Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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October 25, 2014 -“From All Sides” – Reception for the art show of Marsha Music’s “The Kidnapped Children Of Detroit”

"Jump Rope", painting by Kathleen Rashid

“Jump Rope”, painting by Kathleen Rashid, 1985

Opening Reception on Saturday, October 25, 2014 from 7:00-10:00 p.m.
9338 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck Mi. 48212
(Just north of Holbrook, next to CVS) parking on Joseph Campau and elsewhere. Park at CVS at your own risk, the sign says they will tow)
(the exhibit will run from October 25, 2014 to November 15, 2014).

From the 9338 Gallery’s Press Release:

Marsha Music’s remarkable autobiographical essay “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit” starts with a child’s eye view of white flight out of the city, long underway by the 1960’s, and ends with a discussion of current issues around gentrification and “white flight in”. Although undoubtedly written from a personal viewpoint, it distinguishes itself by seeing the issues surrounding race relations in the city, and the corresponding traumatic population shifts, from a wide range of perspectives.

In its honesty and generosity, it manages to transcend the standard narratives of blame and development without sacrificing the need to tell the history of what happened to the people of the city. It suggests the need for atonement between the city and suburbs, and for mutual respect between old and new residents.


In this gallery-based discussion, we will read the essay, write it on the gallery walls, present other artwork that is consistent with the spirit and/or content of the essay, and display personal responses to the essay solicited both directly and through open-call. We welcome all responses, to be printed out and displayed, which can be mailed to kidnappedchildren@fastmail.fm, by Thursday, October 23, 2014.

From Marsha Music:

I am the writer of the Kidnapped Children of Detroit, an essay in the book The Detroit Anthology. I am honored to have been asked by gallery owner/curator Steve Panton to allow him to present my words on the changes in Detroit as works of art and catalysts for dialogue.
I am calling upon those interested and inclined to share your thoughts, memories and recollections of the flight of Detroiter’s out of the city, and of the flight back to Detroit. It has been my vision that my words will evoke memories that will inspire the telling of stories essential to the healing of this city.
If you email text in advance to the address and by the time above, your words (and photos if you wish) may become part of the displayed exhibition at the opening reception; and, if time permits and you are willing, you may be called upon to share your reminiscences during an open discussion of the show. Please send your responses to kidnappedchildren@fastmail.fm. My essay can be found here: https://marshamusic.wordpress.com/the-kidnapped-children-of-detroit/.

I look forward to contributions to this important Detroit story “from all sides.”

Further information:
9338campau.com.
e-mail: campau9338@airpost.net
Phone 313-2089826

Kidnapped triptych


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NPR/StoryCorps Oral History Project: Marsha Music

From Storycorps.org:

StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. It’s one of the largest oral history projects of its kind and with permission, stories are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Today’s story (recorded Summer, 2012) comes from Marsha Music. She tells of her father, Joe Von Battle – a record store owner and producer who recorded Detroit music luminaries such as John Lee Hooker, the Reverend C.L. Franklin and Aretha Franklin in their early years. Music says segregation and urban renewal not only destroyed her father’s business but helped create the conditions that sparked the events of 1967.

via StoryCorps: Marsha Music.

[I note that,  in this clip, I say that Black Bottom was destroyed in the late 1950’s; actually the demolition of Black Bottom began in the late 40’s and by the mid-50’s Black Bottom had been demolished]


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Going to “Cherch” with Bebe Winans

One of my favorite gospel CDs is by BeBe Winans – called “Cherch”; spelled that way to capture the phonetic distinction that we make between Black and White “church” – or, even more specifically – between Black Sanctified/Holiness/Pentacostal/Church of God in Christ church, and the more formal, less demonstrative Black church services (that are actually diminishing in numbers these days, in favor of much more emotional “Praise and Worship”).

BeBe’s CD comes on the heels of the late Bishop G.E. Patterson’s, “Singing the Old Time Way”, a 2 CD set followed by yet another “Singing The Old Time Way Part II” release, both favorites of mine. These efforts capture the music of the modern sanctified church, which is musically much the same as the old sanctified church – and that’s the point.

Songs from the Sanctified Church have remained sort of hidden in plain sight within the gospel music world. This is not the music of the mass choir or even, in some respects, the dynamic solo. These songs, in the main,  are congregational – someone “raises” a song and the church joins in, mostly simple phrases, repeated over and over.  The essence of call and response. Often, several songs will have the exact same rhythm and tune, just different lyrics.

