Monday, May 01, 2006

Sekou Sundiata

Sekou Sundiata is basically a poet, of the spoken word variety as opposed to the Edna St. Vincent Millay variety, though in the last few years he’s transformed into more of a performance artist. I went down to Stanford last week to see the world premier of his new performance piece, The 51st (Dream) State, which he’s been developing during a residence. As the title suggests, it’s sort of a dreamy rumination on American identity. The performance set-up for this new piece fairly resembles that of his critically-lauded blessing the boats: a full band on stages, vocalists, and Sundiata moving about speaking poetry and prose with musical backing. They had also erected a series of screens at the rear of the stage, which projected dancing, photo collage, and interview footage.

I can’t speak for the music in the last one, but The 51st (Dream) State ran the gamut from jazz to gospel to raga and back again. I find this kind of hodge-podge wonderful to enjoy in the moment, and less memorable as time goes on. Programmatic music needs a pervading musical sensibility -- not necessary a strict genre, just a style and tone -- in order to communicate and sustain whatever themes it's intended to accompany. The Hindustani improvisation over Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was jarring and beautiful at the time, but its disturbing effect fades in memory and the cavalcade of other musical styles that preceded and followed it effectively prevent listeners from gaining an understanding of its function within the whole. That's a major problem, and an easy way to make your audience into a bunch of glassy-eyed trout.

The same problem extended to the poetic content, unfortunately. When poetry is presented well (not that I’m much of a judge, but I have some experience due to my parents’ occupation and my own early aspirations), an audience over the course of an evening gains a sense of how the poet interacts with the world, and what he/she would like to reveal to you about it. Sundiata’s poetry, at times transcendent, at times aimless, did not accomplish this, at least not for me. He prefers to inundate you with words, imagery, and rhetoric, which may entertain you but will only communicate something substantive if he's exercised discipline in putting them together. I loved his trenchant re-vamping of the tired cliché “Everyone’s a nigga if you look at it right," and so did the rest of the crowd. Meanwhile, his first-person narrative of the confusion and horror immediately following a terrorist attack left the audience (included me) shocked and clammy – his character describes recognizing brain tissue, amongst the carnage, because it’s “ticking like a watch.” You don’t hear that everyday. Even the juxtaposition of taped interviews with a Japanese internment survivor and a post-9/11 Arab-American, heavy-handed as it was, did a good job bringing our struggle with American identity into relief.

Sundiata's weaker material simply rambled through a variety of clichés about facing up to our own injustice, greed, etc. I hate to say this of a respected poetry professor, but he sometimes kind of sounded like a sophomore AmStud major doing a book report on Notes of a Native Son. Which isn’t to say that the sentiments aren’t appropriate for the times, given the current, volatile conflict over what is and isn’t American. This was just a classic situation of trying to address much more than anyone could cover in two hours -- especially through the medium of song and poetry. Camille described it well when she said, leaving the theater, "I just wanted them to follow up something."

One last thing I’ll say: one thing I admired about The 51st (Dream) State was that, of all the art I’ve seen in the last six years, I think it was the most comfortably situated in the 21st century. It made no effort to be timeless, or to explore history separately from its relation to the present. It avoided various dated paradigms of race, gender, colonialism, etc., while confronting head-on violent acceleration of culture, commerce, and empire that has characterized the last decade. With more focus, any of these topics could have made for a challenging (and memorable) theme.

As it was, all I can say is that I saw Sekou Sundiata perform last week. I’m not too sure what he did.

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