Sunday, June 26, 2005
23] Learn democracy from jazz and rock
Learn democracy from jazz and rock
Jun 20, 05 1:27pm
It is June 19, 2005. Happy Father’s Day.
I think history did not coin the word ‘Fatherland’ for nothing. It is interesting to hear how the word father has evolved - from that used in Latin and Sanskrit to describe the gods (from pather to deus-pather to Jupiter) to that used in English to describe ‘fathers of jazz and rock’. In Malaysia, the latter would be Zain Azman, and Ramli Sarip respectively.
This week I have decided to write about another passion of mine: music.
There is so much I have learned and continue to learn from the artistic form called music and from two genres I grew up with - jazz and rock and roll. Growing up and dreaming of what my future might be, I wanted to be so many things: a nuclear physicist, a psychologist like Sigmund Freud, a leader of a spiritual movement, a transcendental poet like Lord Byron, sailor Robinson Crusoe, the great Italian actor Al Pacino, and a rock musician. Those were my evolving dreams.
But what remained constant was that I spent a lot of time listening to rock music first and next, jazz of all genres. I then began to move away from these two and engulfed myself in World music, Classical music, Baroque, and for a while ‘the sound of silence’ (of my own heartbeat and the stillness of nature).
"Lessons from jazz"
In America, I taught an elective, ‘The History of Jazz’ as part of an offering in the series of ‘The History of the United States’, which I have been teaching for several years. My love for jazz prompted me to develop a website in honour of the great American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie who has since died of cancer in Inglewood, New Jersey.
Concurrently, I developed another website on the American Civil Rights movement, in honour of its two greatest warriors, The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King and Brother Malik El-Shabbazz a. k. a. Malcolm X. I felt a deep connection with these two heroes and what they had to go through to give dignity to the African American and how they were both assassinated while in their late thirties.
I love jazz - the most American art form, uniquely and essentially American. In jazz, Americans find the meaning of freedom. In it lies the story of human liberation, from slavery to the accomplishment of Wynton Marsalis as the resident artist and jazz guru in New York’s Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts.
For many years, since high school, I studied jazz first as a musical form and later as an intellectual form. I studied the complexity of its structure and how it embodies the meaning of individual expression and group creativity and how this contributes towards a means of illuminating the audience of the meaning of existentialism in the face of human and non-human systems of oppression.
Frequent visitors of the world-famous New York jazz Club in Greenwich Village, The Blue Note might agree to the idea of freedom, creativity, improvisation, and the respect for individual talent in an advant garde jazz performance such as that by Terence Blanchard’s Sextet.
It is a group of extremely talented and dedicated musicians who also played soundtrack for one of my favorite Denzel Washington’s movie, ‘X’, about the martyr Malcolm X, whose life itself is an embodiment of jazz – growing up as a pimp to meeting death as a world-renowned African American Muslim who left the parochialism of Louis Farrakhan’s The Nation of Islam. It was also Malcolm X who brought Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) into the religion. There is so much to learn from the intellectual history of jazz as it spreads globally.
If Malaysian jazz musicians in particular and musicians in general begin to study in depth the parallel history of democracy in the history of jazz, and become ‘Malaysian jazz messiahs’ - and beacons of hope and peace like John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte, Sarah Vaughn, Jaco Pastorious, and Marsalis - we will not merely consume, but become educated consumers ourselves. Jazz in Malaysia has been around for quite some time.
I remember my grandfather playing the saxaphone in the court of the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim. On many fine afternoons in the late 1960s, we watched Gillespie on television together. How unfortunate it is these days that in Malaysian schools, music education has been placed in the back burner especially due to the overzealous religious movement that seem to either discourage or ban it altogether.
I hope this trend will change and we will continue to see the development of modern and advant garde jazz music as it was pioneered by the brilliant producer Roslan Aziz who I think, is a committed pioneer in good Malaysian music.
"Then there was rock"
For those Malaysians about to rock, I salute you … but you may begin your career by listening to the amazing human being named Carlos Santana. If in jazz I find the meaning of human freedom and expression in its most improvised form, in Santana’s rock music, one finds the history of one musician’s commitment to not only his brand of music, but also to spirituality and world peace.