In fact, the clarion song of most Black Holiness churches is called just plain “Yes”, with a  series of instantly recognizable notes.  This one word chant is sometimes jokingly called the national anthem of the COGIC. The lyrics consist of that one word, embellished by little more than cries, shouts, key changes, and embellishments of exhortions to praise, for as many stanzas as required by the collective spiritual consciousness – i.e. The Holy Spirit – of the church. 

Many (especially white) music intellectuals do not know, or cannot make the distinction, that the gospel music of choirs and quartets and groups (like  the Soul Stirrers or Mighty Clouds of Joy) was not the same as the music at regular church services, especially at a sanctified church.

Much of the music of a Dorothy Love Coates, Clara Ward, or Wynona Carr – legendary Gospel singers – was not a part of the song list of congregational chants in Holiness church services. Much of such popular gospel music was viewed in Holiness churches as a sort of gospel entertainment, if you will, and as such often taken in careful doses, or reserved for after church edification.

Such music was highly regarded but often reserved for church “Programs”, those special evening – after regular services – Gospel shows. This was not so much because of perceptions of “worldliness” – though that was often the case – but often because the solo or quartet/group formations tended to uphold or create individual “stars”, or distinquish themselves as individual self-contained groups,  as opposed to the whole congregation – the collective body of singing believers.

Be Be and the rest of the Winans were raised spend their early years at Zion Congregational COGIC, founded almost a century ago by their grandfather, the venerable Elder I. W. Winans.  This now historic church is known in the COGIC world as “Mack Avenue”, after it moved on that street in the midst of the depression, just East of the Eastern Market in Detroit.

It is my family church, too; my grandmother was a founding member, and our families sang and shouted together there down through the years. Bebe and the Winans and I are connected by many degrees of convoluted family/church ties.

Church lore has it that a reason that the Winans left Zion church was that the efforts of “Pops” Winans to feature his gifted young sons and their singing group met with less than enthusiam – and even open disapproval. For a singing group – gospel or not – ran against the church’s culture of collective, congregational singing. 

So, the irony should not be lost that Bebe Winans, of the group that hurled gospel into the modern, post Motown era, has reached back into his traditional, congregational roots at Zion services.

With “Cherch” he has made a CD with music that is closer to the real church services that I know, singing what we call the “old songs”. They are simple, sometimes stark, sometimes layered with rhythm and chords;  the musicality shaped by the customary percussive weight common to Santified music – the tamborine,  jangling guitar riffs; and the mythical Hammon B5 organ. This gospel music is so archetypal in form that one can sometimes hear how it morphed from the Holy Dance music to the secular –  the “world’s” early R&B and Rock & Roll.

These songs are reminiscent of Southern one-room churches in the South, and the old night-time services in Detroit, with the Saints running up and down the aisles (as, yes, I have myself done and will doubtless do again).

It occurs to me in this writing that some of these songs – and those on Bishop G.E. Patterson’s CDs – are almost secret songs, lacking exposure to the mainstream record world, and I have a sense that down through the years there may have been a reluctance about releasing them as records, as if to do so would give up yet one more element of African-American spiritual power.

For the commercialization of Gospel music is evidenced by our sacred musical forms performed as the background to everything from raunchy pop singers, to fried chicken and car ads – risking the dilution of its awesome power.

BeBe’s tunes on “Cherch” are songs that, from the first note, resonate through a congregation and place it “on one accord”. His arrangements on a few are more contemporary, but he gets others spot on in “the old way”; they are the very definition of Old Time Religion.

“He’s Got Better Things for You” is a sweet gospel confection, sang the same way that is was sung when I was a child sitting in the balcony at “Mack Ave”, hiding from my grandmother during services; and just the same way it is sung there today. 

The TV concert of the CD is great, one of those that we tape and show over and over on the holidays when company comes – especially the elders. There is a thrilling interlude with Israel Houghton, a major gospel talent who tends towards the Christian Rock genre, but here he has the bombastic, sweet chorded, beat-heavy edge that I love. Israel is a gifted singer and a presence of such substance and energy as to not only hold his own with Bebe, but elevates the song “I Love the Lord/So Good – He Has Been So Good To Me“ to its convocational, ecclesiastical ecstasy.

In this duet with BeBe, Israel skips the saccharine and goes for pure Gospel sweetness; it’s on the CD as well, but not to as great effect as “seeing” the two of them on the DVD version that I saw on BET. Dionne Warwick, whom BeBe affectionately calls “Aunty”, makes a cameo appearance; and in a spontaneous duet reveals the gospel pipes that are at the base of the talents of she and her Houston kin, Cissyand the late Whitney.

