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Baraka Barks Back

Poet and activist Amiri Baraka infuriates and charms on two nights in the East Bay

By Nicky Baxter

What a difference a day makes. What started out last Friday (Nov. 15) as reasonably tame panel discussion at Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center on the role of black arts and hip-hop culture in radical social change gradually turned into a shriekfest between poet/playwright Amiri Baraka and several feisty black youth regarding issues of race and class.

The discussion and the jazz/poetry show at Nu Upper Room in Oakland the following evening, co-presented by Koncepts Cultural Gallery and La Peña, was something else entirely. But since the days when he ran with Beat poets, Baraka has been a political changeling.

Given that history, it is not a total surprise that one night the artist formerly known as LeRoi Jones could come perilously close to being booed off the platform for his politics while the next night his versifying earned him standing ovation.

More than a few attendees Friday were frankly offended by the writer's unilaterally harsh critique of Africans in history and U.S.-African nationalism. At one point, he compared black nationalism to gangsta mentality. During the tumultuous Q&A period, he attempted to shout down a teenaged girl for suggesting that communities of color must lead their own struggles for social justice without outside assistance. Baraka's none too solicitous response more than anything else turned many in the audience against him.

An hour after the event's conclusion, the multiracial, SRO crowd milled about, still hotly debating what they'd seen and heard. "The brother's lost it, man," moaned one dreadlocked African who looked to be in his 30s. "He's out of step."

That's a cold shot, considering that in the minds of many, Baraka and the Black Arts movement that emerged in the 1960s are synonymous. A Promethean figure, his poetry, plays, and essays had--indeed continue to have--an immeasurable impact on African Diasporan literature and social theory.

He has since repudiated Black Nationalism to take up the cause of class-based democracy. In Baraka's view, race really doesn't matter. Or at least not much. Was Baraka, now 62, out of step with "the masses" he purports to represent? The answer, one surmises, depends on who one asks.

Detente on Saturday

The contentiousness that marked Friday's lecture had evaporated at the Nu Upper Room by Saturday; detente had been reached, and now Baraka was once again "down" with the masses, rain-soaked and shivering, who'd come out to see him read from his latest collection of poetry, Funk Lore.

This newfound goodwill was facilitated by the format; poetry and jazz rarely provoke anarchy these days. And there were no race-baiting provocations, just the poet working verbal magic ably assisted by a couple of young East Bay sound scientists: pianist/violinist Vijay Iyer and bassist Kevin Mingus.

Iyer and Mingus, who have worked together frequently, opened the jazz-plus-poetry portion of the performance with a micro-set of their own, beginning with the former's "Paradise Lost," a short piano solo that was equal parts passion and precision. This number was followed by a pair of dissonance-driven motifs developed by Mingus and Iyer, respectively.

While the latter bounced up from the piano to saw away at the violin and back down again to pound out great clouds of chords, Mingus (grandson of that other bass-playing Mingus) thwapped, plucked and strummed as the occasion required. He is obviously influenced by his grandfather. But he hasn't stopped there. Which means Kevin Mingus' playing will wind up some place special.

As Baraka stepped to the mic, one was struck by how frail he seemed. Slightly stooped, he appeared smaller than he was just five years ago. His watery pop-eyes were magnified by thick, gold-rimmed glasses. But when he opened his mouth, decades fell away like leaves in a autumn storm. Suddenly Baraka didn't seem small at all.

Africa

When on his initial piece, Baraka wailed, "Africa!," it was as if he were summoning forth the 1960s black rage all over again. His delivery was faultless--dramatic but not histrionic.

Baraka is a monomaniac; he rants and raves and not much else. And don't expect kiss-kiss flutter-flutter romanticism or Buster-like buoyancy. Uh-uh. Baraka wields his poetry as battering rams to beat down resistance, bellowing in horror one moment damning us to hell for our complicity in some act too terrible to utter out loud.

In "Africa," he groans forlornly, "My brother the king sold me to the ghosts/sold me to the ghosts." The denouement, "He work for Budweiser now," was the perfect throwaway line, immaculately timed and delivered.

From the outset, Vijay and Mingus responded to Baraka's fusillade like they were old comrades, rather than the local backing unit they in fact were. In "Africa," for instance, Vijay seemed determined to ferret out every off-kilter nuance the piano concealed; at one point, his scrabbling sounded like the incoherent mutterings of a man driven over the edge by his own treachery.

Meanwhile, Mingus abandoned his bow and use of the fretboard, turning his bass on its side and slapping it like one would a drum. The effect was a rattling noise like an underwater railroad of human bones at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Excerpted from the epic poem "Wise, Why's, Y's," "Billie's Bounce exhibited Baraka's skills as a rebop-scatter. Given the red-carpet treatment by Vijay and Mingus, "Billie's Bounce" bopped hard while maintaining enough air space for Baraka's kool kat scoobie-doobie-oh-wow!

By the time Prince La Sha padded onto the cluttered stage, bass clarinet and flute in tow, Baraka and his young lieges had gathered up a head full of steam. Inexplicably, La Sha squatted between Mingus and Vijay, blowing at knee-level; not surprisingly, the reedman was often inaudible.

The Prince did come out of his crouch to make himself heard on the set-closing poem, actually a single line ("Think of slavery as educational") repeated like a mantra accompanied by John Coltrane's "Naima." Here, the prodemocracy bard allowed the band plenty of space to interpret this gorgeous yet ineffably mournful composition.

At this point, any attempt to decipher the real Amiri Baraka is futile. One either accepts the crazy-quilt of contradictions that perhaps explains his genius or rejects him as a time-warped has-been. Because no matter how lopsided and creepy some of the man's perspectives may seem to some, it is well-nigh impossible not to throw 'em up to Amiri Baraka as a sound-poet still capable of making his poetry dance swing scream and shout.

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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