Various Artists: Back to Black

Steven Horowitz

What is the sound of blackness? Part of the answer can be found in these obscure titles from the era when black was proud and spoke its name out loud.

Various Artists

Back to Black

Label: Lo
US Release Date: 2005-10-16
UK Release Date: 2005-09-26
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Steve Picton is a self-professed crate digger, one of those vinyl junkies who search through old records at trunk sales and junk shops in the hunt for obscure gems that have been unjustly neglected or unheard. Picton has discovered a wonderful array of eclectic music from the '60s and '70s that share little in common stylistically but express a common thematic concern: the situation of being black. These tunes emerged during a time when artists could communicate the notion of blackness as a type of consciousness raising exercise, just like wearing a dashiki showed one was proud of one's African roots or wearing a slave bracelet acknowledged one's painful ancestry.

Several of the artists included are well known, even if these titles are not. Jazz singer Andy Bey's career has been resuscitated during the past few years, but his existential ode to the cosmos "Celestial Blues" makes one wonder how he could ever have been forgotten. He croons about enlightenment ("expand your mind / don't let it whither and die") to a wah wah guitar beat and the gentle chiming of bicycle bell, among other instrumentation. The blackness is implicit in the funky accompaniment and the timbre of his vocals. The fact that a black person is singing about meditation serves as a symbol of empowerment. Such topics are no longer the province of white people alone.

Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams' take on George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" functions in a similar manner. Williams transforms the song, written by a white man for a musical about rural black life, into a sophisticated urban hymn. One can almost hear the city car horns beeping in the spaces between the notes of her fingered phrasing. Williams twists Gershwin's melody into something more authentically black.

The other notable black woman included here, poet Nikki Giovanni, performs a sexy spoken word piece, "Seduction/Kidnap Poem" over greasy soul rhythms. The work concerns the poet taking off her man's clothes while he preaches radical black political power. "Then you'll notice your state of undress / and knowing you, you will say, 'Nikki, isn't this counterrevolutionary,'" she coos, and then leaves the rest to the listener's imagination.

Other titles here are by artists so obscure that there names may never be known. Two tracks are by groups listed as Street Gangland Bands (numbers 1 and 4) and seem to feature the documentary sounds of children recorded over African percussion. One cut, "Gang Fight" has two kids re-enact a gang fight complete with the action described by a faux news reporter, an imitation of police sirens and gun shots, and the sounds of pain of the wounded innocent victims. The fact that this all comes out of the mouths of babes is frightening as it attests to the violence they have witnessed in their brief lives.

Lost Generation's "This is the Lost Generation", Lloyd Williams' "Is it Because I'm Black", and Eugene McDaniels' "Supermarket Blues" explicitly address the particular situation of being black. The three tracks acknowledge the progress that has been made in terms of Civil Rights as well as lament how far there still is to go until equality has been achieved. They express their shared dissatisfaction with the present situation in different ways. The Lost Generation takes a staid historical analysis. Williams approaches the topic psychologically, and McDaniels uses humor to make his point. They all reach the same conclusion. Racism is alive and well. Unfortunately, none of the songs seem that dated.

Happily there is one song that seems essentially passé, David Lampel's "USA (Union of South Africa". Lampel calls for revolutionary action to free black South Africa from white terror: "There is a place where well paid mercenaries laugh and drink beer trading tales of how many nigger's they killed today or how many of those black bitches they raped / and for the foreseeable future South Africa will remain as it is today/ a white man's heaven and a black man's hell." Lampel's barbs once were true, but fortunately his tune functions only as a reminder of a bleak past.

Lo Recordings have packaged the compilation Back to Black in an all black plastic box inside a bright gold slipcase. The outside physical appearance resembles those glittery, ostentatious album covers from the previous era (think Barry White, Earth Wind and Fire) and the dated black obsession with gold jewelry. Okay, bling may not be totally out of fashion, but its roots can be found in the pimp fashions of the '60s and '70s. The black box at the core shows where the heart is, and in this case, having a black heart is a good thing.





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