BeBe himself is a rousing singer with a beautiful voice; he eschews the Gospel roar for a mellifluous, joyous Holy singing, as close to classical chorale as to the Sanctified shout. His presence is one of the twinkling eye, straightened spine, and quick step of the Holy dance. One can hear the child-like pride in his voice when he refers to his father, the late Pop Winans (whom he looks very much like) and leads the singing on the old “Well Done (Thy Good and Faithful Servant)“. I catch the quick tears in his voice when he says, “That’s my father…..that’s my Daddy”.

I sing in church now and again, and have come to understand the importance – or better yet, the gift – of raising just the right song at the right time – to comfort, to encourage, to help us pull onto “one accord“. BeBe Winan’s “Cherch” brings to my memory more songs for Sundays, from the days when his mother and mine and his grandmother and mine sang them at “Mack Avenue“.

Folks often ask, “what happened to good singing?” in the Black community. It is not dead, it just went to “Cherch” – where all black music at the end of its generation goes to be born again – as Gospel.

Marsha Music

Photos:

All photos taken at historic Zion Congregational COGIC (2135 Mack Ave. Detroit, MI, just east of the historic Eastern Market). Elder Isiah Winans, Founder; Elder James Hall, Pastor

1) Marsha Music at “Cherch”

2) Women on Women’s Day, Holy Fall Convocation 2011

3) Men at the Altar in Prayer, Holy Fall Convocatoin 2011


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The Temptations and Industrial Detroit

The Temptations are among the greatest of the mid-century masters of Sweetness. Though many of their tunes have been Big Chilled into the innocuous background music of baby boomer middle-age, believe it or not, in those early years, their process headed, tight suit wearin’, lean, street dressin’ was as scary-sexy to older, middle class white (and even black) audiences then, as Hip-hop acts are today.

But unlike the current objects of mainstream fascination/repulsion, there was a subtle yet powerful tension created by the apparent paradox of their “fast-life” personae and their pleading, cajoling declarations of love lost and found.

The search for and promise of lifelong devotion – the “Dream Come True” – emanated from these men – the “New Negro” men of those times.

They had roots in the rural South with new lives in the industrial North, like the dudes on the corner of 12th and Pingree – mouth-rolling toothpicks, stingy-brimmed hats cocked “ace-duce”; with a new icy attitude called “cool“ designed to hide the stress and tension of a new kind of hard, urban life.

They were not at all like the previous generation of singers – say the Mills Brothers with their harmonic, wholesome crooning, or the Drifters’ doo-wop paeans to love. Despite Berry Gordy’s polishing and presentation, the Temps looked, on the one hand, like street-corner hustlers – hostile and inscrutable; and on the other, like stolid, dependable brotha’s hitting the clock on the afternoon shift at Chrysler.

Lead singer David Ruffin wore thick, gumpy glasses and STILL looked cool. Up to that time, most singers would rather go on stage stumbling half blind, rather than appear with specs – especially the thick, awkward frames of those times.

He doubtless proved a blessing to the optometry business in the ‘hood back then; my little brother was finally convinced that our genetic nearsightedness was not the end of the world, once the girls said he looked like Ruffin.

Paul Williams, who always felt, to us, like the “soul of the group”. He sang “Don’t Look Back” at the Michigan State Fair, and, in the audience,  my Mom and I watched the tears run down his face with unabashed emotion on the “The Impossible Dream” – a lounge cliche when sung by others, but for him, it was a stirring Negro anthem for those hot-house Civil Rights days and times.

The cool, basso profundo of Melvin Franklin made us –  kids of the sixties – accept “Old Man River” as more than an anachronistic  river-boat song; but an ode to the South of our fathers, a remembrance of Delta days  as Black men toiled in their new, Northern cities. Eddie Kendricks sang “like a woman” in his career falsetto, yet the songs he led were the fanciful poesy of black  male loving that established the group from the beginning.

“The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could ‘a been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could ‘a been some perfume”*

In this song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do, written by Smokey Robinson, Eddie had a voice so limber that the word “feet” in the stanza above had five syllables. His voice was always gossamer, fairy light, and he was known to be a quiet, gentle man, yet he could look like the dude on the corner who might cut you, with his lean 12th street looks and brotha’ on the corner stance.

