Twenty years ago, poet/writer/activist Sekou Sundiata & musician Craig Harris came together to create and perform Tongues of Fire Choir at Aaron Davis Hall (now Harlem Stage). And now in the 21st century, and a mere six years since Sundiata’s passing, Harris and others are recreating that seminal moment at the world famous Apollo Theater, a place where the writer performed and cemented his revered legacy frequently during his career. Tongues of Fire Choir is just one of many programs that’s a part of Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited, a year-long tribute to Sundiata happening in various venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
For this once in a lifetime occasion, no creative expense was spared as Harris, acting as musical director/conductor and soloist, helped recruit some of the finest musical and oratorical talents to enhance his and Sundiata’s work. To recite the poetry, the program included celebrated playwright Amiri Baraka, Last Poets founder Abiodun and hip-hop legend Rakim, representing three generations of writers united for a common cause. Enhancing their performances and that of the 14-piece Arkestra were special guest appearances from Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, violinist Regina Carter and flautist Bobby Humphrey. (Black Thought of The Roots was originally included in the program, but was called to perform at the White House Correspondence Dinner).
The program began with a heartbeat; the steady kick of the bass drum initiated the diverse fragility of the program and it’s opener, “Song for a Friend,” a lovely ballad featuring vocalist Helga Davis singing Harris’ lyric reminiscing of an old friend (Sundiata) long gone as photos of the poet-of-honor projected above the band. This led into “Urban Music,” finding Liza Jessie Peterson reading Sundiata’s poem, “give us the groove to make this house move/Let us moan so the devil don’t know what we’re talking about…” Sekou and Harris’ words throughout the program echoed notions of the celebration of truth, the illumination of reality and how the good, bad and ugly of Black culture dictate one another. This was no more evident or masterfully displayed than through “In the Tradition.” Baraka waxed poetic about The Duke, Stevie, Coltrane and Jr. Walker over a smooth mid-tempo groove with gurgling bass and ethereal solos from Humphrey and Carter respectively; “Black folks! Our fingerprints are everywhere, America!”
The cornerstone of the night came in the form of “Some of It’s Hip, Some of It’s Not,” a title Harris got from drummer Roy Haynes’ quote when he was asked about his opinion of Hip-Hop music. The sold-out crowd was given a two-fisted knockout punch from two of hip-hop’s greatest ambassadors, Abiodun of The Last Poets and the Lord Rakim Allah. First, Abiodun recited his poetry over the band’s brooding bass/guitar scratchy syncopation and thumping breakbeats, leading to Rakim to freestyle two intellectual and introspective verses on what makes hip-hop relevant, past and present. It was a pure watershed moment for modern Black music; a progressive translation of sage words from Stevie Wonder, “just because a record has a groove don’t make it in the groove. “
The entire evening was filled with iconic moments; Reid emotionally shredding his electric guitar while vocalist Latanya Hall sang “I’ve searched the seven seas, but I found God in me.” Abiodun returning to drive home the pitfalls of racial profiling and driving while Black over Harris’ spirited Trombone soloing during the notorious “Blink Your Eyes.” However, the nail in the coffin came when Rakim returned to close the program with what he described as “something [you] may know.” And that’s when he kicked into his classic record “I Know You Got Soul.” It was a revelation witnessing men and women, of many colors, from ages 30 to 80 all screaming in unison, “It’s been a long time/I shouldn’t of left you what a strong rhyme to step to…” Had Sekou Sundiata been here to witness this program, he would’ve been humbled beyond belief, the same way millions were and continue to be when reading his words.
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneadditct)