A previously unpublished story I wrote after an interview in 2013 with African American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
“Oh my, I think I am going to cry. This is too beautiful” The lady sitting next to me whispers in my ear. We are sitting right in front of the stage, on the hard-floor, cross-legged, wide-eyed with eager ears. As the Ambrose Akinmusire quintet serenades us at the 15th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival, my mind wonders and I think of the history of jazz. From its inception in New Orleans in the 1920’s and 30’s, the radical years of the 1960’s and 70’s, to the innovative musicians of the 2000’s. I ask myself, do jazz musician consider this rich history when they make their music? How do jazz musicians respond to our current social and political climate using music? I decided to speak with Akinmusire about my questions; an award winning African American trumpeter, bandleader and composer.
We met on a Sunday afternoon at the Cape Sun hotel, where most of the artists performing at the festival were staying. The lunch time buzz of the hotel restaurant combined with the racket of exhausted musicians checking out made it a bit hard for us to hear each other, but because when Ambrose speaks, he is committed to a conversation, listening attentively and picking his words intelligently, the noise slowly died away as we became immersed in our conversation.
After briefly talking about the rise in the number of protests in South Africa, the Marikana massacre – where 34 miners were fatally shot by police – and about the minimum wage in South Africa versus America, I decided to kick off the official interview by asking him whether he felt any pressure creating his new album considering the resounding success of the previous one. “When I create an album, I really try to figure out what that album is missing or what I’m missing, then I try to address those in the next album. I didn’t feel any pressure, but I do more than ever feel a sense of obligation because I can no longer convince myself that people aren’t watching me or that I don’t matter…” the trumpeter confesses. “I feel a sense of obligation for my community that I grew up in, I’m starting to feel a sense of obligation for, I haven’t formulated it yet and I don’t even know how to explain it, for Africans… I want to bring people together, especially black people.”
Ambrose’s father is Nigerian, so he grew up with some connection with his African side of his family. “You know it’s so cliché to say, ‘you need to go back to Africa’. I’ve heard this all my life but coming here I’m like oh shit, it’s true!” Refreshingly though, Ambrose also realises how cliché it has become for American artists to think of Africa as ‘the motherland’, without making an effort to learn about African history and how that connects to Africans landing in America through the slave-trade.
We then later walked to Greenmarket square, an African market in the Cape Town city centre that is always buzzing with vendors eager to get their display items purchased by fascinated tourists. Interestingly, the market is filled with exactly those people Akinmusire speaks off, that exoticize Africa.
As we walk through the market we discuss some of the hardships that befall young black men in America and the world. One of those is the high rate of young black men being brutally murdered by the police. He addresses this problem in Roll call for those absent, a song where a little girl reads out the names of various young black men who were victims of police brutality and an unjust system in the States. He explores the same concept in a song from his previous album called My name is Oscar. There is a confrontational posture to the song, it could be the vibrant drums or Akinmusire’s repetition of Oscar’s name, as compared to Roll call… which is much calmer, meditative even as it awakens a sense of loss.
These songs then drive home the message that in the current social and political climate, black people dying in numbers with no action – or justice – is nothing new. His concern with his community and expression of that concern through music reminds me of the zeal and commitment of the Black Arts Movement in the 60’s and 70’s. A sister to the Black Power movement in the States, it focused on radicalising art so that it represented what the people were going through at the time. I therefore find it important to listen to Akinmusire’s work with an open mind, not only to the different, engaging sounds he brings, but also to what he is saying about his social and political environment.