When I was a child, the Temptations and the kings and queens of Motown rode the streets of Detroit like a magic carpet, driving Easter egg colored Cadillacs, wearing suits in matching pastels.We’d see the Supremes shopping at J.L. Hudsons, or the Miracles at a school dance.  I remember the Originals singing “Baby I’m For Real” at the Arcadia skating rink on Woodward Ave. Everyone had someone they knew who was “one of the Temptations cousins” or “my sister-in-law’s brother’s uncle’s friend”- or some other convoluted degree of Motown separation that was emblematic of Detroit’s connection to our homegrown heroes. The “made for TV” movie about the Temptations has become an urban classic, but it in no way does it capture the edgy, gifted complexity of the group, or the times.  

The Temps had the look of both the hustler on the corner and the auto worker, sugar-sharp at a union hall cabaret. Kendricks and Ruffin, lithe and cold-blooded, the rest – and their replacements – proletarian thick and church deacon sharp. They were reflections of the new factory Black men – sweet enough to talk up on a woman, “game” enough to catch her – and with money enough to keep her comfortable, Detroit style –  in a large brick home with two sharp cars.  

Only years, faded memories, and mainstream acceptance have rendered the Temps’ music into innocuous the oldies of soft-bellied men. For they were saber-sharp back in the day, and behind the scenes a few were as edgy and difficult as many a rapper of today.

One does not have to dig deep into their discography for songs that have not been worn into tiresome oldies, but in addition to their many lush B sides and lesser known hits, there’s “Temptations in a Mellow Mood”, an unusual collection of show tunes and standards. One song on this unlikely album that I’ll never forget  features Eddie Kendricks’ glistening lead on “Try to Remember” from – of all things – the musical “The Fantasticks”, which he turns into his own beautiful, wistful beckoning to remembrance.

 

All too many of today’s young Black men cannot experience the virture of “sweetness” and the musicality that came from an urban culture that had as its cornerstone the church, and the security – or at least the possibility –  of a “good” job and a nice car to boot. There are few economic enticements to bolster their appeals to love. Unlike during Motown’s early days, the music of all too many of today’s young men does not allow for such vulnerability —there is no job at Ford (or Chrysler or GM – or anywhere at all, for many) in their future – in the same way that there was in those long gone Detroit days.

Today, pride, anger and machismo alone – morphing all too often into violence – must suffice as a facsimile of manhood, for all too many young men.

The Temptations and other sweet-singing groups of their times reflected a generation of young Black men freed from the defacto shackles of the Southern sharecropping life. Their new, quasi-affluence on the assembly-lines of urban Detroit permitted them the luxury of the glorification of romance. The end of that industrial domination marked the end of that sweetness.

Dennis Edwards, who lead the group in it’s first Grammy win, was the next inheritor of the lead voice after David Ruffin’s exit from the Temptations. Edwards can be said to personify the shift in not only the group, but the urban culture as a whole; for not only were love songs a part of his legacy but “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” exemplified the startling shift into the social tumult of the times.

After their early, prolific years and various personnel changes, the Temps emerged in the 90’s with “For Lovers Only” with a stunning lead singer, the late Ali Ollie Woodson. With “Some Enchanted Evening” the lead single, it was  redo of American standards with a nouveau-Temptations treatment,  befitting their maturity, longevity and stature. They were , for a new generation, the Grown Men of love.

The death in 2010 of the magnificent singer Ali Ollie Woodson marked the end to yet another incarnation of the Temptations;  his replacement, the birth of another. They will doubtless sing on, with many – if not most – of their current audiences neither knowing or caring who is in the group, as long as they can sing the Temps repertoire. Nor, it seems, does it matter, for the Temptations exist as a phenomenon, an entity, regardless of personnel. Their music, though an expression of love eternal, was born of a specific – now gone – time and place; they are songs of  Black, urban proletarian men, who, with their historically evolved blend of strength and sweetness, expressed love on behalf of an entire English-speaking generation.

Marsha Music

 

 

All photos from Temptations albums.


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Words In Her Hands – Mrs. Elizabeth Banton, Latin Teacher

Latin was one of my favorite studies in high school. It seems odd, in this day of sorely challenged school curriculae, but believe it or not, in those days – the 1960’s – Highland Park, Michigan had one of the best school systems in the whole country. This was before the disintegration of the city’s tax base with the decline of the automotive industry that was headquatered there -the city’s core of support.

In those days many of us took Latin, and many of us who took Latin truly loved the subject –  due, in no small part,  to our teacher – the dear, genteel Mrs. Banton. She looked a little like Rosa Parks, and though she was surely younger then than I am now, she seemed really old to us, even back then – for she joined none of the other teachers in their late-60’s’ efforts to be hip, slick, cool or even “relevant”.  

