunar event into the concert narrative. Audience members at the Harlem festival were mostly unimpressed with the goings on at the moon, rightly wondering why some of that NASA money wasn’t being spent instead on African American needs right here on Earth.

All the music and the performances in the movie, as great as they are, have a wider social and political context. Director Thompson understands this, and effectively ties it together: the rise in Black pride and identity, Black power and the Black Panthers in 1969, and how that in turn affected the music that was being made. More than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, Summer of Soul is a righteous cinematic work that documents the state of America at that time of war, upheaval and transformation — with a strong focus on Black America.

Interviews with some of the artists and concertgoers who were actually at the Harlem festival back in 1969 really add to the impact of the unfolding story. If there is a downside to the film, it is that we don’t get to see any one complete performance of any singer or band on screen. It would have been good to have had at least one or two of the most dynamic performers at the festival run through a song from start to finish.

An accompanying audio soundtrack of Summer of Soul has also been released, and even though the songs are in mono (not stereo), it’s all good. A tip to check out: The online digital version of the soundtrack includes one additional song that does not appear on CD — a number by jazz drummer Max Roach and his wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln, who also appear in the film.

Summer of Soul marks Thompson’s debut as a filmmaker, and he makes a big splash with what may well be the best live concert documentary film of all time. The movie has received several well-deserved awards and garnered much attention overseas, not least being here in Japan, where the movie had only a brief run in theaters but where lingering radio airplay of the audio soundtrack of the film continues on selected radio stations.

Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson reportedly had hours of extra video that he could not fit into the time constraints of this movie. Can a follow-up film, Summer of Soul 2, be far behind? We can only hope that indeed more is in store, and that any sequel is as engaging and historically important as this film is.