Wednesday, December 15, 2010

moth's powder (12.anotherwednesday.04)


dear moth's powder,

it is simply undeniable that there are social worlds that invite others to join in. it's not an essentialist claim but neither is it an anti-essentialist claim. it's something i think my friend Arthur describes as the "materialist retentionist" strain or grain that runs in and through and over black folks. he thinks that there are "levels" of culture that are enacted and performed based on material availability. he was over the crib yesterday and pretty much making the argument that when the enslaved were transported to the americas, whatever culture they could carry in their heads - the patterns, musics, dance; the ways of breathing and doing, ways of caring and sharing, ways of conjuring and conceiving - could more easily be passed from generation to generation as well as dispersed amongst people. it's a pretty sophisticated argument to say something like we remember, or maybe i've gotten his theory totally wrong.

but you know i've been talking about pentecostalism as if it's some sorta monolithic group. but there are all kinds of pentecostals with all sorts of doctrinal beliefs. but what i find most curious and most interesting is how there is a pretty consistent theme of movement, motion, migration, that most pentecostals - even if they do not themselves individually engage - do no balk at the sight of what others find unseemly praise.

of course, there's something seemingly a bit problematic in the construction of the above paragraph, beginning every statement as if it is some such would be adversarial conjunctive utterance. but the rhythmic feeling i was going for in that paragraph with all the buts is the same sorta quality for which, if anything, New Dawns aspired toward, some sorta pentecostal open-ended-like resistance to resolve. each utterance of the but, not contradicted or stood in contradistinction, but opened up a way, a way of escape, widened the ever widening circle of thought, emotion.

and it is exactly how New Dawns would perform. but Bobby would introduce some such rhythm. but you'd follow, with the bare architectaural blueprint, the bare bones, so to speak, of what would eventually become song. what you'd hum or moan or line out was both more and less than melody, it was evacuative structure, withdrawn breath, tendency and tentativity of the voice, hesitance and reticence, giving sound and words while remaining every so wary of them being somehow conclusive. stuttering, scatting, we might say that it was a poetics of pentecostalism: just as one plays at shouting, initiates by that delicate and jubilant dance, ever so and a bit lightly, not glibly but with eyes open, looking around while the feet tap-tap-dip, tap-tap-dip. well. your singing would begin with some such chant or repetition.

but we'd hear. but Jaylah would come first with that alto, full of vibrato and conviction, sometimes in a minor, plaintive strain against your melody though it was difficult to know. but it was not until Jaylah's entry that i would begin to figure out a way, a way towards harmonics, following and creating harmonic phrasing, clicking the tremolo then the chorale and back again. but Jalisa would enter, with her soprano register, oft changing the tonal center with her voice. cutting, augmenting what was already there. but Salim would round out the voices, tenor holding some such thread of melody. but then, and only after the entry of all voices; but then, and only after i was chording, would i end phrases with the bass pedal points. but of course there were tambourines, but much, much later.

i remember the first time we sang like that, each one of entering the sonic conversation from the pew, wherever we were seated and the congregation seemed dumbfounded. dumbfounded but they could not also help but be moved by our hollers and wails and tonalities. we revised prayer for zelophehad's children to zelophehad's daughters, and with the revision of the title was also the introduction of 5/4 rhythmic pacing and spacing, some new inheritable but nonreproductive call and call against response. our voices did not so much respond to the other as much as the voices called out in recognition of the other. the voices would allow each other voice to occupy is sonic space, a field or zone of some such voiced movement, wherein the voices tried not to touch and agree as much as they tried to detect distance and dwell together by buoyant engagement. the rhythm, of course, was Bobby's fault, but we made do and did something new. and true to form, voices simply fell out when they were exhausted from singing. the congregation would always and undeniably be in it by the time we were done, so the open-endedness worked, they filled in the space where our sound once occupied, we moved them and were so moved.


i get angry when folks tell me, as did a couple of acquaintances said after one such performance, it don't take all that, that what we did was a shade on the side of excessive, too expressive and unnecessary. pretty much the same sorta critique i heard about growing up at the storefront pentecostal church, where services were too long and we were too tired to do anything once we got home sundays except sleep. it don't take all that is really a claim about authenticity, saying that, as my friend reminded me of Gertrude Stein's statement, there is no there there. it's a claim that approximates the idea that since it does not "take all that" to have an encounter with the divine, that which happens there, the "all that," that excessive and expressive strain is nothing other than posturing that posits something that is anything but "real." i can almost hear someone saying if i can be quiet and composed and have an encounter with the divine, your sweat is merely performance. the weird thing is this, though: i think most pentecostals would agree and say, no, it doesn't "take all that." but whereas the former is critique, the pentecostal claim of some such religiosity would be to say but we still do it and, most importantly i think, and you should join us.

i'm pretty cool with the idea that pentecostals don't get everything right. what i love about the tradition, though, is that it is fundamentally invitational, it constantly says to come in, eat, have fun, dance even if you don't know how to, tarry, sweat with us. the music of New Dawns was seeking that notion of joining and togetherness. we never finished a song but left it undone on purpose. we did not aspire towards perfection but towards pursuit, towards journey, towards carrying. sure. we could've sung normal songs and sung with staid composure. the performances toward the divine we created did not necessitate the excess. but the excess was the coolest part of the performances, i think.

of course, there was too much excess, not in terms of New Dawns, but you did charge me with that in terms of our relationship. i was, what was it? too intense? i believe that is what you said. and you were cool with it for a while, when you thought it was a passing phase or some such intentionality i would use to "get you," to make you amenable to and love me. but when you discovered that it was a fact of my life, that it was only intense for you but for me, quite quotidian to be and do in such excessive a manner? well. i suppose it was just...just too much. eloquence is not necessary here. it was just too much. and thus, the end. of New Dawns. of us. i wish we learned to expect more out of life, such that the quotidian is not excessive and the too much is a way of life. i still hold out for that possibility. at least between us.



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