She wore her hair in a wavy chignon at the nape of her neck; loose wisps of hair a grey halo ’round her head. Back in those days when we girl students desperately fought and marched for the right to wear pants and mini-skirts to school, she unwavering stuck to skirts well past her knees and sensible oxfords. But she never ridiculed or scolded us for our 60’s protests; she  merely admonished us to “think” and to not forget our studies.

In her classroom at Highland Park High, she would tip-toe ‘round the room, glancing at papers, checking pronunciation; the tips of her fingers together as if in prayer, holding a tiny baton for the blackboard. She had a slight overbite that gave her a tiny, charming lisp, and one could tell she’d been a beauty in her youth – though to think of her as carefree and young was inconceivable, as proper and mannered as she always seemed to be. She spoke in a singsong voice in an absent-minded kind of way that disguised her utter attention to every move that we made and every error in person, time and place.

I learned, many years later, that she was actually a renowned scholar in  Latin and the Classics,  one of the few African-Americans to be degree’d in such studies in the United States. Eventually, after marriage, she made her way North, for in the segregated South, there were few “Colored” schools that could hire her to teach such subjects to Black children – and none of the Whites schools would, of course. 

When I grew older, I looked back and understood that our ceaseless, raucous Black student protests during high school neither offended, nor distracted her – she had probably faced more challenges in a single episode of her younger life in the days of segregation, than we – middle class children of the integrated North – could ever conceive of, in our agitated outbursts of dissent.

Just to attend school or teach, in the days in which she started her career, doubtless took an immensity of courage that was rarely required even on our most boisterous picket lines and marches.

She was fervent in her love of language, and her syllabus was tailor-made for the most useful application of Latin possible – she was less concerned with merely teaching us the phrases of another time, than to cultivate a love of language, to provide a cornerstone in the construction of vocabulary. She supported my love of writing, she gave an intensity and direction to my obsession with words, and instilled in me the curiosity to trace chains of words through centuries, to their varied and often unexpected origins.

In the spring of 2005, it had been more than 40 years since I’d seen her, when I was in the Fisher Building and turned around and there she was, walking on the arm of her son. She was 92 (!) and quite frail, but there was no mistaking Mrs. Banton. Her hair – now white – was still in it’s prim, wispy bun and she spoke with the same whispery overbite.

I was as bashful as a child, hoping she remembered me; I wanted so much, out of thousands of students, over the decades of her teaching years, to have left an imprint on her memory. She looked up at me and said, “why I course I know you Marsha! The other teachers and I just CRIED when you left school, there was NOTHING we could do to make you stay!”

Yup, I gulped, she knew me, she remembered well – I left school a year before graduation, much too young to be large with child, never to return. Even so, I told her, I’d had my child, and in fact eventually had two, but I was writing still. She was proud and glad to know that her lessons had come to some good use, that I had ended up a writer after all, thanks in part to her gentle exhortations of person, place and stories of Rome, centuries ago.

Her son, middle-aged like me, stood quietly by her side as we chatted; it was time to say goodbye and as we parted she turned to introduce us. Much to my surprise she leaned close to him and began to speak to him by signing, their fingers flew in the language of the deaf and he looked at me and smiled.

My goodness! In a 60 year career she had shared her love of language with countless children, yet she spoke in silence to her child. Oh, how fortunate was I to have been her student; how fortunate was she to have mastered another, soundless tongue. How blessed was her son to have a mother with such a love of words, who was gifted enough to make them fly from her hands to him, like doves.

_______________________________

Post Script:

It was a lovely, warm evening in Detroit, in May, 2010, spent at a book signing  at the Palmer Park Golf Club, a verdant enclave in the midst of the city.

I met a delightful group of ladies, including a wonderfully lively  little octagengarian named Norma Goldman (center, in photo above), who delighted us with her stories. When I asked what she did, or rather,  had done,  for a living, among her numerous avocations was her decades long career as a teacher of Latin.

 This revelation gave rise to my mentioning  my own beloved high-school Latin teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Banton. In the serendipidous, small world, three-degrees-of-separation Detroit way, it happened that the lovely, white-haired woman whom had just met – Mrs. Goldman – was a best friend of my former teacher – Mrs. Banton – whom, it turned out,  was alive and well and living in the area. 