From his early days to his exploration of Hindu philosophy through Guru Sri Chinmoy and renaming himself Devadip Carlos Santana to his new sound of the year 2000, he is a musician as committed and as exemplary and socially committed as others like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Gordon Sumners (Sting), Bruce Springsteen, and Bono (of U2).
Perhaps I taught myself the electric guitar and rock music after being happily indoctrinated in the 1970s by tunes such as ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Samba Pa Ti’, ‘Oye Como Va’ and ‘Evil Ways’. I could not understand the lyrics then. I merely love the sound of Latin American rock. Thirty years after those, Santana produced the award-winning album ‘Superstition’ with beautifully crafted tunes such as ‘Smooth’ and ‘Maria Maria’.
There is so much evolution of the musician as exemplified in his recent concert in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It is amazing how much the man has become his music and his music has become him, in a beautifully evolved scheme of things spiritual. Observing and analysing the history of Santana, I am reminded by the life history of a Malaysian musical and artistic genius, M. Nasir whose music and songs have been ever-meaningful in the history of the Malay world specifically and the Nusantara in general.
Santana is a transcultural philosopher who brings the message of peace, tolerance, and social justice to his audience and followers. He would begin with his concert with such messages as: (If we believe in) “an eye for an eye… the whole world will go blind”. In ‘Maria Maria’ - about the survival of the Chicano in Spanish Harlem - he lamented that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and that there are shootings and lootings and fighting in the streets.
His music encapsulated not the parochial identity of a Mexican but of the hybridity of what he is now proud of – a Chicano or a Mexican-American. This is a very interesting notion of what it means to be an American for Santana.
If the sound of jazz is about being authentically American, the sound of Santana is about being authentically Chicano – a sense of creative and profoundly intellectual nationhood and meaningful democracy many a hyphenated American holds dear. Whither Malaysian music? We Malaysians are yet to evolve musically-intellectually-nationalistically in the sense that jazz and Chicano rock have demonstrated.
The closest we have come to is, again, in the artifacts produced by award-winning jazz producers who are able to bring the diverse races together to produce music that touches the human spirit and moves the soul into metaphysical heights - as perhaps what Sir Isaac Newton said about the metaphysicality of the music of the spheres.
In Malaysia, we need more musicians who can get together cross-culturally and play music that will create a sense of true multi-cultural nationhood. I am reminded by the brilliantly produced Malaysian album of the early 1990s, Zainal Abidin’s Hijau. It embodied the transculturalism of not only the music but also the musicians and the musical instruments. It makes a great educational piece for teachers to teach the meaning of multi-culturalism and radical critique on the social ills that have plagued and continue to plague Malaysia.
This brand of transculturalism reminds me of my childhood days of watching countless games of the Merdeka Cup of the 1970s in which names of the soccer heroes will forever be in my mind – the great striker Shaharuddin Abdullah, the great goalkeeper V. Arumugam, and the great defender Soh Chin Aun, and the great captain Santokh Singh. That was a truly nationalist team as how great leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn would have us feel and believe. That was a great moment in nationalism!
"Transcultural musical forms"
I call upon Malaysian musicians to do the following:
- study the intellectual history of the artform you are producing
- understand the ethical dimensions of producing the messages in your music
- junk lyrics produce junk minds - produce music that will make people think; through complex compositions and poetry of the words
-break new frontiers through a deeply meaningful synthesis of the ideas of the old and new - form musical groups that reflect the multi-cultural nature of our society
- present to the audience message of peace, love, brotherhood and social justice - understand the role of the musician as individuals who will not be used by any political parties to advance political agenda that will go against the grain of radical multi-culturalism
- be committed to your craft intellectually and continue to find newer forms of expression without sacrificing the unique style of music you wish to be a pioneer in
- consume intelligently outside influences
- call upon Malaysian schools to provide comprehensive and free music education in line with the principle of developing the musical Intelligence in our children. Music education should not merely be for the children of the rich. (According to research, children who have good musical skills will do well in mathematics).
For those about to jazz up the Malaysian music scene, I salute you.