Mrs. Goldman invited me to an annual potluck in June 2010, celebrating Detroit area Latin/Classics teachers, where, as it turned out,  Mrs Banton was to be the honoree, for her years of service in the teaching of Latin and the Classics. She asked me to come and read this story that I had written about Mrs. Banton at the event, and I did. Mrs. Banton was astonished and tickled that this prodigal student had returned to her life,  to say thanks and to acknowledge the role that she played in my life. 

At the time of this event, in 2010,  Mrs. Banton was still spry, bright and lovely 96 years old. And yes, she still remembered me.

________________________________________

Epilogue:

Mrs. Norma Goldman, one of the great women I have encountered in my life, passed away in 2011. I have not heard about my dear teacher Mrs. Banton, since but I trust that she is doing well – here, or in the hereafter.


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The Techno Fest and the new “Movement” of Detroit

Photo by 2010 Kresge Arts Fellow Corinne Vermuelen, with her generous permission.

Prologue: I wrote this piece in the early 2000s, after the first two or three Electronic Music fests on Detroit’s riverfront.  After years of undergound raves and a start at Joe Louis Arena in the 90’s, the Techno Fest on Hart Plaza started in 2000. An attendance estimate for this first gargantuan event was 1-1.5 million*, and though some mainstream sources opined that the estimate was inflated, I was there and I didn’t doubt it one bit. However, the attendance in 2012, years after the imposition of entry fees, dropped to 107, 343.* (*Wikipedia estimates) But the numbers in 2015 were way back up to more than a million, again, though alas, I never went after they began charging fees after the first few years – way out of my budget. 

So here I was, in the youth of my old age, looking at another generation take its place in the musical history of Detroit – and I was absolutely clear that their presence marked not only a massive dance party, but a sign of  the future of the city. (Btw, this was one of my submissions for which I was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, in 2012.)

                                                    The Techno Fest And The New “Movement” In Detroit

Detroit is the home of the annual Electronic Music Festival, aka Techno Fest – now officially named “Movement” – held on Memorial Day weekends on Hart Plaza. It is one of the seminal events in Detroit as it transitions into a new, post-industrially-dominated city.  From the inception of this festival in 2000, the “movement” that was taking place on the Riverfront was not only to the music, but a synergistic spark in the movement of young whites not only coming to – but  remaining in – Detroit.

Detroit is an overwhelmingly African-American city, yet for this event, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. After decades of their parents’ fearful avoidance of the city, a new generation of suburban kids is not only refusing to be afraid of the urban center, but refusing to leave, setting up residence in downtown lofts and apartments, partying in downtown clubs, and skateboarding in the night on Woodward Avenue.

At the first festivals, there were enough black Detroiters to give the Techno Fest – as it is known – the edginess and cool to make for an exciting musical event for the whites who have come to the city, for up to this point the blacks in attendance have been mostly members of the Detroit’s black cultural and musical intelligentsia. Techno music, with its pan-continental DJs and audience, is not viewed as a “black” dance music of choice in the ‘hood – rap, hip-hop, and the new R&B were the genres that were marketed to blacks.  Doubtless, the African-American founders of techno music, accustomed to mostly white audiences in the US and Europe, were glad to see so many brothas and sistas here in their home town, dancing to the music that they created.

On the other hand, too much hip-hop and rap throughout the festival weekend runs the risk of attracting too many of its fans from the ‘hood – which might make this neo-hippie fest a little too “diverse” for comfort to the whites who are pouring onto the plaza; so a balance is necessary.  Fans come to the Techno Fest from many miles away – not just the suburbs but from Australia, France, Japan, Germany; backpacks full of provisions for this new electronic Woodstock.  During the festival, thousands of kids – mostly white – rest and hang out near a monument on the promenade dedicated to the Underground Railroad, a massive bronze sculpture of a group of slaves fleeing toward freedom to Canada, in plain sight across the river. Only those familiar with the intense divisions between Detroit’s city and suburbs truly appreciate the lovely irony of this scene.

The music could be heard from three main stages and a dozen booths at once, banging off the high-rise buildings that rim the plaza, The DJs use the archetypal beats and sounds of R&B, funk, disco and pop culture – the building blocks of our contemporary aural heritage – to create transnational dance genre. Multiply these samples and sounds by tens of thousands of culturally recognizable beats, phrases and riffs, rearrange them into new configurations, and they are as creative as the original makers of the music from which they sample.

The turntable technicians transform electronic sounds into music, and many, with their sampling, display a prodigious knowledge of the vocabulary of modern cultural sounds. Detroit’s Motown sound developed in part from the relentless rhythms of the mechanized clash and clang of assembly lines of the auto plants in which Berry Gordy and his contemporaries toiled. Today’s youth grew up with different sounds – the ambient noise of video games, computers, cell phones; technology with its hums, bells, bleeps and blips, the aural wall that surrounds today’s environment. All of this electronic sound engendered a musicality that is based on – but is inevitably unlike – the sounds of the rock and roll generation.

Techno music evolved from black middle-class Detroiters able to afford – or hustle up on – the turntables, electronic equipment and voluminous libraries of vinyl record collections that were the original tools of the DJs craft.  I remember when my young brother and cousins – Lawrence Battle, and Bruce and Carl Martin – among that first group of  DJs in Detroit,  were suddenly immersed in sound snippets of records that we grew up with, and lugging car loads of milk-crates filled with records to weekend parties.

Masters of the Dance

On the last day of the first Techno Fest, a new element changed the character of Movement, so that its final day was different than the first. The police had abandoned bag checks and let the crowds pour in, and they showed no sign of thinning. For the first time all weekend, pouring into the main entrance was a growing phalanx of bristling “young Black males”. The mostly white crowd had gradually become “Blacker” and it wasn’t clear what this would mean. These new arrivals crowd the plaza in excited agitation, some with the sullen defiance of the unwanted, the mask to hide their fear of being unwelcome, that their presence is cause to tighten jaw lines and police lines, both.

It is understood that this festival is not for them, but rather for the visitors, though doubtless, Techno’s founders are gratified that, finally, the music that they created will have an audience of Detroit boys from the ‘hood. Over the three days of the festival, word has spread through Detroit that the music is “live” and worth risking the possibility of suburban and police hostility. They know that their arrival is akin to crashing a gigantic private party; nevertheless, they come. They flow into the bowl of the plaza; and the air crackles with their young black maleness. Yet instead of fleeing – as may have happened a decade ago – the young suburbanites jelled into a concentrated mass of excitement and awe.

The festival had blown off the hook – it was electrified. The black youth crowd the plaza, huddle in tight, dark circles. No cute rainbow-hued costumery and Hackey Sack looks for these new arrivals – they are from the shirtless, bedraggled school of urban poverty. They felt out the crowds, spotted locations, sized up adversaires as they worked their limbs into cudgels or stood stock-still in Zen concentration. They were the Masters of Dance and they had come to take their rightful positions. The battle had begun. It was a war, not of weapons, but of strength, grace and mental acuity. The crowds parted like the Red Sea as these new participants step into the whorls of dance that had formed in the ocean of people.

Bass was bumpin’ bass through to the bone marrow. These new dances defied any concept of what was known as dance decades ago but then again, this is not the movement of courtship – as in the Motown days – but of power, motor skills, and muscular control. Their bodies replicate the movement of computerized machines, and it is not romantic, nor really sexual. Thirty years ago black dance broke out of partnered confines into robotic motions of machinery and mime. After they had been embedded in the dance lexicon of the Black community for years, Michael Jackson displayed these moves to the world.

“Poppin’ & Lockin’” the abrupt, mechanized, stylized imitation of robots, is familiar now to generations of Black dancers, mastered even by small children in the ‘hood. Body waving, Breakin’, Moon Walking, Runnin’ Man, Robot and Tickin’ – the bizarrely elegant quivering of every joint and muscle at conflicting angles – all these dances grew from hip hop’s beginnings. Most dancers at the Techno Fest displayed their mastery of  “Jittin” , a matrix of extreme, skillful foot and legwork, with its origins in Detroit.

The great racial rhythmic divide doesn’t exist in the same way as in generations past, what with music videos, MTV, BET, et al, and  exposure to black music at exponentially higher levels than previous generations. The white kids, most as segregated as ever in real life, are profoundly integrated regarding music and dance – even if they are learning moves that black kids mastered almost 40 years ago. The first Techno Fests were the bar exams of  dance.

 Dance Wars on the Plaza

The white kids who could “Lock” and Break Dance had dominated the festival’s dance circles and entertained the crowds all weekend – but with the arrival of the Detroit dancers they now stand back in humility and awe. The blacks have come to “take them to school” – and they all know it.  Many of the suburban boys rarely got a chance to see – in real life – the rippling pop of brown limbs and muscles and they study these moves with as much concentration as college entrance exams. Emboldened by attention and recognition, the black dancers from the city challenged one another to ever more physical flights of daring and skill.

The suburban kids and visitors were mesmerized by this urban drama. The blacks were sure of their dominance, suffering no fool gladly to step into the ring with them unprepared, but they were generous as well. The white kids who proved their mettle and went toe to toe with the brotha’s are given respect – smug, serious nods of approval, or wild high-fives, as each dances into the ring and out again.  Dancers strip from the waist up, every visible muscle like rhythmic pythons under the skin.

Added to the layers of consciousness, physicality and race at the festival, there were the whites whose forebears would not or could not flee from Detroit –  the white boys from the ‘hood, lighter facsimiles of the young blacks; skin color alone differentiated them from their darker neighbors; indistinguishable in speech, dress and attitude. They too were stars in this game of bravado and skill and their combination of  urban-ness  in white bodies makes them fascinating bridges between the two worlds – humble enough to accede leadership to their dark brother mentors in the ‘hood, but cocky in their dance mastery and urban skills in comparison to the suburban boys.

Then came the girls from the ‘hood. All weekend the moves of most of the white girls approximated Brittney Spears’ hip-hop lite, and they stepped back in excited incredulity to watch the arrival of the “ghetto fabulous” home-girls. The allure of these new arrivals is primordial; the suburban girls – some of them probably real stars in their hometown schools and malls – are agog at the nubile finesse of these brown, urban females.  There is nothing coy about their moves; this is the hard core “booty shake” of Senegal via Luke Campbell and the East Side of Detroit. Their rhythmic undulating was intense and incredible to behold. As their bodies roiled they stared straight ahead in the dead seriousness of trance. After minutes of these pelvic machinations, they collapsed in childish giggles – just young girls havin’ fun.

The boys from the ‘hood danced in tandem, transferring waves of rhythm to one another, staging mock vignettes, sexual simulations and Chaplinesque parodies for the crowds. Watching this populist art unfold, it is clear that there is a deep, adult intelligence at play in this display of skill and wonder. The battles intensified all over the plaza and black, white, yellow and brown dancers established victories in recognition of their mastery – they are the Shaolin warriors of dance. There were no guns shot, no violence – dance alone was the measure of will and negotiator of the social contract.

At the edge of Hart Plaza the huge, dark figures of the Underground Railroad sculpture stood larger than life; massive, bronze figures fleeing from the ancestors of some of these very young people in their ceaseless, ecstatic movement on the plaza. I stood and reflected that during my own youth such an edifice would be unthinkable; much has changed within my lifetime. This statue of slaves on the verge of freedom stood in the midst of a scene that years ago was only a dream – kids of all colors dancing in Detroit’s dark night.

Photo, on the sculpture on Hart Plaza: by photographer Corrine Vermuelen, Detroit, with her generous permission.

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Epilogue:

The fact that there is now an admission fee for entrance – and a steep one, by Detroit inner-city standards –  virtually guarantees that the innumerable circles of young, Black dancers from the ‘hood – schooling their young visitors and reveling in the partnership of dance – will never be seen in the same numbers again.

But let me tell you,  it was a beautful sight to see.

Me in a moment with DJ Spooky, who performed at the first, and subsequent Techon Fests. This pic is not at the Fest, but at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where during the Q & A, he and I had a….shall I say…. difference of opinion, regarding his redux of the movie Birth of a Nation. But afterwards, as you can see, all was well.

 

 


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The Last Decade – a Quick One in the Detroit Metro Times

Just a little piece in the Detroit Metro Times, Review of the Decade – January 6, 2009 edition. Thanks, W. Kim Heron – editor.

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This decade, African-American music did not die — as has been rumored.

Though James Brown — the architect of contemporary black music — passed away, and the end of the decade was marked by the death of Michael Jackson, their passing solidified their seminal influence of popular music.

The re-emergence of R&B’s Maxwell (Black Summer’s Night)  is a return to the sheer musicianship and showmanship of bygone days. His bespoke, Marvin-esque persona makes him, along with R&B artist Kem, exemplars of the Rebirth of the Cool or, if you will, the Return of the Grown Man.

Neo-soul newcomer Chrisette Michele’s stupendous, lyrical vocal instrument (Epiphany) is a throwback to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, devoid of hip-hop tremolos and atonalism. Marvin L. Winans released a breakthrough tour de force, Alone But Not Alone, the gospel musical equivalent of “spiritual, not religious.”

His brother, Bebe Winans, recorded Cherch — an homage to traditional gems of the sanctified church. African-American music found new life and expression in the last decade, and I am hopeful that it will continue to evolve, true to its roots.